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Capillary effects on fault-fill sealing

Alton Brown

AUTHOR Alton Brown $ 1603 Waterview Drive, Richardson, Texas, 75080; Alton Brown worked as a research geologist at ARCOs Plano, Texas, Research Center from 1980 until ARCOs merger with BP. Since then, he has been an independent consultant. His research interests include petroleum migration, carbonate sedimentology and diagenesis, basin analysis, and gas geochemistry. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I thank Russell Davies for constructive comments early in manuscript preparation and for later reviews and suggestions. I also thank AAPG reviewers Quentin Fisher and Jim Handschy for additional comments and suggestions.

ABSTRACT Capillary-pressure models and concepts were used to evaluate the effects of excess pressure, capillary hysteresis, and relative permeability on fault-fill sealing. Overpressured fault fill (fault water pressure higher than reservoir water pressure) always increases the height of the sealed petroleum column. The sealing interface moves into the overpressured fault fill where water flows from the fault into the reservoir. Underpressured fault fill decreases petroleum column height only where cross-fault water flow is absent. If water flows across the fault, column height is unaffected. Water cannot flow across faults where the reservoir is at irreducible water saturation. Relative permeability smoothes the transition from membrane sealing to leakage, and thus, hydraulic-resistance sealing is possible after membrane-seal failure. The height of membrane sealing by homogeneous, water-wet fault fill exceeds the height of hydraulicresistance sealing at geological leakage rates. Hydraulic-resistance sealing becomes more significant when charge and leakage are both high, when trap life is short, and during production. Trap leakage rate through a water-wet, fault-fill pore network cannot exceed trap charge rate during initial trap charging. If charging slows, leakage exceeds charge until a new equilibrium column height develops. If charge stops, the seal continues to leak until the petroleum column height is reduced substantially below its original height. Membrane sealing is reestablished at low capillary pressure. Theoretically, restored seal capacity is close to the original capacity. Cross-fault pressure and petroleum column height cannot be converted to seal capacities because charge history and seal type influence sealing. Cross-fault pressure data should be analyzed in light of the charge and pressure history so the different controls on faultfill sealing can be assessed.

INTRODUCTION Fault-sealing behavior controls distribution and production characteristics of fault traps. Two fault-fill sealing mechanisms have been

Copyright #2003. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists. All rights reserved. Manuscript received November 16, 2001; provisional acceptance April 16, 2002; revised manuscript received July 15, 2002; final acceptance August 1, 2002. DOI:10.1306/08010201127

AAPG Bulletin, v. 87, no. 3 (March 2003), pp. 381 395


proposed: membrane and hydraulic-resistance sealing (Heum, 1996). The relative importance of the two mechanisms remains controversial (Sales, 1993; Heum, 1996; Fulljames et al., 1997). The influence of crossfault water-pressure differences on fault-fill sealing is also controversial (Myers, 1968; Heum, 1996; Bjorkum et al., 1998). The purpose of this article is to analyze the influence of capillary-pressure and relative permeability variations on fault-fill sealing. Capillary-pressure variations within the fault fill control membrane sealing in the presence of cross-fault water-pressure differences. Effective permeability changes with capillary pressure; thus, the relative importance of membrane and hydraulicresistance sealing in homogeneous, water-wet faults can be modeled as a function of capillary pressure. Hysteresis effects on fault-seal leakage are also evaluated. The sealing concepts presented in this article are based on homogeneous fault-fill properties. Real fault fill is heterogeneous (Knipe et al., 1998). Homogeneity is assumed so that the article can focus on mechanisms and rates, not heterogeneity characterization. The sealing concepts developed here can be applied to wellcharacterized heterogeneous fault fill in much the same way that capillary pressure controls on saturation and relative permeability developed for homogeneous reservoirs can be applied to real, heterogeneous reservoirs.

BASIC CAPILLARY-PRESSURE CONCEPTS Petroleum sealing is controlled by the interaction of petroleum with water in the pore system. It is therefore difficult to discuss matrix-sealing properties of the fault fill without also discussing the capillary properties of the system. The capillary pressure (Pc) is the difference between the petroleum pressure (Pp) and water pressure (Pw) at the same position. Natural capillary pressure commonly develops from buoyancy of a static petroleum column in water (Figure 1). The elevation where capillary pressure is zero is called the free-water level. The petroleum and water pressures relative to the freewater level are calculated from the height (H ) above the free-water level multiplied by the difference of petroleum and water fluid densities (Up and Uw, respectively) and the hydrostatic gradient (g). Pc Pp Pw rp gH rw gH rgH 1

Pore systems can be characterized by total porosity and injection capillary-pressure curves. The injection (or drainage) capillary-pressure curve is a plot of fluid saturation (horizontal axis) as a function of capillary pressure (vertical axis) as the wetting fluid drains from the rock (Jennings, 1987). This mimics filling accumulations. Injection curves have three important characteristics:

Figure 1. Capillary-pressure curves. Equilibrium mercury injection curve is shown by the heavy solid line. Withdrawalreinjection (W-R) hysteresis loops (mercury withdrawal followed by reinjection) are shown by dashed lines with arrows showing the direction of saturation change. Equilibrium injection does not develop irreducible saturation, and S max is the maximum mercury saturation attained at the maximum applied capillary pressure. Air-brine tests (thin solid line) develop an irreducible water saturation (S i). Productive zones are shown on the right. Zone thickness is distorted by logarithmic capillary-pressure scale. Symbols are identified in Table 1. 382

S max Si
Water-free production

Log(Capillary Pressure)




