Oregon State University researchers received an unusual gift in July — nearly 20 pallets of rock and sediment samples drilled at sites around the state.
The core samples came from the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, which researches geologic hazards such as earthquakes and also regulates mining and drilling to oil, gas, geothermal energy and other resources. Officials looking for budget savings decided to seek a new home for the rock and sediment samples, which state geologists collected over decades of regulating mining and drilling.
Scientists at the agency and Oregon universities said it was an important step to preserve geologic records for future research and mineral exploration.
University of Oregon paid the cost to move the core samples from Albany to the core sample warehouse at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
Mark Reed, a professor of geology at the University of Oregon, researches ore deposits and geothermal energy. Reed said he would be particularly interested in the samples drilled by companies exploring for geothermal energy.
“I’d be thrilled to have access to a core like that,” Reed said.
Clark Niewendorp, industrial minerals geologist at the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, said drilling core samples is a significant investment.
“An oil well costs a couple hundred thousands of dollars to drill,” Niewendorp said. “(A core sample) has value in the future of just a storehouse of geologic information. It’s a shame to throw that stuff out the door.”
Reed said the cost to produce a new core sample can range “from hundreds of thousands into several millions, depending on how deep the hole and what the setting is.”
“As scientific specimens, core is really valuable in that sense,” Reed said. “Now the question is, would anybody ever want to look at it again? If the answer is no, then you’re wasting your time storing it.”
Nick Pisias, emeritus professor of oceanography at Oregon State University and former director of its core laboratory, said there is significant demand from researchers who want samples of the cores. The university’s core warehouse — which historically held mostly samples from beneath oceans and lakes — is funded by the National Science Foundation.
“In a good year, we’ve given out 15,000 samples,” Pisias said. “We have samples that were taken in 1966, so they’re 50 years old plus or minus and people still are using these samples. So it’s a resource for people who are asking scientific questions about the environment and about the earth.”
Since 1972, Oregon mine reclamation regulations required operators to submit a well record “that included coring cuttings as they were gathered,” Niewendorp said. The materials remain confidential for four years if they are from oil and gas well, and five years if they are from geothermal wells. For example, Niewendorp said cores from geothermal exploration at Newberry Volcano in central Oregon will soon become public records if the company that drilled them offers them to the state.
Niewendorp said the state’s collection of samples “has grown ever since” and now includes core samples from approximately 500 oil and gas wells or prospecting sites, including methane exploration in Coos Bay, as well as 76 geothermal energy sites. The department also archived core samples from the 1980s when Oregon unsuccessfully proposed a site near Lebanon for a national particle supercollider project.
“(At) last inventory, there were 2,300 sample boxes from the collection,” Niewendorp said. “The value of core is you get a continuous look at the subsurface geology from those samples.”
The Department of Geology and Mineral Industries also has a large quantity of “cuttings,” the chips of earth produced during certain types of drilling. The agency will store them at the state Department of Administrative Services to minimize costs.