Shale units can be important barriers to fluid flow in sedimentary basins and commonly serve as seals to petroleum reservoirs. Little is known, however, about the controls on shale permeability. Consequently, variation in seal competency is one of the greatest risk factors associated with petroleum exploration.

Here, we examine possible controls on sealing capacity in two Cretaceous marine shale units in the Denver basin, Colorado. Sealing capacity, as determined by mercury injection–capillary pressure analysis, is compared to several textural and compositional parameters and to sequence-stratigraphic setting. These two shale units display highly variable sealing capacity, even between some adjacent samples. This suggests that variability in some small-scale shale characteristics may strongly influence sealing capacity. The best seals are generally in transgressive systems tracts, especially within or immediately below condensed sections.

Textural characteristics of shale appear to be especially important in determining sealing capacity. In particular, well-sorted pore-throat sizes and well-developed bedding-parallel preferred orientation of flattened organic matter particles strongly favor high sealing capacity. High degrees of bioturbation degrade sealing capacity, possibly by disrupting preferred orientation and by increasing variability in grain size and hence in pore-throat sorting. Preferred orientation of matrix clays parallel to bedding also appears to increase with increasing sealing capacity, but is probably less important than the preferred orientation of organic matter.

Compositional characteristics are generally less important than textural characteristics in determining sealing capacity in these shale units. Neither silt content nor cement content appears to be important to sealing capacity in these shale units. Total organic carbon is generally high in samples with good sealing capacity, but can be either high or low where sealing capacity is poor.

Overall, the variables that most strongly favor high sealing capacity, pore-throat sorting, organic matter bedding-parallel preferred orientation, and low bioturbation, are most likely in anoxic, deep-water settings, hence, the association between good seals and condensed sections.

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