Water + oil production; transition zone PWC Water production; spotty stain

W-R hysteresis loops 1 Fractional Hg saturation

Water production FWL

Capillary Effects on Fault-Fill Sealing

Table 1. Symbols Used in Equations and Figures* Symbol FWL H h H si Ht ka k ro kw L PWC Pc Pd Pe Pp Pt P tf P tr Pw Si S max Sw DP DP t Meaning free-water level, the elevation where capillary pressure is zero height above free-water level height of truncated pyramidal trap geometry used for calculating trap leakage height above FWL where irreducible saturation develops in reservoir height above FWL where capillary pressure equals threshold pressure absolute permeability relative permeability to petroleum water relative permeability length of edge of truncated pyramidal trap geometry petroleum-water contact (either oil or gas) capillary pressure displacement pressure entry capillary pressure petroleum pressure threshold pressure threshold pressure in fault fill threshold pressure in reservoir water pressure irreducible water saturation maximum mercury saturation during mercury-injection, capillary-pressure test water saturation excess pressure at sealing interface total excess pressure (water pressure at aquifer side of fault-fill minus water pressure in reservoir at same elevation) capillary-pressure gradient, water density minus petroleum density (DU) times local hydrostatic gradient (g) capillary-pressure curve shape factor in-situ petroleum density in-situ water density


teau measured on small samples (Katz and Thompson, 1987). In practice, threshold pressure is approximated by the displacement pressure (P d), the extrapolation of the plateau to 100% wetting-phase saturation (Jennings, 1987; Figure 1). At irreducible saturation (S i), wettingfluid permeability is zero; thus, fluid saturations remain constant with increasing capillary pressure. Pressure at initiation of irreducible saturation is approximated by the pressure just above the plateau. The shape factor (l) describes the slope of the plateau and abruptness of change from plateau to irreducible water saturation. Saturation as capillary pressure decreases is described by the withdrawal curve (Figure 1). Withdrawal mimics natural leakage from a petroleum accumulation. Withdrawal curves are characterized by residual petroleum saturation at zero capillary pressure and petroleum saturation higher than that of the injection curve. High saturation is caused by snap-off and isolation of petroleum in large pores with small throats (Wardlaw and Taylor, 1976). Capillary-pressure curves are commonly measured with the mercury vacuum system. This has the advantage of rapid analysis and high reproducibility. Mercuryinjection, capillary-pressure tests have two major disadvantages. First, mercury vacuum capillary pressures have to be converted to reservoir capillary pressure. The reservoir surface tension and wettability necessary for conversion are poorly known in most reservoir and exploration settings (Schowalter, 1979; OConnor, 2000). Second, mercury vacuum tests do not provide a good estimate of irreducible saturation or pressure at which irreducible saturation develops, because mercury does not displace a fluid as capillary pressure increases (Morrow, 1971; Wardlaw and Taylor, 1976).

l Up Uw

FAULT-FILL SEALING Upward-increasing capillary pressure divides potential seal behavior of water-wet, homogeneous, fault fill into three zones: membrane sealing, hydraulic-resistance sealing, and seal failure (Figure 2). Membrane sealing occurs when petroleum has insufficient capillary pressure to invade the seal. This zone occurs in all water-wet rocks. Higher in the petroleum column, capillary pressure is sufficient to invade the fault fill; thus, petroleum leaks. Low in the zone of leakage, effective permeability is insufficient for geologically significant leakage; thus, the fault seals by hydraulic resistance (Heum, 1996). Effective fault-fill permeability and cross-fault pressure gradient Brown 383

*Symbols used only in the Appendix are not listed.

the threshold pressure, the pressure at which water saturation becomes irreducible, and curve shape factor (Figure 1). The threshold pressure, P t, is the pressure at which a continuous thread of nonwetting fluid extends across the sample and petroleum permeability is greater than zero at higher capillary pressure. Threshold pressure through an infinite medium is interpreted at the inflection between the concave downward and concave upward curvature in the lower part of the injection pla-

increase upward; thus, leakage increases upward until it becomes geologically significant. This is the zone of faultfill seal failure. Seal-failure threshold is controlled by the charge rate, timescale of interest, and area of leakage. Exceptionally high petroleum columns are needed to cause failure of low-permeability, fault-fill seals. The absence of this highest zone allows faults to seal. Relative permeability smoothes the transition from membrane sealing through hydraulic-resistance sealing to seal failure. If permeability abruptly increased to the absolute permeability once the threshold pressure was exceeded, then it would be possible for some rocks to form a membrane seal but not a hydraulic-

resistance seal. With relative permeability effects, petroleum columns exceeding membrane-seal capacity will always have a zone of hydraulic-resistance sealing if fault fill is homogeneous. Likewise, all waterwet hydraulic-resistance seals have an underlying zone of membrane sealing. Membrane Sealing Membrane Sealing under Hydrostatic Conditions Membrane sealing is sealing by surface tension between water and petroleum (Watts, 1987). Petroleum permeability is zero when capillary pressure is less than the

