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For abnormal pressures to develop and be maintained, fluid flow through the formation must
be inhibited or prevented. For this to occur, both vertical and lateral seals are required.

Additionally, there must be some geological process active to create the pressurisation itself.
The mechanisms below are some suggestions for development of abnormal pressure regimes
within a sedimentary sequence. The list is not intended to be complete; rather it should serve
as an indication of the wide variety of ways in which formation pore pressure can be

The duration over which the overpressuring can be maintained will depend on several
factors, notably the quality of the seal and the continuation of the geological process.

Two schools of thought currently exist that endeavour to explain the presence of
overpressuring even in very old sequences. These are the static and dynamic approaches.

The former relies on the seal remaining effective over long time periods and thus continuing
to trap overpressured fluids even after the initial pressuring mechanism has ceased.

The latter view is that few seals are effective beyond a few million years duration, and that
the strength of overpressuring in any area reflects an ongoing pressurisation process.

In young sedimentary sequences such as the Tertiary of the North Sea and the offshore Gulf
of Mexico area, both models are reasonable. However, recent studies suggest that the
permeability of sediments in older basins is insufficient to prevent fluid escape over periods
in excess of 100,000,000 years.

Lee and Deming (2002) made a study of the Palaeozoic Anadarko Basin in the USA to test
the two theories as a means of explaining the strong overpressuring seen within the basin.
They looked at compaction disequilibrium (section 2.3.2) and hydrocarbon generation
(section 2.4.3) as two possible geological processes capable of causing the overpressures
seen, then evaluated average basin permeability to check if the required effectiveness of seal
could be found.

Initially they considered compaction disequilibrium as the trapping mechanism. Using

published formulae for hydraulic diffusion of fluid through sedimentary layers they
calculated that in order to hold pressure at current levels within the basin since Palaeozoic
times, the permeability required was in the order of 10-10mD (with 100m seal thickness) to
10-12mD (at 10m seal thickness). They then measured the permeability of the rock layers
within the basin that are assumed to act as pressure seals. The lowest permeability recorded
was 10-7mD (which they quote as being one of the lowest values ever recorded from
sedimentary rocks). This strongly suggests that pore fluid pressures originating over
200,000,000 years ago are unlikely to remain trapped to the present day.

With hydrocarbon generation, temperature as well as permeability had to be considered.
Assuming temperature gradient, deposition, and erosion factors, they concluded that
overpressuring at current levels was feasible with seal permeability in the range 10-6 to
10-8mD. This model also places the gas source rocks within the basin at the correct depth for
hydrocarbon generation.

Unfortunately Lee and Deming admit that they cannot be absolutely conclusive in their
studies as they assume homogeneity within the sedimentary layers that is unlikely to be real.
They use average basin permeability values rather than localised low permeability layers. The
important conclusion to be drawn from this work is that there is unlikely to be a single over-
riding source of both overpressuring and trapping of that pressure.

The material that follows in this section is a collection of short notes illustrating a variety of
different abnormal pressure sources.


Overpressures can be grouped into two main categories. Type I overpressures are related
to loading through burial while Type II overpressures are categorised by unloading
mechanisms (e.g. aquathermal expansion, hydrocarbon generation, or clay diagenesis).

Pore pressures derived from porosity responses (including seismic velocity) can be
markedly different depending on which of these categories applies to the rocks under study.

This has serious implications when considering the use of compaction trends (Section 3.3),
especially with older deformed rocks. This is discussed in detail by Lee (2003).



0 Effective Stress
Figure 2-1: Shale Porosity Response to Loading and Unloading

Seismic Velocity



0 Effective Stress
Figure 2-2: Shale Seismic Velocity Response to Loading and Unloading


2.3.1 Type I Overpressure

Type I overpressures are related to undercompaction (section 2.3.2). The vertical effective
stress on the grain contacts is reduced here due to trapping of fluids within the rock porosity.
These trapped fluids take on a greater share than normal (section 1.4.1) of the overburden
pressure developed as burial continues.

