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Journal of Petroleum Geology, 4,2, pp.

177-186, 1981



Kinji Magara**

In order for the hydrodynamics of meteoric water to be an important trapping mechanism for hydrocarbon accumulations, it must have existed for a long geologic period extending from the time of secondary hydrocarbon migration and its accumulation to the present time. However, in most interior sedimentary basins, the present hydrodynamic patterns are considered to have been developed only a short while ago (geologically speaking), after the significant uplift and the associated erosional events which caused the present topographical relief. Most petroleum accumulations were probably formed a long time before the development of the present hydrodynamic flow patterns, and hence must be explained by different mechanisms that have been effective for a much longer geologic period. This paper also discusses other possible problems in applying the hydrodynamics concept to understanding the formation of petroleum accumulations, such as the lack of proper water passways and outlets in several basins, the difficulty of moving water through hydrocarbon-saturated sections of a reservoir, and the difficulty of keeping significant salinity gradients in a reservoir where active waterflow has taken place. INTRODUCTION Three different types of hydrocarbon trapping mechanisms occur in the subsurface which are called structural, stratigraphic, and hydrodynamic traps. A combination of two or more of these basic trapping mechanisms has also formed many petroleum accumulations. Quite recently, Wilson (1977) proposed another trapping mechanism, called a diagenetic trap, which was primarily formed by the process of sediment diagenesis. This paper discusses a historical view of the significance of hydrodynamic trapping mechanisms in petroleum assessment. Two different kinds of water move in a sedimentary basinsediment source water and meteoric water. The characteristics of sediment source water are as follows: (1) the movement of sediment source water or compaction water can take place in any part of a sedimentary basin, either deep or shallow; (2) the principal direction of small-scale movement is from a shale to a sandstone or other permeable bed; (3) the direction of large-scale movement is from the basin center to its edges, or from deeper parts to the shallower;
*Published by authorisation of the Director, Bureau of Economic Geology. The University of Texas at Austin, USA. **Bureau of Economic Geology, The University of Texas at Austin. Austin, Texas 78712, USA.


Kinji Magara

(4) the amount of water is limited because the amount of compactable sediment in a basin is limited; (5) the movement of sediment source water is probably important in primary migration of hydrocarbons; (6) most movement of sediment source water occurred in the geologic past. The characteristics of meteoric water are as follows: (1) movement of meteoric water is probably important only in the relatively shallow intervals of most sedimentary basins; (2) the direction of small-scale movement can be either from shale to sandstone or from sandstone to shale. However, the movement of meteoric water may take place primarily in sandstones, because of their higher permeability; (3) the direction of large-scale water movement is from the basins edges to its center, or from shallow to deep, but the water must eventually move out to the surface; (4) the amount of meteoric water is not limited as long as there is precipitation in areas of recharge; (5) movement of meteoric water is probably unimportant in primary hydrocarbon migration, but it may affect the trapping condition of hydrocarbons in a reservoir; (6) movement of meteoric water is a present event and may or may not have developed in the geologic past. Time of movement of sediment source and meteoric waters The difference in movement times of these two types of water is an interesting problem which may be discussed using a burial history plot such as shown in Fig. 1. This figure shows an example of the burial and coalification history of the Mannville formation made by Hacquebard (1977). The X-axis indicates the geologic time since deposition of the formation in millions of years, and the Y-axis shows the temperature in degrees Celsius. The curved dashed lines show the levels of vitrinite reflectance, Ro. Fig. 1 suggests that the Mannville formation had a history of continuous burial for the first 72 million years since deposition. In the latter half of this continuous burial history, the formation reached the stages of significant petroleum generation, as indicated by an increasing vitrinite reflectance value, R o. Significant amounts of sediment source water or compaction water were probably expelled during this burial stage. This water would have helped the generated hydrocarbons to migrate from the source to reservoir rocks, and to accumulate them further in traps. The final 30 million year period of the entire history was a period of important uplift and erosion. During the later stage, generation of petroleum probably continued, but at a diminishing rate because of the reduced formation temperature. The sediment source water probably did not move significantly, because there was no further compaction of the sedimentary rocks during this erosional period. During and after the erosional period, fluid potential would have dropped more significantly in areas of increased erosion, because of greater temperature decline and contraction of the pore fluid. The reduced overburden stress after erosion may also have caused slight expansion of most sedimentary rocks, thus creating more pore spaces after the erosion, and this may also have caused further reduction of pore-fluid potential. Therefore, there may have been some late-stage fluid movement caused by areal differences in potential drop due to the differences in amounts of erosion and associated temperature decrease. Such imbalanced fluid potential due to the unequal erosion and fluid contraction must have caused the late-stage fluid migration in the lateral direction, and may also have caused some secondary hydrocarbon migration. D u r i ng the first 72 million year period of continuous deposition and burial, most sedimentation probably took place under water. There may have been some scattered t o p o g r a p h i c a l highs exposed above the water level during this period, but