Figure 2. Fault-seal mechanism zonation caused by capillary-pressure variation under hydrostatic conditions. (A) Block diagram showing reservoir and fault-fill seal zonation. Free-water level (FWL) is elevation with zero capillary pressure. Petroleum-water contact (PWC) occurs where capillary pressure equals reservoir threshold pressure (P tr). S i is the base of the irreducible water zone in the reservoir. The boundary between membrane and hydraulic-resistance sealing is elevation where capillary pressure equals the fault-fill threshold pressure (P tf). (B) Section along fault fill and adjacent reservoir showing distribution of petroleum (horizontal line pattern) in reservoir (right column) and fault fill (left column) as a function of height (H). Hydraulic-resistance sealing fails where cross-fault leakage becomes geologically significant. (C) Pressure cross section of reservoir-fault fillaquifer at level C labeled in B. Fault-fill seals because capillary pressure is less than faultfill threshold pressure at the reservoir interface. Threshold pressure in aquifer is assumed to be small, thus, the aquifer is not shown in A and B. Symbols are identified in Table 1. 384












uli c se-resi al sta n

Fault fill

Hydraulicresistance seal



Slow leakage

Not a seal


Geologically significant leakage


H, Pc

Membrane seal



Fault fill


Pc = gH


Pw Distance

Capillary Effects on Fault-Fill Sealing


Fault fill

To pS ea l
Pp Pc

Pc = Ptf

Pc = Ptr (PWC)

Pc = 0 (FWL)

Figure 3. Fault-seal mechanisms with positive fault-fill excess pressure. (A) Section along fault fill (left) and adjacent reservoir (right) showing distribution of petroleum saturation as a function of height (H). The base of irreducible water saturation is below H = P tf/DUg, thus, sealing interface is entirely at the reservoir-seal boundary. (B) Same as A, with base of reservoir irreducible water saturation above H = P tf /(DUg). Sealing interface extends into the fault fill, but seal failure does not occur because DUgH < P tf + DP t. Membrane-seal failure occurs where H = (P tf + DP t)/DUg. (C) Pressure cross sections across reservoir-fault fill-aquifer at constant elevation. Cross section pressure behavior is referenced in A and B by the numbers at the left of each cross section. Symbols are identified in Table 1. displacement pressure, and the rock acts as a perfect seal. Petroleum-wet rocks (such as fault fill containing mature source rocks) have no membrane-seal potential under hydrostatic conditions; thus, petroleum can only be sealed by hydraulic resistance. In water-wet rocks, the lowest capillary pressure at which petroleum permeability rises above zero is the threshold pressure (P t); thus, membrane-seal capacity is equal to the capillary threshold pressure. Under hydrostatic conditions, the maximum petroleum column height, H t, can be calculated from the threshold pressure and the density difference using Ht Pt =Ug 1 The threshold pressure is controlled by the pore network (Watts, 1987), saturation history (Wardlaw and Taylor, 1976), wettability, and surface tension (Ibrahim et al., 1970).

Excess Pressure Effects on Membrane Sealing For purposes of faults-seal analysis, excess pressure (DP) is defined as water pressure on the aquifer side of the sealing interface minus water pressure in the petroleumbearing reservoir at the same elevation. Total excess pressure (DP t) is the aquifer water pressure minus the reservoir water pressure at the same elevation. Overpressure indicates positive excess pressure (higher water Brown 385

pressure on the aquifer side), and underpressure indicates negative excess pressure (higher water pressure on the reservoir side). Excess pressure at the sealing interface depends on its location and the presence or absence of cross-fault water flow. When the reservoir water saturation equals irreducible water saturation, it is impermeable to water. Water cannot flow across the fault; thus, fault-fill excess pressure is uniform and equal to the total excess pressure (pressure trend 1, Figures 3C, 5C). If the reservoir is permeable to water (water saturation is greater than irreducible water saturation), water flows across the fault and excess pressure varies across the fault fill (pressure trends 2 and 3 in Figure 3C and pressure trend 2 in Figure 5C). Excess pressure is less than the total excess pressure except at the aquifer-fill interface. Capillary pressure varies with elevation (H) and excess pressure (DP): Pc rgH P 2

A membrane seal fails when the capillary pressure equals the fault-fill threshold pressure (P c = P tf). From equation 2, the maximum membrane-sealed petroleum column height (H t) in the presence of excess pressure is the following: Ht Ptf P=rg 3

Threshold pressure remains constant with variable excess pressure, but the height equilibrated to the threshold pressure varies. From equation 3, seal overpressure

enhances the petroleum column height, whereas seal underpressure reduces the petroleum column height. Fault-fill overpressure will always help seal a taller petroleum column, as described by equation 3, with DP = DP t. Cross-fault flow causes the sealing interface to move into the fault fill at some elevations above the free-water level (Table 2, Figure 3). The sealing interface moves back to the fill-reservoir contact at the elevation when the reservoir is at irreducible water saturation. If reservoirs irreducible water saturation develops in the zone of hydraulic-resistance sealing, the transition from membrane to hydraulic-resistance sealing occurs in the fault fill and the upper part of the membrane seal acts like a hydrodynamic seal (Figure 4). Hydrodynamic sealing is caused by bending the free-water level and petroleum-water contact in response to change in potentiometric gradient (Hubbert, 1953). Fault fill has a lower effective water permeability than the reservoir; thus, potentiometric gradient and hydrodynamic tilt are steeper in the fault fill than in the reservoir (Figure 4). Contact tilting is independent of rock wettability; thus, hydrodynamic membrane seals can develop in petroleum- and mixed-wettability rocks. The intersection of the tilted petroleum-water contact in the fault fill with the aquifer marks the transition from hydrodynamic sealing to hydraulicresistance seal. If the petroleum column is too thin for hydraulic-resistance sealing to develop, hydrodynamic sealing prevents cross-fault leakage. Petroleum will be lost up the fault unless fault fill above the reservoir acts as a hydraulic-resistance or membrane seal.