2.3.2 Compaction Disequilibrium (Undercompaction)

Rapid deposition of sediments (with respect to geological time) can restrict fluid flow
through the rocks, especially in tighter formations such as clays. Fluid may become trapped
within the sediment.

The Central North Sea contains highly overpressured Tertiary shale sequences of this type,
which have been deposited with thicknesses of around 3350 m over 60 m years. The
dominant formation in this basin is soft grey clay, often referred to as gumbo. Due to the
combination of rapid sedimentation and low permeability, the pore fluid in this clay has not
yet escaped. Maximum pressures observed in the Oligocene often correspond to formations
laid down under higher deposition rates. Given sufficient time it is probable that compaction
will continue and that the fluid will eventually be squeezed out producing a normally
compacted sequence.

Carstens (1978) and others have noted that thin (2-3 m) limestone bands can act as seals
preventing fluid expulsion from these Tertiary clays. In addition, the clays also display
abnormally high porosity due to fluid retention resulting in lowered densities, low sonic
velocities, and low electrical resistivities. These limestone cap rocks may act as perfect seals.

The greatest difference between shales and clays located beneath such a perfect seal and
those that are rapidly deposited (and hence have an imperfect seal) is the rate of increase in
pressure observed upon drilling into them. The imperfectly sealed formation is characterised
by a gradual build-up of pressure (several metres to hundreds of metres thick) called a
pressure transition zone, while the perfectly sealed formations display a rapid pressure
build-up as soon as the zone is penetrated.

Limestones capping the Kimmeridge Clay are common in the North Sea, and may often
conceal rapid pressure changes.

2.3.3 Tectonic Loading & Unloading

Tectonic loading occurs when pressure gradient is increased due to earth movements such
as faulting or folding. In such situations, pressures that may have been normal at their initial
depth of burial become overpressured as they are transported closer to the surface through
uplift followed by erosion. Although the actual pressure measured in bars may be preserved,
the drilling fluid density required to maintain control over the pressure increases as depth

Formations originally at a depth where they are normally pressured may be uplifted to a
shallower depth. The formation in question could be located within the limb of a fold, or
within the up-thrown block of a large thrust fault.

310 bars 1524 m

310 bars 3048 m

Figure 2-3: Effects of Uplift On Pressure Trapped Within Formation

Should the original pressure within the uplifted formation be retained, abnormal pressure
gradients will result. In the example above the pressure gradient of the formation is seen to
double as the depth of burial is halved.

The geological process that uplifts a buried formation also tends to lift the overburden. It
follows that uplift can only generate abnormal pressure gradients when accompanied by
another geological process, such as erosion, which reduces the relief between the buried rock
and the surface. The magnitude of pressure is therefore a function of the initial depth of burial
and the degree of uplift.

In the event of subsurface movement creating severe faulting, deeper fluid pressures may
escape to shallower formations, as discussed in section 2.3.6 below. This may also occur
between two formations located at much greater depths. As in charged sands, abnormal
pressures will persist provided the seal is of suitable quality.

Major faults contribute to the creation of abnormal pressures by re-distributing sediments and
placing permeable zones opposite impermeable zones, thus forming seals. Fault planes
themselves may prevent the expulsion of water during the compaction process such that clays
may retain abnormally high porosity.

Fracture zones may also allow the transmission of high formation pressures upwards to a
shallower horizon where they represent abnormally high pressure. This phenomenon has been
observed in locations that have experienced significant thrust faulting, such as in the Andes
of Colombia. Here, the behaviour of the rocks being drilled at relatively shallow depth was
entirely consistent with a state of good overbalance. However, with no obvious formation
change observed through analysis of cuttings and drilling data, significant connection gasses
began to appear. The only explanation for this apparent contradiction was that a much deeper
zone was leaking fluid through a fault or fracture plane to the wellbore of the current well.
The deeper formation was at an overpressure relative to the current well depth, with
consequent development of close to balance indications from the gas behaviour.

