The J sandstone comprises less than 46 m (151 ft) of sandstone-dominated strata within the mudrock-dominated lower Upper Cretaceous succession of northwestern Nebraska. The unit is a prolific hydrocarbon producer in this region (Denver-Julesburg Basin), but its lithostratigraphic and sequence-stratigraphic framework, critical for reservoir characterization and mapping, is poorly known. We have achieved an improved understanding of depositional history and sequence stratigraphy by describing and correlating cores and wireline logs from wells within Sioux, Dawes, and Box Butte counties, Nebraska, and Niobrara and Goshen counties, Wyoming.

Coals, paleosols, fluvial or inner estuarine sandstones, estuarine mudstones, fluvial conglomerate, shoreface sandstone, and reworked volcanic fallout (bentonite) lithofacies were identified. Trace fossil assemblages representing stressed expressions of the Skolithos and Cruziana ichnofacies are common. These lithofacies are arranged vertically into three erosionally based cycles, each less than 28 m (92 ft) thick, and each grade upward from fluvial or inner estuarine sandstones into estuarine mudstones and in turn into shoreface sandstones. The lateral and vertical stacking patterns of the lithofacies are complex, however, and the upper cycles appear to fill space eroded into the underlying ones. Northeast-southwest–elongate isochore trends appear in all three cycles. Lithofacies transition downdip from inner estuarine sandstones in the northeast to estuarine basin mudstones and shoreface sandstones toward the southwest. Detrital mineralogy indicates an easterly (cratonic) provenance for the entire unit.

Our data suggest that the J sandstone in northwestern Nebraska accumulated in wave-dominated estuarine settings, as part of a long-lived transgressive systems tract. The unit as a whole occupies a complexly incised landscape cut during a third-order lowstand ca. 98 Ma. Coeval cycles of similar magnitude throughout the Western Interior suggest that the three cycles represent eustatic fluctuations. The highest quality reservoirs occur at the base of the unit in inner estuarine lithofacies in the central and southwestern parts of the study area.

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