Table 2. Effects of Excess Pressure on Membrane Fault-Fill Sealing Sealing interface position and effect of excess pressure on sealing Seal at reservoir-fault interface: column height is affected by excess pressure: H t = (P tf + DP t )/DUg Seal within fault fill: column height is affected by excess pressure: H t = (P tf + DP t )/DUg Hydrodynamic sealing within fault fill: column height is affected by excess pressure: H t = (P tf + DP t )/DUg Seal at reservoir-fault interface: column height is unaffected by excess pressure: H t = P tf /DUg 386 Capillary Effects on Fault-Fill Sealing Valid elevation range, overpressured fault fill (DP t > 0) H si < P tf /DUg Valid elevation range, underpressured fault fill (DP t < 0) H si < (P tf + DP t )/DUg

P tf /DUg < H si < (P tf + DP t )/DUg

not possible

H si > (P tf + DP t )/DUg

not possible

not possible

H swi > (P tf + DP t )/DUg

Hydraulicresistance seal

H = (Ptf + P)/g

5C, case 1). Sealing is always at the reservoir interface if fault fill is homogeneous. Cross-fault flow causes infinitesimal excess pressure at the fault-reservoir interface; thus, seal capacity is unaffected by flow (Figure 5C, case 2). Fault-fill hydrodynamic sealing is impossible where the fault fill is underpressured.

Hydraulic-Resistance Sealing Basic Concepts for Hydraulic-Resistance Sealing Hydraulic-resistance sealing occurs where rocks are permeable to petroleum, but petroleum permeability is so low that petroleum can be trapped for geological lengths of time (Heum, 1996). The base of the hydraulic-resistance sealing zone is the elevation where capillary pressure equals the threshold capillary pressure and petroleum permeability is zero. Excess pressure changes the elevation of this threshold, as discussed in the previous section. Petroleum-wet rocks (such as fault fill containing mature source rocks) spontaneously imbibe petroleum; thus, hydraulic-resistance sealing begins at negative or zero capillary pressure. Hydraulic-resistance seals fail when leakage becomes geologically significant. Leakage rate must be less than charge rate; otherwise, the accumulation will not form. When leakage rate exceeds charge rate after formation of the accumulation, the leakage must be sufficiently slow to preserve the accumulation since trapping, a time span measured in millions to hundreds of millions of years. Sealing, therefore, depends on timescale of interest, area of leakage, and effective petroleum permeability of the seal. Effective petroleum permeability is the product of absolute permeability and relative petroleum permeability. No siliciclastic rock has been identified with zero absolute permeability (Neuzil, 1994); thus, all siliciclastic rocks (including fault fill) are potential hydraulic-resistance seals where capillary pressure is sufficiently large. Absolute permeability is controlled by the pore network. Absolute permeability can be estimated from the threshold pressure (Smith, 1966; Jennings, 1987). Relative permeability is best considered a function of capillary pressure for sealing studies because saturation is a function of capillary pressure (Figure 6). Petroleum saturation increases during trap charging; thus, injection relative permeability is applicable during charging. Injection relative permeability can be calculated from the injection capillary-pressure curve (Jennings, 1987; see Appendix). When leakage rate exceeds charge rate after the accumulation forms, Brown 387

Membrane seal

Tilted fault-fill PWC H = Ptf/(g)

Lines of equal water excess pressure H = Ptr/(g) (Tilted reservoir PWC) Reservoir Fault fill

Water flow

Figure 4. Section along the fault fill (left) and adjacent reservoir (right), showing distribution of petroleum with hydrodynamic sealing in the upper part of membrane-sealing zone. Capillary pressure varies laterally at the same elevation, and thus, all fluid contacts tilt. Low fault-fill permeability amplifies the hydrodynamic tilt, and thus, the oil-water contact tilts steeply. The tilted oil-water contact intersects the juxtaposed permeable bed at the transition to hydraulic-resistance sealing. Symbols are identified in Table 1.

Underpressured fault fill may or may not affect seal capacity, depending on presence of cross-fault flow (Table 2). Where water does not flow across the fault, column height is described by equation 3, with DP = DP t (Figure

Figure 5. Fault-seal mechanisms with negative fault-fill excess pressure. (A) Section along fault fill (left) and adjacent reservoir (right) showing distribution of petroleum saturation as a function of height (H). Reservoir irreducible water develops below H = (P tf + DP)/(DUg). Trapped petroleum column is reduced by H = (DP)/(DUg). (B) Same as A, with reservoir irreducible water developing above H = (P tf + DP)/DUg. Membrane-seal capacity is unaffected by pressure difference. (C) Horizontal pressure cross sections across the reservoir/fault fill/aquifer applicable to underpressured faults. Cross section pressure behavior is referenced in A and B by the numbers at the left of each cross section. Symbols are identified in Table 1. the capillary pressure decreases; thus, relative permeability follows withdrawal curves (Figure 6). Modeling Hydraulic-Resistance Sealing Cross-fault petroleum leakage is modeled as a function of height above the free-water level. Details of the modeling are presented in the Appendix, and properties of the modeled petroleum fluids are given in Table 3. Fault fill is assumed homogeneous and water wet. Water pressures are assumed hydrostatic. The height of the fault through which petroleum flows (transmissive height of the fault) is normalized to the height of membrane sealing. Leakage is calculated as petroleum transmissivity, the volumetric flow of petroleum across the entire height of the homogeneous fault above the free-water level per 388 Capillary Effects on Fault-Fill Sealing lateral unit length of fault (Figure 7B). Transmissivity multiplied by the fault length gives the petroleum leakage across the fault. Transmissivity is found to be a function of normalized transmissive height, capillary-pressure curve shape factor (l), and petroleum fluid characteristics (Figure 7A). Normalization of the petroleum column height removes dependence on threshold pressure. This simplifies analysis of hydraulic-resistance sealing. The four trends on Figure 7A show the range of oil and gas transmissivity for fault fill with a reasonable range of l and typical oil and gas fluid properties (Table 3). The shape factor affects transmissivity by a factor of about two. Gas and oil have transmissivities differing by about an order of magnitude due to different viscosity, density,