Fig 2-4: Reverse (Thrust) Fault

The Centroid Principle (Lateral Transfer)

Permeability plays a key role in the establishment of pressure gradients in overpressured

systems occurring in interbedded permeable and impermeable sediments such as clays and

In a normally pressured system there exists sufficient permeability both laterally and
vertically to allow the pore fluids to be freely expelled in response to compaction stresses. As

a consequence of this permeability the pressure state of the fluid becomes independent of the
pressure state of the matrix. Fluid pressure gradient is therefore constant (provided fluid
density is constant) throughout the sequence.

Where seals develop, the pore pressure gradient in a permeable rock will be dependent on
the fluid density, but the actual value of pressure will also be shifted above the hydrostatic
pressure gradient defining normal pressure. The size of the overpressure shift is largely
controlled by the pressure trapped in the surrounding clays. This effect is seen whenever
MDT-type pressure results are analysed (figure 2-5).


Figure 2-5 Overpressuring in Sandstone

In other terms, the pressure of fluids in a permeable system, where fluid is in pore-to-pore
contact, is isotropic in nature. Thus stress is equal in all three perpendicular directions.
Pressure increase with depth is therefore dependent only on fluid density. The pressure value
itself at any depth is a function of the total stress at that depth (the overburden pressure)
and the proportion of the total stress supported by the matrix grain contacts (the effective

In impermeable systems, the stress distribution is anisotropic as there is little or no pore-to-

pore contact within the fluid. Thus the total stress is distributed between the matrix and pore
fluid differently. The effective stress becomes more important in determining the rate at
which pressure increases with depth. The pressure value continues to depend on the
difference between total stress and effective stress.

Even in overpressured systems, the sands and shales should remain in pressure equilibrium
if the dip is horizontal and fluid type is consistent, i.e. the pressure at the base of the shale
overlying the sand is consistent with the pressure at top sand (figure 2-6). The rate at which
pressure alters through the sand and shale will be permeability controlled, however.



Figure 2-6: Horizontally Bedded Sands and Clays Showing Pressure

Continuity at Contacts
Problems begin to occur in terms of planning drilling fluid programs, etc, where the
interbedded sequence is itself inclined. Matthews & Standifird 2003 quote a 2001 survey that
concluded that 50% of non-productive time during drilling was caused by wellbore instability
and geopressure issues.

In the sand layers, the pressure gradient continues to be influenced by fluid density
superimposed on the basic shale-derived pore pressure value. In clays and shales, the
pressure gradient in overpressured systems is generally higher than the fluid density-based
gradient within the sands. This rate can approach the overburden gradient in extreme cases.
Overpressuring in younger relatively undeformed clays like the North Sea Tertiary is
predominantly caused by undercompaction (section 2.3.2).

This means that when drilling into a sand body enclosed within shale or clay, overpressures
greater than those encountered within the clays at the depth where the sand is penetrated may
be seen due to the difference in gradients (figures 2-7 and 2-8).

The depth at which the sand and clay pressure gradients are coincident is known as the
centroid. If the characteristics of the sand (porosity and permeability) are uniform
throughout, then the centroid depth will be the mid-point depth of the sand body. Corrections
to allow for variations in permeability, etc may have to be applied on a case-by-case basis.

Traugott 1997 evaluated the pressure difference between the sand pressure and shale pressure
to increase by around 3.45 bars per 30 m of height above the centroid depth in his area of
investigation. This means that the clay derived pore pressures encountered as drilling
proceeds through the cap rock should have 3.45 bars per 30 m of structure (estimated from
seismic prognosis information) added when considering the pressures within the reservoir at
the depth where the reservoir will be penetrated.

Pressure (bars)

Clay Pressure Sand Pressure


Hydrostatic pressure

Figure 2-7: Pressures Through an Inclined Sand Body


Clay pressure

Sand pressure
Fracture Pressure


Figure 2-8: Pressure Gradients within Sand/Clay Sequences

This phenomenon is greatest at the crest of the structure. The actual value of pressure at the
crest will depend on the height, or relief, of the structure. In the most extreme cases, the
pressures generated at the structure crest may exceed the fracture pressure of the overlying
clays. This has the effect of breaking the reservoir seal and could reduce the commercial
feasibility of the prospect.