Hydrodynamicsdoes it trap oil?


the topography at that time must have been completely different from that at the present. There may have been some meteoric water penetration from these scattered topographical highs, but this effect may not have been significant in the total fluid flow at that time, since most areas were covered by water. An important point to make here is that, with our current science and technology, there is no reliable method with which to quantify the paleometeoric water flow in the subsurface. Note that present potentiometric configurations which are primarily controlled by the present surface topography and the associated fluid potential distributions have nothing to do with the paleofluid flow patterns which were controlled by the paleotopography. As pointed out above, during the erosional period of 30 million years, some topographical highs were formed, and some hydrodynamic conditions due to the movement of meteoric water were probably developed. However, the patterns of the meteoric water flow at that time could have been totally different from those we observe at the present, because the surface topography at that time was totally different from that of the present.


Kinji Magara

The preceding discussion indicates that the study of the present hydrodynamic system may not provide any realistic assessment of the paleofluid flow system, which is vital in understanding the trapping mechanisms of any petroleum accumulation. In some cases, the paleoflow patterns can be opposite to the present flow patterns. If that is the case, then interpretation of petroleum trapping conditions on the basis of the present flow patterns can be quite misleading. Present potentiometric mapping As an example of possible hydrodynamic entrapment, a potentiometric map of the Viking formation is shown in Fig. 2. This map was constructed by Hill et al. (1961) to show downdip fluid flow toward the central part of the mapped area, where there are subnormal fluid potentials. If active fluid flow as suggested by Hill occurs, then such fluid must be able to discharge somewhere, in order to keep a continuous fluid flow and material balance. Without an outlet, the fluid cannot continue to flow; unfortunately, however, there is no obvious fluid outlet in this area. The problem of fluid outlet has traditionally been ignored by most hydrodynamic geologists, who commonly conclude that a fluid potential difference means fluid flow, without evaluating the problem of discharge. Dickey and Cox (1977) recently proposed that the presence of significant subnormal potentials and potential differences in this area can be more readily explained by a restriction of fluid environment, rather than by the active hydrodynamic flow. Another example of possibl e h ydrody namic entr ap ment is the gas accum ulation s in the Sa n Juan B asin, N ew Me xic o; Fi g. 3 s hows the p ote ntiome tric ma p of the Point Lookout formation made by Berry (1959). The potentiometric elevation along the

Hydrodynamicsdoes it trap oil?


edges of the basin is about 7,000 ft above sea level, which is equivalent to the present surface elevation of this area. In other words, the fluid potentials along the edges of the basin are nearly equal to the potentials created by water columns from the present land surface to the Point Lookout reservoir. This means that the fluid pressures along the edges of the basin are near hydrostatic. The potentiometric elevation in the central parts of the basin is subnormal and is as low as 3,500 ft above sea level. This fluid potential is approximately half the fluid potential which could be caused by a water column between the reservoir and the present surface. Most gas accumulations are found in these subnormally-pressured parts of the reservoir (Berry, 1959). Possible directions of fluid flow are from the basin edges to its center, as shown by the arrows in Fig. 3. The term possible fluid flow is used because the difference in potentiometric elevation does not always mean active fluid flow; the fluid can only flow from a point of higher fluid potential to one of lower potential provided that there are fluid pathways and outlets. Within a proper fluid outlet, the hydrodynamic condition cannot continue to exist. In the San Juan Basin, however, there seems to be no outlet for fluid, as is shown in the schematic cross-section of Fig. 4. Because the near-surface horizons have near-normal hydrostatic pressures, the possible directions of fluid flow are always downward. Could we expect a hidden outlet in the deepest part of this closed basin? My answer to this question is absolutely no.