Figure 6. Relative permeability vs. capillary pressure. Gas permeability increases during injection (thin solid line) as water permeability (heavy solid line) decreases. Gas withdrawalsecondary injection hysteresis loops are shown by dashed lines with arrows showing direction of permeability change. Nonwetting phase permeability is lower during withdrawal than during injection. Secondary and primary injection have similar threshold pressures (P t). Gas relative permeability data are from Colonna et al. (1972). The water relative permeability curve is generic.

and interfacial tension. Hydraulic-resistance sealing is evaluated for three settings: during charge, after charge, and during production. The maximum possible leakage rate during charge is the charge rate. Charge rates are estimated by dividing the petroleum-in-place by the charge duration for traps that have little documented leakage. The highest observed charge rates are approximately 500 m3 petroleum per year, calculated for giant Pleistocene accumulations with minor leakage. Assuming sealing faults 1 km long, leakage equals charge rate when transmissivity is 0.5 m3 petroleum per meter of fault length per year (m3/m/yr). At this transmissivity, the ratio of height of hydraulic-resistance sealing to height of membrane sealing for gas accumulations is about 0.2; that is, about 15% of the total sealing height is

caused by hydraulic-resistance sealing (Figure 7A). Height ratio for oil accumulations at this transmissivity is about 0.5; that is, hydraulic-resistance sealing accounts for about one-third of the trapping height. The charge rate used here is the maximum realistic possible rate. It is at least an order of magnitude higher than that of the vast majority of accumulations. Slower charged accumulations with lower petroleum volumes will have a much smaller fraction of hydraulicresistance sealing, in the range of 1 10% of the trapping height caused by hydraulic-resistance sealing. To evaluate dominant sealing type after charge stops, trap geometry and fault length must be assumed. Trap geometry and fault length were scaled to a truncated pyramid with variable height to edge-length ratio (Figure 7D, Appendix). Different trap lifetimes were assumed to determine a reasonable range of maximum leakage rates for accumulations with the assumed lifetime (Appendix). Leakage rate is the moveable petroleum divided by life span. To estimate maximum leakage rates, consider the shortest reasonable lifetime (3 m.y.) and the largest reasonable accumulation (2 109 m3 petroleum). With this trap size and lifetime, transmissivity is 0.03 for trap height/side length ratio (h/L) of 0.01 and 0.1 for h/L of 0.1. These transmissivities correspond with gas height ratio near 0.1 (9% hydraulic-resistance sealing) and oil height ratio near 0.2 (16% hydraulic-resistance sealing). The assumed leakage rate is much higher than those expected for accumulations with longer life and smaller reserves; thus, the estimated height ratios are near the maximum that could be expected for homogeneous, water-wet fault seals. Production rates can be used to determine significance of hydraulic-resistance sealing during production. Assume a field production rate of 1,000,000 m3/yr, with one-tenth of this volume crossing a 1-km fault barrier within the field. Transmissivity is about 100 m3 petroleum per meter of fault length per year. Height ratio for gas accumulations at this transmissivity is

Table 3. Model Parameters Property Capillary-pressure gradient, MPa/m (psi/ft) g cos u, dyn-cm Viscosity, cp Fault width, m (ft) Oil 0.003 (0.13) 26 1 1 (3.3) Brown Gas 0.008 (0.347) 33 0.02 1 (3.3) 389

Figure 7. Hydraulic-resistance sealing model. (A) Calculated normalized transmissivity as a function of height of transmissive fault normalized to height of membrane-sealing zone. This is a function of the capillary shape factor, l, fluid density, surface tension, and wettability (Table 3). (B) Expected transmissivity as a function of accumulation size and accumulation life, based on trap geometric model shown in D. Dot shows example discussed in text. (C) Definition of transmissivity. Total petroleum loss rate is calculated by multiplying the transmissivity by the length of the fault. (D) Trap geometry assumed to estimate transmissivity from accumulation lifetime and size. See Appendix.

about 1; that is, about 50% of the petroleum-water contact elevation difference developing across the barrier during production is caused by hydraulic-resistance sealing. Height ratio for oil accumulations at this transmissivity is about 4; that is, hydraulic-resistance sealing accounts for about 80% of oil-column height differences that develop during production. Capillary Hysteresis and Fault Sealing Capillary pressure decreases during production or natural trap leakage. Relative permeability changes with decreasing capillary pressure are different from those 390 Capillary Effects on Fault-Fill Sealing

with increasing capillary pressure (Figure 6). At first, petroleum relative permeability does not decrease significantly as capillary pressure decreases. As capillary pressure approaches the threshold pressure, petroleum relative permeability drops abruptly with decreasing capillary pressure. Permeability drops to zero (membrane sealing) at a withdrawal capillary pressure about half to a quarter of the injection threshold pressure. This matches withdrawal seal capacity predicted from theoretical analysis of the snap-off process (Petroleum Research Corporation, 1959). Mercury, secondaryinjection entry pressure on hysteresis loops indicates that the original seal capacity is restored once the