Evaluation of this effect from seismic velocity and offset well data requires analysis of the
structure from lowest to highest point to obtain the maximum height. Facies analysis is then
required to separate permeable and non-permeable rocks. The centroid effect is greatest in
the thickest reservoir type rocks.

The predominant pressure regime in the basin is then estimated (for example from
compaction analysis) to obtain the pressures in the clays surrounding the reservoirs.

Note that the presence of hydrocarbons will affect the pressure gradients within the sand
due to buoyancy effects. This is discussed in section 2.4.3. The gas and oil effects are
superimposed onto the centroid effects for water as discussed above.

Matthews & Standifird 2003 summarise the effects controlling the sand/shale pressure
relationship as follows:

 Centroid position within the sand body

 Lateral extent of the sand body
 Inclination of the sand body
 Permeabilities of sand and shale
 Temperature
 Fluid distribution
 Fluid properties

Since precise data for the above factors are not likely to be available to the well planner,
realistic ranges in the values of these factors should be input when creating the well model.
Planning of drilling fluid and casing programmes therefore should be flexible enough to
allow for variations within these parameter ranges to be catered for.

The centroid concept is only usefully applied in prospects with significant structural relief, as
seen from seismic data. Although the pressure differential at the top of the structure between
clay and sand will occur in any height, the effect on the drilling fluid density required to drill
into the sand is minimal in small relief structures.

Difficulties with the centroid principle, with possible consequences of misinterpretation have
been identified by some authors, e.g. Shaker (c.2005). Here the centroid principle is shown to
fail if there is communication between two or more sand beds separated by apparently sealing

Prospects Identified by AVO and Amplitude Anomalies on Seismic

Occasionally wells identified as potential trap structures are drilled and found to be wet. The
centroid principle may explain this by causing gas held in solution within pore waters in the
sand bodies to exsolve as the fluids move through the fractured seals on the crest of the
structure. On entering the clay cap rock, the confining pressure will reduce significantly
perhaps falling below bubble point for the dissolved gases. This gas located in the clay
immediately above the seal may easily be misinterpreted as a gas accumulation within the
sand body (Saleh et al).

2.3.4 Salt Diapirism

Figure 2-9: Salt Diapirism

The movement of low-density salt (halokinesis) in response to regional tectonic stresses can
disturb the normal layering of sediments, producing pressure anomalies. Overpressured
zones often occur due to the faulting and folding (section 2.3.3) actions associated with
diapirism (salt dome formation). Additionally, the salt may act as an impermeable seal
preventing lateral dewatering of clays.

The greatest risk in drilling through salts occurs where large permeable rock bodies (e.g.
dolomite as found in Southern North Sea) are enclosed within the salt diapir. The dolomite
may initially be situated below the salt horizon before deformation occurs. The application of
strong compressive tectonic forces causes the brittle dolomite to fold and ultimately fracture.
However the salt behaves plastically in response to these stresses, and flows around the
fracture-generated dolomite fragments. The process continues as the salt exploits a point of
weakness above and bursts through the overlying strata to form the diapir. The dolomite
laths are often transported upwards within the salt. The salt acts as a perfect seal as it is
impossible to induce fracture permeability, and the salt matrix itself has zero porosity. Thus
any fluid pressure contained within the dolomite is preserved as the salt travels upwards
towards the surface. At its final depth, the dolomite is now likely to display a seriously
overpressured fluid gradient.

The hazard associated with this situation is the inability to see the dolomite within the salt. If
a drilling plan is formulated that requires the diapir to be penetrated, it is most likely that the
drilling fluid density in use will be based on the expected pressures in the sediments
overlying and underlying the salt. Typically drilling fluid density may be 1.50 SG, but the
dolomite may require in excess of 2.30 SG to control its pressure. The release of such high
pressures into the wellbore may result in fracture of the rocks overlying the salt. If the
dolomite contains hydrocarbon or H2S then the risks are increased significantly should the
released fluids reach the surface (blowout).

2.3.5 Mud Volcanoes

This mechanism, as with salt diapirism, refers to the upward movement of a low-density
plastic zone, in this case shale. This is common in the Caribbean Sea, especially in Jamaica.