Kinji Magara

Another question regarding the potentiometric map of the San Juan Basin is, why does subnormal potential exist in the central parts of the basin? If meteoric water flows in the subsurface by gravitational forces, the lowest possible potentiometric elevation will approximate to the lowest surface topography of the area. In the San Juan Basin, however, the lowest potentiometric elevation is about half of the present surface elevation. In other words, such a low fluid potential cannot be explained by gravitational forces. Based on the concept of dynamic pressure increment proposed by Toth (1979), some subnormal fluid pressures can exist even under gravitational forces. However, I do not believe that such large differences in fluid potentials as are observed in the San Juan Basin can be explained by this concept. To solve this problem, Berry (1959) proposed the osmotic membrane effect as a principal cause of subnormal fluid potential (Fig. 5). A very saline formation water in an older formation, such as the Entrada sandstone of Jurassic age, and a good shale membrane between the Entrada and the overlying Cretaceous reservoirs, were required for this model. Berry ( 1959) postulated a saline core whose salinity is as high as 270,000 ppm in the Entrada sandstone, without providing any evidence of its existence. The highest measured Entrada salinity is only 37,340 ppm. Berry proposed a salinity change from this low value to 270,000 ppm over a distance of several miles. There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of a saline core in the San Juan Basin and this is apparently only an undocumented speculation. Another question to be answered is why, if the osmotic membrane effect is so significant in the San Juan Basin, does the same mechanism not operate in many other salt-rich basins. The Gulf Coast, for example, has salt domes and deeply-buried bedded salt, but subnormal fluid pressure is quite uncommon there, although the region is known as a typical abnormal fluid pressure region. It is widely known that subnormal fluid pressures are commonly found in the subsurface of interior basins. Many, if not most, oil and gas reservoirs in the Mid-Continent area are subnormally pressured (Millikan and Sidwell, 1931), and many other low-pressure reservoirs have been reported in this area since 1931 (Dickey and Cox, 1977). According to Dickey and Cox, the Morrow gas fields of the western Anadarko basin in Oklahoma are subnormally pressured, with a pore-fluid pressure gradient of about 0.3 psi/ft. In other parts of the North American continent, such gas fields as Wattenberg, Hugoton, and those in the Arkoma basin and Appalachians exist in subnormallypressured reservoirs (Russell, 1972, and Dickey and Cox, 1977); the Denver basin in Colorado is also known to be subnormally pressured (Russell, 1972). Most of these interior basins experienced significant uplift and erosion after continuous burial and deposition; subsurface temperature declined significantly during and after the erosional period, thus causing contraction of pore fluid and the resultant decline of pore pressure to a subnormal level. According to the combined study of inclusion thermometry and of shale compaction, Magara (1976) estimated that the fluid pressure of the Cardium sandstone dropped from about 10,000 psi to less than 4,000 psi after the erosion of 4,000 ft of section. The reservoir temperature was estimated to have dropped from about 300F to the present value of 150F after erosion. The reduction of the overburden pressure after erosion can also cause slight expansion of rock framework, which tends further to reduce the pore fluid pressure.

Hydrodynamicsdoes it trap oil?