Figure 8. Effect of petroleum permeability hysteresis on seal failure. The left figures show fluid contacts and trap configuration; right figures are effective permeability of seal and reservoir (horizontal axis) plotted against capillary pressure scaled for height (vertical). (A) Leakage rate equals charge rate. Seal permeability is on injection curve (i). (B) As charge rates slows, the oil column shrinks and capillary pressure decreases to a new equilibrium. Oil relative permeability is on the withdrawal curve (w), and initial decrease in permeability is modest. (C) If charge stops, the FWL rises until withdrawal-oil-permeability of the seal drops to zero. This reduces the column to about one-half to one-fourth of its original height before membrane sealing is reestablished. (D) Threshold pressure is restored to approximately the original threshold pressure and additional charge can build petroleum column to a height near the original column without leaking.

capillary pressure has dropped sufficiently. Healing of seal capacity is also reported in other studies (e.g., Colonna et al., 1972; Schowalter, 1979). Relative permeability hysteresis affects petroleum column height when charge rate to a leaking accumulation slows. This can be illustrated with a simple, hydrostatic fill-and-leak charge history (Figure 8). As the trap fills, it is initially membrane sealed. Leakage is zero and the petroleum column increases until the capillary pressure exceeds the seal threshold pressure. Initial leakage rate is slower than charge, and thus, the petroleum column and capillary pressure continue to increase. As capillary pressure increases, effective seal permeability increases until leakage rate equals charge rate (Figure 8A). Leakage rate cannot exceed charge rate as long as charge rate, petroleum type, seal phys-

ical properties, and hydrodynamic setting remain constant. As the charge rate begins to slow, the seals effective permeability remains about the same (Figure 6); thus, leakage rate now exceeds the diminished charge rate. The free-water level rises and capillary pressure decreases (Figure 8B). Leakage rate decreases in response to the lower capillary pressure, until leakage equilibrates with the lower charge rate at a thinner petroleum column. If charge stops, leakage will continue until membrane sealing is reestablished at a capillary pressure one-half to one-quarter of the original membrane-sealing height. Most of the petroleum accumulation will be lost and the thinned accumulation will have a thick, residual-oil saturation zone (Figure 8C). Once membrane sealing is reestablished, later Brown 391

charge can refill the trap to its original membrane-seal capacity (Figure 8D).

DISCUSSION Cross-Fault Water-Pressure Differences and Sealing The conflicting interpretations by Heum (1996) and Bjorkum et al. (1998) arise in overpressured reservoirs (water-drive leakage of Heum, 1996, and underpressured seals using the terminology of this article). Heum (1996) assumes no flow through the seal, and thus, total water-pressure difference is concentrated at the sealing interface, as shown in Figure 5C (case 1). Bjorkum et al. (1998) assume that water will always flow through the entire oil-saturated reservoir under hydrodynamic conditions; thus, the pressure drop is distributed across the seal (Figure 5C, case 2). Water only flows through petroleum reservoirs that have not reached irreducible water saturation. Tall petroleum columns in a good-quality reservoir are generally documented to reach irreducible water saturation (Morrow, 1971) and the Bjorkum et al. (1998) analysis only applies to thin columns in poor-quality reservoirs. Although both interpretations are correct in the proper setting, settings favoring reduction of petroleum columns by underpressured seals are more likely in large petroleum accumulations. Interaction of Capillary Pressures across Faults Seal capacity has been interpreted to equal the total cross-fault pressure difference where petroleum columns lie on both sides of the fault (e.g., Yielding et al., 1997; Grauls et al., 2000). This interpretation underestimates injection seal capacity. As pointed out by Fisher et al. (2001), once seal effective permeability to petroleum is greater than zero, petroleum columns will communicate across the fault fill. Pressures equalize if capillary pressure does not drop below the withdrawal threshold pressure of the fault fill at the communication point. Older works (e.g., Smith, 1980) have long recognized this fact. Where petroleum-water contacts are different, the fault is sealing by either membrane or hydraulic resistance. Seal capacity is estimated from the capillary pressure calculated for the tallest petroleum column. This misinterpretation is based on Wattss (1987) conclusion that free-water level elevation differences across a leaking fault will be maintained during cross392 Capillary Effects on Fault-Fill Sealing

fault leakage at a value where the difference in capillary pressure equals the threshold pressure of the fault. Wattss (1987) interpretation is incorrectly cited to Smith (1966, 1980). Smiths (1966) figure 7, upon which Wattss (1987) figure 11 is based, clearly states that differences in petroleum-water contact are caused by differences in threshold pressure of sandstones across the fault, not the entry pressure of the fault fill. Although the effects of differences in drainage and imbibition relative permeability were discussed by Watts (1987), the effects of permeability hysteresis on reservoir behavior differences across a leaking fault were not discussed. Free-water levels equalize once capillary pressure exceeds fault threshold pressure, assuming that capillary pressure does not drop below the withdrawal threshold pressure. The reservoir that leaked petroleum will have effective petroleum permeability that lies along the withdrawal curve, whereas effective petroleum permeability in the reservoir that was charged by the leakage lies along the injection curve. The reservoir that leaked petroleum has higher effective petroleum permeability than that across the fault at the same elevation, assuming equivalent rock properties. The reservoir that leaked petroleum will also have water-free petroleum production lower in the accumulation and a thicker nonproductive residual oil zone below the petroleum-water contact. Residual oil zones at the base of the accumulation can be used to identify which reservoir has leaked across the fault. If trap compartments were charged separately, the fault seal may not have leaked. This can be confirmed by evaluating the thickness of the transition zone where reservoir rock properties are similar on both sides of the fault. Membrane vs. Hydraulic-Resistance Seals Hydraulic-resistance sealing in homogeneous, water-wet faults does not substantially increase the membranesealed height before leakage becomes geologically significant. In most natural settings, fault fill will leak at geologically significant rates once the petroleum column is a few percent greater than the height of the membrane-sealing zone (Figure 7). Hydraulicresistance sealing does not double the membranesealed height even under worst-case natural scenarios, given homogeneous, water-wet seals. This result is consistent with caprock sealing models by Ingram et al. (1997) and consistent with the conclusion that hydraulic resistance is not significant for sealing fault

