The Lower Cretaceous Mannville Group oil sands of northern Alberta have an estimated 270.3 billion m3 (BCM) (1700 billion bbl) of in-place heavy oil and tar. Our study area includes oil sand accumulations and downdip areas that partially extend into the deformation zone in western Alberta. The oil sands are composed of highly biodegraded oil and tar, collectively referred to as bitumen, whose source remains controversial. This is addressed in our study with a four-dimensional (4-D) petroleum system model. The modeled primary trap for generated and migrated oil is subtle structures. A probable seal for the oil sands was a gradual updip removal of the lighter hydrocarbon fractions as migrated oil was progressively biodegraded. This is hypothetical because the modeling software did not include seals resulting from the biodegradation of oil.
Although the 4-D model shows that source rocks ranging from the Devonian–Mississippian Exshaw Formation to the Lower Cretaceous Mannville Group coals and Ostracode-zone-contributed oil to Mannville Group reservoirs, source rocks in the Jurassic Fernie Group (Gordondale Member and Poker Chip A shale) were the initial and major contributors. Kinetics associated with the type IIS kerogen in Fernie Group source rocks resulted in the early generation and expulsion of oil, as early as 85 Ma and prior to the generation from the type II kerogen of deeper and older source rocks. The modeled 50% peak transformation to oil was reached about 75 Ma for the Gordondale Member and Poker Chip A shale near the west margin of the study area, and prior to onset about 65 Ma from other source rocks. This early petroleum generation from the Fernie Group source rocks resulted in large volumes of generated oil, and prior to the Laramide uplift and onset of erosion (∼58 Ma), which curtailed oil generation from all source rocks. Oil generation from all source rocks ended by 40 Ma. Although the modeled study area did not include possible western contributions of generated oil to the oil sands, the amount generated by the Jurassic source rocks within the study area was 475 BCM (2990 billion bbl).