The stresses causing the clay movement are tectonic, with global mud volcano distribution
associated with subduction and orogenic belts.

The danger of mud volcanoes is greatest where the area of ground or seabed on which a
platform may stand is disturbed.

Palo Seco 2002

Piparo 1995
Figure 2-10: Mud Volcanoes
(from Geological Society of Trinidad & Tobago (www.gstt.org)

Hydrocarbon gases and liquids are commonly ejected as well as water. The Palo Seco
volcano in figure 2-10 displays an oil sheen ring, with methane gas bubbles emerging
approximately every ten seconds.

Slow gentle eruptions are probably due to the action of overburden pressure on highly
undercompacted, plastic clay layers that take advantage of any fracture or other weakness
in the overlying sediment layers to reach the surface. Below the surface these bodies form
mud diapirs.

More violent eruptions are more likely to be due to the explosive release of methane gas,
perhaps generated within the plastic clay itself, that has reached a critical pressure that allows
the clay to push through the overlying beds.

Figure 2-11: Lusi Mud Volcano, Indonesia (Durham University 2008)

A major mud volcano eruption following a blowout occurred in 2006 in Java, Indonesia
(figure 2-11). The volcano has been named Lusi, and by May 2008 had extruded enough
material to cover an area of 7km2, destroying a complete town and rendering 30000 people
homeless. Scientific opinion considers that the activation of the volcano was due to a nearby
exploration well penetrating and releasing a layer of high pressure, high temperature water
(Durham University 2008). The redistribution of stresses then caused the major movement of
mud to the surface.


2.4.1 Type II Overpressure

Type II overpressures are categorised by unloading mechanisms. In this case grain to grain
contact stress (vertical effective stress) is reduced through the increase in volume of the pore
fluid (e.g. aquathermal expansion, hydrocarbon generation, or clay diagenesis) or by
removal of overburden without release of trapped fluids in the pore spaces.

2.4.2 Charged Upper Formations (Shallow Gas and Water)

High pressures can occur in shallow formations if they were charged by fluid from deeper
formations. Fluid would reach the upper formations through fractures such as fault planes,
which link deeper reservoir units to the near-surface formations. An example is found in the
Yinggehai Basin in the South China Sea (Luo et al 2003).

This condition can also result from a poor surface casing cement job, casing leak, or a
blowout in a nearby well. Upper sands can also be highly pressured if gas developments are
trapped by very rapid deposition. This last occurrence is, however, relatively rare.

2.4.3 Buoyancy in Hydrocarbon Reservoirs

In sealed reservoir rocks the pore pressures experienced at the hydrocarbon/water contact
will be transmitted upwards toward the top of the hydrocarbon zone. Regardless of the value
at the hydrocarbon/water contact, the pressure at the top of the reservoir will always be
overpressured with respect to that of the hydrocarbon/water contact.

However, the pore fluid density will act against the pressure at the hydrocarbon/water
contact. As a result, pressure at the top of the reservoir will be equal to the pressure at the
hydrocarbon/water contact minus the hydrostatic pressure of the hydrocarbon column.

This could be considered to be a u-tube situation, where one arm represents the fluid pressure
in the rocks at the hydrocarbon/water contact. This pressure acts along the contact plane,
pushing upward at every point against the hydrostatic pressure of the fluid trapped in the
reservoir. The second arm of the u-tube is the hydrocarbon zone within the reservoir. The top
of this arm is sealed by the presence of the over-lying cap rock.


Figure 2-10: Water Pressure Acting Against Gas Pressure

A Hydrocarbon/Water
D2 Contact

Figure 2-11: Overpressuring Effect Caused by Density Difference in

In the example (figure 2-11) above, the rocks overlying the reservoir unit are normally
pressured for the area. The local seawater density is expressed as 1.04 SG. The topmost
point of the reservoir anticline is at 1524 m TVD (D1), while the hydrocarbon/water contact is
located at 1676 m TVD (D2). The density of the gas (g) contained in the reservoir is taken as
0.35 SG. Note that while it is safe to assume air and gas density at surface to be
approximately 0 SG, the confining pressures at reservoir depth mean that a suitable density
must always be used in any calculation. The suggested density here is representative of
methane gas (CH4).