traps (Fulljames et al., 1997). Hydraulic-resistance sealing of water-wet, homogenous, fault-fill seals is uncommonly important because the transmissivity required for geologically significant leakage is small. Most faults that leak at geological flow rates will act as hydraulic-resistance seals during production, because rates sufficient for geological leakage are much lower than production rates (Fulljames et al., 1997). Preproduction membrane seals may also become hydraulicresistance seals during production unless their displacement pressures are very high and field water-drive is strong. As water pressure in the fault fill drops with production, capillary pressure at the interface between the fault fill and an undrained compartment increases until petroleum invades the fault and the fill leaks. Models to date are relatively primitive, including the one presented here, and the significance of modeling results may change with further investigation. Current models do not account for fault-fill heterogeneity, which is certainly significant. Fault-fill heterogeneity will cause leakage rates to vary independent of elevation. The thickness of the zone of membrane sealing will thin, and the zone of hydraulic-resistance sealing may thicken or thin. Leakage rate is also affected by the threshold pressure of the aquifer into which petroleum leaks. Fault-fill transmissivity may also be lower in heterogeneous faults than that modeled for homogeneous faults, because the vertical fraction of the fault actually leaking is smaller than modeled. Pulsed Seal Leakage Petroleum permeability hysteresis dampens pulsed leakage through intact fault-fill and matrix seals. Leakage rate is relatively insensitive to minor changes in capillary pressure. Petroleum permeability at membraneseal failure is infinitesimal and increases only if capillary pressure increases significantly above the threshold pressure (Figure 6). Petroleum permeability remains almost unchanged during the initial stages of decreasing capillary pressure (Figure 6). The leakage rate of an intact membrane seal exceeds the charge rate only if the charge rate drops (Figure 8). Once the leakage rate exceeds the charge rate, the trap will drain to a low capillary pressure before initial sealing capacity is reestablished. Although hysteresis may seem to enhance pulsed leakage, the charge-rate variation causes variable leakage rate. Overall, hysteresis dampens migrating petroleum flux variations and causes leakagerate variation to lag behind charge-rate variation. These effects push petroleum migration through porous media

such as fault fill or sedimentary strata toward steady flow. Pulsed leakage does occur in nature. The best example is leakage by natural hydraulic fracture (e.g., Nunn and Meulbroek, 2002). Pulsing is caused by gravitational instability of individual hydraulic fractures. This flow mechanism does not involve matrix porosity; thus, matrix capillary properties do not dampen pulsing. Harris et al. (1999) propose that pulsed waterpressure changes in the reservoir will cause pulsed leakage through matrix pore systems. They assumed an abrupt water-pressure change at the fault-reservoir interface, incompressible fluid behavior, and abrupt change in permeability at the threshold pressure. These assumptions favor cross-fault leakage and leakage rate independent from pulse duration. Relative permeability variation and fluid and frame compressibility significantly lower and smooth fault leakage rates. If water pressure changes are caused by dilation or compression of the rock pore space (during earthquakes, for example), then water-pressure differences between the reservoir and fault fill will be modest or absent, because both pore systems will compress.

CONCLUSIONS Capillary-pressure concepts can be used to evaluate sealing in homogeneous water-wet fault fill. Membrane sealing is controlled by the capillary threshold pressure, which can be determined from capillary-pressure tests. Absolute permeability and relative permeability can also be estimated from the capillary-pressure curve and threshold pressure (Appendix). Results from this theoretical evaluation include the following: Relative permeability smoothes the transition from membrane sealing to geologically significant leakage. All homogeneous, water-wet faults have a range of petroleum column height where leakage is slow enough to seal by hydraulic resistance.  Higher excess pressure in faults increases the petroleum column regardless of cross-fault water flow, as estimated by equation 3. Sealing occurs within the fault fill where water flows across the fault fill; otherwise, sealing occurs at the interface between the fault fill and the reservoir.  Lower excess pressure in sealing faults decreases the petroleum column where water does not flow across the fault. When water flows across the fault, underpressure does not decrease the petroleum column.



Water flows across faults only if the reservoir is permeable to water; that is, water can flow when reservoir water saturation exceeds irreducible water saturation.  Absolute permeability and relative permeability are scaled to the capillary-pressure curve; thus, the leakage rate across a water-wet, homogeneous fault is a function of the ratio of transmissive fault height to membrane-sealing height. This ratio is independent from the threshold pressure. The leakage rate for normalized fault height is controlled by the capillary shape factor and fluid properties.  Hydraulic-resistance sealing adds a relatively modest sealing height to water-wet, homogeneous, membranesealing faults. Leakage through the fault abruptly increases with increasing column height; thus, leakage becomes geologically significant at a relatively short elevation above the height of membrane sealing. Membrane-seal capacity of water-wet, homogeneous faults can probably be estimated from the pressure differences across hydraulic-resistance fault seals, especially where charge rate is slow.  Charge history is an essential variable for interpreting cross-fault pressure differences where petroleum leaks. Active charge offsets the effects of leakage; thus, petroleum column height slightly exceeds membrane-sealing height. However, once the charging rate starts to decrease, the petroleum column height may drop as much as 75% from its original height, especially in settings where charge has completely stopped. Thin fault-sealed petroleum columns may result from low-withdrawal threshold pressure after an earlier stage of intense leakage, not low-injection-threshold pressure.