On the contrary, in most continental margin basins where sedimentation and burial continued and where there was no significant uplift and erosion in the geologic past, we commonly observe abnormal pressures and near-normal hydrostatic pressures. We seldom encounter subnormal fluid pressures in these marginal basins. In summary, the presence of subnormal fluid pressures in the San Juan and Western Canada Basins and in many other interior basins can be more readily explained by erosion and the associated cooling effect. The subnormal pressures generated have been well preserved in the deep, central part of the basin, where there is restricted fluid environment. In this deep, central part of the basin, natural gas has also been well preserved. The fluid pressures of the relatively shallow intervals became nearly normal-hydrostatic as meteoric water penetrated gradually downward, and at the same time, the gas accumulations were also washed out from these shallower intervals. Ward and Pendergast (1979) recently described the effect of meteoric water washing in the Cardium reservoir in the Western Canada Basin. They stated: To date, no commercial hydrocarbon accumulations have been discovered in direct communication with the fresh-water system. A flushing effect is thought to have allowed the majority of hydrocarbons to escape. This type of water washing or flushing event cannot be called a hydrodynamic event which has caused hydrocarbon entrapment, because the reservoir fluid in the central part of the basin did not move by the influence of near-surface water. In true hydrodynamic entrapment conditions, the water drives from the surface into the deeper parts of the basin, and must eventually move out to some other surface locations. Down-dip fluid flow Fig. 6 shows a schematic diagram of down-dip water flow toward a pinchout reservoir with hydrocarbon saturation. Hydrodynamic geologists would claim that hydrocarbons can be preserved, even if the reservoir is more continuous to the surface, as long as a strong hydrodynamic force persists in the down-dip direction. Let us assume for a moment that the active, down-dip water flow is taking place from the surface to the reservoir. As soon as this dynamic water reaches the oil- or gas-saturated section of the reservoir, its movement has to be terminated, because there is no relative permeability for water there. Production engineers and geologists know that, in oil- or gas-saturated reservoirs, the relative permeability for water is virtually zero. It is therefore almost impossible to move water through these oil-or gas-saturated reservoirs, even though the reservoirs themselves have some absolute permeability. Tilt of oil/water contact An inclined oil/water contact is sometimes used as evidence of hydrodynamic conditions (Fig. 7). In many instances, however, a calculated inclination on the basis of the change of potentiometric elevation does not seem to match the observed inclination in the field. An apparent inclination of oil/water contact could also result from the pore size and pore geometry, caused by changing lithology, stress, and diagenesis. As pointed out before, Wilson (1977) proposed the importance of the diagenetic effect in forming petroleum accumulations, some of which have tilted oil/water contacts.


Kinji Magara

If faults effectively seal hydrocarbons, the difference of oil/water contact levels in different fault blocks also could cause an apparent tilt, as shown in Fig. 8; this apparent tilt has nothing to do with hydrodynamics. Salinity variation Water salinity change from fresher water in the intake area to more saline water in the deep basin is sometimes used as an indicator of hydrodynamic conditions; but salinity change does not necessarily indicate hydrodynamic conditions in the sense used by most hydrodynamics geologists. If fresh meteoric water was in contact with saline formation water during the geologic past, we would find a gradual salinity change in the subsurface from diffusion, even if the water was static. The other possibility is that the meteoric water has disturbed the relatively-shallow formation water by circulating locally through it and thereby freshening it, but has not penetrated completely into the deeper parts of the basin. The meteoric water may have replaced the body of the formation water of only the shallow intervals by gravitational forces, and some hydrocarbons may have escaped by buoyant forces. In this case, we would also see gradual salinity changes, but this does not mean hydrodynamic conditions in the sense used by the hydrodynamic geologists. Under true hydrodynamic conditions, the water drives into the deep subsurface and replaces some or all formation water. If such hydrodynamic conditions continued for some period of geologic time, then should we not now have almost completely fresh water throughout the basin, rather than gradual changes in salinity? Conclusions 1. In most interior sedimentary basins, the present hydrodynamic patterns of meteoric water are believed to have been developed after significant uplift and erosion caused by major tectonic events that followed a period of continuous burial. This means that such hydrodynamic patterns may have been established only a short while ago, geologically speaking. On the other hand, many hydrocarbon accumulations were formed a long time before the erosion, while the area was experiencing active sedimentation and burial, which caused a significant increase in formation temperature and the resultant petroleum maturation. A mechanism for effectively trapping hydrocarbon accumulations must, therefore, have been in existence for a long geologic period. In other words, hydrodynamics of meteoric water cannot be the principal mechanism for trapping hydrocarbons in many basins. 2. In sedimentary basins where the hydrodynamics of meteoric water is believed to be important in forming hydrocarbon accumulations, the existence of proper passways and outlets for such water movement is not indicated clearly. Without a proper passway and outlet the water cannot continue to flow, even if there are variations in fluid potential. Strong variations in fluid potential can be more readily