At the hydrocarbon/water contact, the pressure will be that associated with the rocks
overlying the reservoir, measured at point A.

1676 x 1.04 x 0.0981 = 171 bars

At the top of the reservoir (D1), theoretical normal pore pressure (Pn) is

1524 x 1.04 x 0.0981 = 155 bars

The true pressure (Po) within the reservoir top, at point B, is given by

Po = (D2 x n) – {(D2 – D1) x g}

= 1676 x 1.04 x 0.0981 – {(1676 -1524) x 0.35 x 0.0981}
= 165.8 bars

Therefore, converting to equivalent mud weight units

(165.8)/(1524 x 0.0981) = 1.11 SG EMW

In this example the expected pressure in the top of the reservoir was 1.04 SG EMW, but a
pressure of 1.11 SG EMW was encountered. The reservoir was therefore overpressured with
respect to the enclosing rocks. Plotting these pressures as EMW against depth reveals

D1 1.11 SG


1.04 SG
Figure 2-12: Plot of Mud Density Requirements Through Gas Bearing
In a hydrocarbon reservoir containing gas, oil and water the pressure at each of the contacts
may be similarly calculated.
cap rock



Figure 2-13: EMW Variation Through Oil and Gas Cap

Since the normal pressure gradient for the area is based on the density of the formation
water, the pressure gradient below the lower density hydrocarbon layers becomes constant
with depth.

In field exploration conditions, the density and thickness of the hydrocarbon zones will be
uncertain at the time the reservoir is drilled. These pressure profiles can be constructed by
plotting the pressure measurements from Modular Dynamics Tester (MDT) type tools
against depth (see also section 3.1.1).

Figure 2-14: Schlumberger MDT Pressure and Fluid Sampling Tool

This allows the pressure analyst to assess the slope of the pressure curve through the oil
and/or gas layers, and extrapolate this to the top of the reservoir unit. The anticipated pressure
at the crest of the structure can then be converted to equivalent mud weight units.

If the well where measurements are first taken is not located at the summit of the anticline
(which is normal exploration procedure) the depth of the top of the anticline can be estimated
from the seismic profiles, and pressure extrapolation using MDT data carried out over the
depth interval between the top of the reservoir and the hydrocarbon/water contact. This
enables the drilling fluid program for subsequent wells to be planned with some confidence.
It follows that the maximum drilling fluid density requirement occurs at the highest point in
any hydrocarbon zone.

If sufficient overbalance exists as the reservoir is first penetrated, then there will be
sufficient to control the entire reservoir unit.

Note that sealing beds (for example clays) may occur within thick, reservoir-quality,
sandstones. Each clay bed represents a potential cap rock above a different reservoir unit
from the one above, and all precautions normal for reservoir penetration should be in force as
each potential seal is encountered. Not all potential seals will be effective, especially if the
bed is penetrated by naturally occurring fractures. If the seal is not efficient, the profiles
seen in figures 2-12 and 2-13 above will apply.

In summary, the lower density of hydrocarbon compared to that of the original pore fluids
(seawater or fresh water) will cause an overpressure relative to the pressure experienced at
the hydrocarbon/water contact to develop in all reservoir formations, whether they are
economically viable or not.

2.4.4 Hydrocarbon Generation
The alteration of organic carbon-rich material (kerogen) into liquid and gas hydrocarbon
fluids is generally accepted as causing a considerable volumetric increase, quoted as up to
25% by some authors. Meissner and Banks (2000) use the relationship below to calculate the
volume of hydrocarbon generated within a source rock:
Vg = Volume of generated hydrocarbons
A = Area of source rock
T = Thickness of source rock
TOC = Total Organic Carbon expressed as decimal fraction of source rock volume
Q = Ultimate Yield (function of kerogen type)
F = Ultimate Generation (function of source rock maturity)

In a limited pore-space environment, such as a sedimentary rock at depth, this extra fluid is
unable to expand easily so must become overpressured. This extra pressurisation should also
be experienced by the pore fluids already present within the rock.