The exponent describing this relationship is approximately 2, consistent with the Kozeny-Carmen relationship. Empirical permeability of small threshold pore throats is lower than predicted by this model. This is caused by increasing tortuosity with decreasing threshold radius. This effect is also responsible for a power law slope greater than 2. Except for using an exponent greater than 2, there is no correction for tortuosity in the model. Absolute permeability is somewhat overestimated for samples with very small throat radii. This overestimates the significance of hydraulic-resistance sealing. Relative petroleum permeability (K ro) was calculated from the effective water saturation (Jennings, 1987): Kro 1 S* 1 S* 2l=l : w w 5

Lambda, l, is the capillary curve shape factor (Jennings, 1987). The fractional effective water saturation, S * , is normally calculated from w empirical fractional water saturation (S w) using the relationship S * = w (S w S i)/(1 S i). This study used model capillary-pressure curves in which capillary pressure is assumed to have a power law relation to S * . It was also assumed that S * = S w. Effective water w w saturation was directly calculated from the model power law relationship between capillary pressure and fractional effective saturation (modified from Jennings, 1987): 0 q

f A S* @ w 0:07g cos 


1l 6

where P c is the capillary pressure for the system of interest, F is the fractional porosity, g is the surface tension, and u is the angle of wettability. The shape factor, l, was varied between 1 and 2 to include most unimodal pore-throat distributions. Capillary pressure is calculated from the height above the free-water level and the capillary-pressure gradient. Table 3 summarizes parameters used in the four models shown in Figure 7. 2. Cross-fault volumetric flow per unit area of fault at each height was calculated from the effective permeability (k ak ro), fault thickness (T ), and fluid viscosity (A) using Darcys law with constant assumed relative permeability across the fault thickness. The pressure-drop driving flow is the difference between the capillary pressure and the fault-fill, threshold capillary pressure. Flow per unit area (Q) is Q ka kro Pc Ptf m T 7


Estimation of Cross-Fault Transmissivity Hydraulic-resistance leakage was modeled in the following steps. (1) Absolute permeability of a homogeneous fault fill was calculated from the threshold pressure and relative permeability was calculated from the pore-throat distribution. (2) Cross-fault flow at each elevation was calculated with Darcys law, the effective permeability, a fixed fault width, and capillary pressure as the pressure difference driving petroleum flow. (3) Cumulative cross-fault petroleum flow was calculated from the elevation of the threshold pressure to an elevation of interest. 1. Absolute water permeability (in millidarcys) was estimated from an empirical power law relationship between absolute permeability (K a) and threshold pore-throat radius (r t, in microns): ka 0:46 rt2:2 4

Equation 7 is an approximation. First, relative permeability is assumed constant across the fault fill, but it actually drops across the fault as capillary pressure decreases. This assumption overestimates flow. The pressure-difference driving flow is probably underestimated by equation 7. The pressure change is the maximum possible pressure change across the fault fill, because petroleum pressure less than the threshold pressure is not possible under steady flow on the injection curve. The cross-fault pressure drop does not include the effects of the capillary threshold pressure at the discharge face of the fault fill nor changes in relative permeability resulting from such changes. The fault-fill, threshold capillary pressure exceeds that of the reservoir into which petroleum flows; thus, the steep capillary-pressure gradient partially offsets the lower relative permeability near this interface. 3. Transmissivity (volumetric flow per unit length of fault measured transverse to the flow) was calculated by numerically integrating the volumetric flow from the threshold elevation to the elevation of interest. Volumetric flow per unit area increases with height because relative permeability and capillary pressure increase upward.


Capillary Effects on Fault-Fill Sealing

Correlating Transmissivity with Leakage Rate Transmissivity multiplied by the fault length gives the total leakage. Total leakage can be estimated from the trap size and the age of a trap. It is assumed that half of the petroleum will remain as residual saturation. Accumulation life is modeled as half the accumulation petroleum volume divided by the leakage rate. This simplistic approach underestimates accumulation age for a given initial transmissivity because leakage rate will decrease as the accumulation is leaked due to decreasing capillary pressure. To correlate fault transmissivity to trap leakage rates, trap-andfault geometry must be assumed. For this study, traps are assumed to be truncated pyramids with the top area one-quarter the area of the base (Figure 7D). One side of the pyramid is a leaking fault. Assumed heights of the truncated pyramid are one-tenth and one-hundredth the length of the base of the pyramid. Petroleum was assumed to occupy 20% of the total trap volume (equals 20% porosity with 100% oil saturation). Accumulation size was varied from 0.1 million to 10 billion m3. Leakage rate is calculated by multiplying the fault transmissivity by fault length, approximated by 0.6 times the pyramid base (because most leakage occurs in the upper part of the fault). The magnitude of geologically significant leakage depends on the lifetime of the accumulation. A model accumulation life of 3 m.y. was chosen for estimating leakage rate and transmissivity. This is about an order of magnitude less than reported median petroleum accumulation age (Macgregor, 1996); thus, median transmissivity is about an order of magnitude lower than those estimated here. The lower age and higher transmissivity were chosen for the following reasons. First, the assumed linear leakage rate underestimates accumulation age. Transmissivity estimates might err due to assumed trap-and-fault geometry; thus, a high threshold is likely to include geometries more favorable for leakage. Finally, the short accumulation age encompasses just about all economic accumulations, not just the median case.

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