Hydrodynamicsdoes it trap oil?


explained by a static fluid environment rather than by a hydrodynamic environment. In this case, the geologic time is believed to have been insufficient to deplete all of the excess fluid potentials because of the absence of relative permeability for water in hydrocarbon-saturated reservoirs and the extremely low permeability of shales and high viscosity of water in shales (Low, 1976). 3. The movement of water through hydrocarbon-saturated sections of a reservoir is an extremely difficult process, because there is virtually no relative permeability for water in such sections. The concept of down-dip water flow towards a pinch-out reservoir with a hydrocarbon accumulation is, therefore, a very difficult one to believe. 4. Tilt of oil/water contact is sometimes used as evidence of hydrodynamic conditions. However, there are many other reasons for an apparent inclination of oil/water contact, such as the variations of the pore size and geometry caused by changing lithology, stress, and diagenesis, and the effective sealing by faults. 5. Salinity of formation water commonly increases from the intake area to the basin center. Such salinity variation is often used as evidence of hydrodynamic conditions. However, diffusion, partial flushing, and mixing can also cause a gradual salinity change even if the main water body was static. If hydrodynamic conditions continued for a long geologic period, the formation water salinity may have become almost completely fresh, rather than showing gradual changes with distance. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS The author thanks W. E. Galloway and A. R. Gregory of the Bureau of Economic Geology. The University of Texas at Austin, for their constructive comments. REFERENCES BERRY, F. A. F., 1959. Hydrodynamics and geochemistry of the Jurassic and Cretaceous Systems in the San Juan Basin, Northwestern New Mexico and Southwestern Colorado, Ph.D. thesis, Stanford University, 192 p. DICKEY, P. A. and COX, W. C., 1977. Oil and Gas in Reservoirs with Subnormal Pressures, Amer. Assoc. Petrol. Geol. Bull., 61, 2134-2142. HACQUEBARD, P. A., 1977. Rank of Coal as an Index of Organic Metamorphism for Oil and Gas in Alberta. In: The Origin and Migration of Petroleum in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, Alberta, Geol. Survey of Canada. Ch. 3, 11-22. HILL, G. A., COLBURN, W. A. and KNIGHT, J. W., 1961. Reducing oil finding costs by use of hydrodynamic evaluations, in petroleum exploration, gambling game, or business venture, Institute Economic Petroleum Exploration, Development, and Property Evaluation, Englewood, N. J. Prentice-Hall, 38-69.


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LOW, P. F., 1976. Viscosity of Interlayer Water in Montmorillonite Proc. Soil Sci. Soc. Amer., 40, 500-505. MAGARA, K., 1976. Thickness of Removed Sedimentary Rocks, Paleopore Pressure, and Paleotemperature, Southwestern Part of Western Canada Basin. Amer. Assoc. Petrol Geol. Bull., 60, 554-565. MILLIKAN, C. V. and SIDWELL. C. B., 1931. Bottom-hole Pressures in Oil Wells. AIME Trans., 92, 194-205. RUSSELL, W. L., 1972. Pressure-depth Relations. in Appalachian Region. Amer. Assoc. Petrol. Geol. Bull., 56, 528-536. TOTH, J., 1979. Patterns of Dynamic Pressure Increment of Formation Fluid Flow in Large Drainage Basins. Exemplified by the Red Earth Regions. Alberta. Canada. Can. Pet. Geol. Bull., 27, 68-86. WARD. G. S. and PENDERGAST. R. D., 1979. Evaluation of Pressures and Salinities of the Cardium Formation in Western Canada. In: Transactions of the C.W.L.S. Seventh Formation Evaluation Symposium, Paper R. WILSON, H. H., 1977 Frozen-In Hydrocarbon Accumulations or Diagenetic Traps Exploration Targets, Amer. Assoc. Petrol Geol. Bull., 61, 483-491.