The chemical reactions leading to hydrocarbon generation are also exothermic in nature.
This added heat supply will also tend to boost the pressure of (especially) gases in confined
pore spaces.

Lee and Deming (2002) found that the source rocks within the Anadarko Basin in Oklahoma,
USA, were associated with the areas of maximum overpressuring in the basin. This
disproved earlier ideas that the overpressures were associated with undercompaction within
the rocks during their initial burial. This was anomalous given the age of the rocks in
question and the permeability of the seals. Source rock maturation timing better explained the
pressure and permeability scenario

2.4.5 Aquathermal Pressuring

Work by Kennedy & Holser (1966) indicated that the pressure of water heated in a closed
vessel increases by about 15.5 bars/C. Thus any formation that is completely isolated could
have pore pressure increased by 77.5 bars as a result of an increase of only 5C in

In a typical sedimentary sequence, the geothermal gradient can be expected to range from 0.6
to 1.4C/30 m. Thus for an isolated formation fluid, pressure resulting from aquathermal
effects may range from 0.305 to 0.713 bars/m. Magara (1975) used a figure of 0.317 bars/m
for the Gulf Coast of the USA and showed that, through aquathermal pressuring, an
overpressured sequence may become equal to the overburden pressure.

For example, a shale sequence with pore pressure 250 bars becomes isolated at 2440 m. If
this formation is then buried to 6100 m, the pore pressure becomes

250 + (3660 x 0.317) = 1410 bars = 2.36 SG EMW

i.e. approximating to total overburden pressure (assuming overburden gradient of 0.226
bars/m (Dickinson 1953)).

Aquathermal pressuring could therefore be used to account for areas where the pore
pressure is equal to overburden pressure. This will depend ultimately on the quality of the
seals. Argillaceous rocks have low permeability (10-6 to 10-7 mD), but not zero permeability.
Consequently they will leak over time when significant pressure differentials are created
across the claystone.

2.4.6 Clay Diagenesis

As montmorillonite alters to illite during clay diagenesis, inter-layer bound water is desorbed
and becomes free water. Diagenesis of clays occurs at a temperature of about 105 ºC. Large
volumes of water equal to more than half the volume of montmorillonite altered (Burst 1969)
are released by this process, which can increase the pore fluid pressure due to the finite
volume of relatively sealed pores within the clay. For the water released by the clay alteration
to be accepted into the existing pore spaces, the fluid already occupying that space must be
free to move away. Small pore throats between clay particles act as chokes on this fluid flow,
with an inevitable associated pressure increase as the rate of water creation exceeds the rate
of fluid flow through the clay.

Note that the increased pore fluid pressure will eventually act against the diagenetic process,
as the pressure causing expulsion of the fluid from the clay layers equilibrates with the pore
fluid pressure. As a consequence, diagenesis is eventually halted by overpressures. This
phenomenon is used as a qualitative pressure indicator when studying shale factor results
(section 4.6).


An aquifer is a permeable rock containing water in its pore spaces. Sometimes this outcrops
on nearby mountains at an elevation appreciably higher than that of the drill floor elevation at
the wellsite. Water entering at the outcrop through the action of rainfall influences the
pressure encountered in the well-bore.

Although this pressure is actually hydrostatic, it gives the illusion of overpressure because
of the large fluid column height in the aquifer compared with the column height of drilling
fluids in the well (compare H with h in figure 2-15). The green potentiometric surface
connects the exposure of the aquifer on the mountainside with an exposed spring at lower
elevation, whereas the red surface reflects an aquifer with no exposure. In both cases H – h
represents the head of water driving the well.

This mechanism produces artesian wells, which are of great importance as a water source in
desert environments. Many of the major fountains in cities around the world were originally
artesian in nature, for example those in Trafalgar square, London.

