CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- Petroleum companies, investors and landowners might soon get a better idea who has struck black gold and who might be in the red as a result of drilling for oil deep into the Niobrara Shale beneath eastern Wyoming.
The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has announced it will open a vast amount of previously confidential information on more than 900 recently drilled oil and gas wells.
The commission, which regulates oil and gas drilling in Wyoming, plans to lift "confidential" status for the wells starting Wednesday.
Newly available information will include production rates for hundreds of oil wells drilled into the Niobrara Shale. The Niobrara is a vast formation deep beneath eastern Wyoming, northern Colorado and western Nebraska that has drawn a lot of interest and investment over the past couple of years because of its geological similarity to the highly productive Bakken Shale in North Dakota.
The soon-to-be-released production data will go back to the time the wells began producing — information that the state commission, up to now, has kept confidential to protect petroleum companies' business interests.
Confidentiality can help companies strike better deals when they lease mineral rights for drilling. But while commission practice has been to seal production data for exploratory oil and gas wells, the state can't keep the books closed on such "wildcat" wells forever.
Eventually, as more drilling occurs and the potential of an oil or gas play becomes known, a wildcat well sooner or later becomes just another, ordinary oil or gas well.
"We felt like the large amount of information that was being held as confidential no longer qualified as confidential, and in the interest of public disclosure felt like that information should be made available unless the operators could make a strong case as to why it should be held confidential," Bob King, interim state oil and gas supervisor, said Thursday.
The new data will be accessible on the commission's website.
Several hundred wells have been drilled 7,000 feet or more into the Niobrara Shale formation in eastern Wyoming since 2010. A handful of wells drilled in Converse County and just south of the state line in northern Colorado have been fairly productive.
Few, if any, Niobrara wells are known to be as productive as those in the Bakken, however. Most top-producing Niobrara wells have yielded half as much oil, or less, as a typical Bakken well, which might average close to 1,000 barrels a day over its first few months of production.
It's theoretically possible, however, that some Niobrara wells have been paying off in a big way without the general public knowing about it.
Some people who live in the southern Powder River Basin have wanted to know more about oil drilling near their homes, said Shannon Anderson with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowner advocacy group.
Information about the way in which a well has been drilled can help landowners decide whether they should have their well water tested so they can prove — in case oil development ever pollutes that water — that the water, at one time, used to be clean.
"We're very supportive of any efforts the oil and gas commission can do to make this information more public. We've been having a really hard time finding out information for landowner members of ours, and just our organization, because so much of the data is withheld from public inspection," Anderson said. "We think it's a positive step."
New oil and gas commission policy will require companies to request in writing and make their case for receiving confidential status for wells, rather than receive confidential status automatically, said Renny MacKay, spokesman for Gov. Matt Mead, who as governor is a member of the state Oil and Gas Commission.
MacKay said Mead supports the new approach.
"True wildcatting deserves confidentiality, but tightening up this rule, he says, should be good for everyone. Both the operators and the general public have expressed support for the change," MacKay said.
The Niobrara might yet become a big oil play as the formation becomes better understood, said John Robitaille, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.
"It does give you a little better picture," he said of the upcoming release. "There are certain plays that will take a little more time to read and understand."
He said association members "don't really have a big problem" with the release and the new policy.
Associated Press writer James MacPherson in Bismarck, N.D., contributed to this report.
Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: http://wogcc.state.wy.us