. Potentiometric Surface
(no exposure, no spring)

H Potentiometric Surface
Connects exposure to spring

Sand bed

Figure 2-15 Typical Artesian Well

Figure 2-16: Artesian Well at Trafalgar Square, London


Subnormal formation pressures are those corresponding to a gradient less than the
hydrostatic of local seawater. The primary mechanisms causing development of under-
pressures are discussed below.

2.6.1 Depletion Through Production
Subnormal pressures are commonly created when hydrocarbons and/or water are produced.
Note however that depletion refers to pore pressure reduction relative to initial reservoir
pressure. Thus a reservoir may be depleted but still overpressured relative to hydrostatic.

Production (even when compensated for by a strong water drive) will progressively reduce
pore pressure and therefore cause compaction. In turn, this may lead to land subsidence in
the production facility area (e.g. chalk reservoirs located in the Central North Sea area).

Where freshwater aquifers have been tapped the reduction in hydrostatic head can cause
subnormal pressure. As an example, the Texas Panhandle has gradients ranging from 0.83 to
0.90 SG EMW due to this mechanism, compared with 1.00 SG EMW for fresh water.

2.6.2 Precipitation
In arid areas such as the Middle East or North Africa, the water table may be found hundreds
of metres below the surface. As a consequence of this, underpressured formations may
develop as the hydrostatic gradient only commences at the water table, causing a subnormal
gradient when measured from the surface. The terms overpressure, underpressure and
normal pressure are controlled here to a large extent by the location of the pressure
measurement datum (e.g. mean sea level or drill floor elevation).

2.6.3 Potentiometric Surface

This mechanism relates to the structural relief of a formation, and can result in under- or
overpressured reservoirs. There exists a spontaneous electrical potential between
formations, which causes the flow of electrical current. This current moves fluids through the
porous media.

2.6.4 Osmosis
Strong salinity contrasts in lenticular sand bodies are favourable to osmotic action that may
result in subnormal pressures. In the Morrow Sands (Oklahoma) there is a regional transition
from under- to overpressures.

2.6.5 Temperature Change

If subsurface temperature is reduced then the pore pressure must decrease, especially when
gas is present (Charles Law). As sediments and pore fluids are buried during deposition,
temperatures rise and, if allowed to expand, the fluid density decreases.

However, the magnitude of this effect is very small. With a thermal gradient of 0.83C/30 m
the fluid gradient at 6100 m would be 1.00 SG EMW compared to 1.02 SG EMW.

2.6.6 Epeirogenic Movements
Changes in elevation can cause abnormal pressures in some formations open to the surface
laterally but otherwise sealed. Thus if the outcrop is raised, the formation pressure becomes
abnormally high and vice-versa.

Pressure changes are seldom caused by changes in elevation alone, since associated erosion
and deposition are also significant factors. Loss or gain of water-saturated sediments is also

2.6.7 Formation Foreshortening

This mechanism may occur in areas of modern tectonic activity, for example along the flanks
of the Rocky Mountains. It is suggested that during a process of compression, up-warping of
the upper beds and down-warping of the lower beds can result. The intermediate beds must
therefore expand to fill the voids left by this process. It is then possible for more competent,
intermediate beds to have a subnormal pressure gradient.

Underpressured Overpressured

Figure 2-15: Formation Foreshortening

2.6.8 Decompressional Expansion

It has been observed that, in gas reservoirs in the Appalachian Region, underpressure has
occurred in reservoirs associated with shales in areas that have been eroded. This erosion may
have been caused by the adsorption of water by clay minerals as the overburden pressure
and temperature decreased and pore volume increased due to expansion of the crystal

Overpressures can be grouped into two main categories. Pore pressures derived from
porosity response can be markedly different depending on which of these categories applies
to the rocks under study. Where Type I overpressure is in existence the porosity behaviour
is closely related to pressure.

However in Type II mechanisms, the porosity is often severely reduced following earlier
burial, and later in situ fluid generation boosts the pressure to a value considerably greater
than that predicted by porosity responses. This has serious implications when considering the
use of compaction trends with older deformed rocks.

Compaction analysis is dealt with in sections 3 and 5.




0 Effective Stress
Figure 2-16: Shale Porosity Response to Loading and Unloading