Faults may be barriers or conduits for fluid flow in sedimentary basins. The properties of faults, however, depend on stress conditions and rock properties at the time of deformation and subsequent diagenesis of the fault zone. Several recent publications have suggested that petroleum reservoirs in the North Sea and at Haltenbanken, offshore mid-Norway, have experienced leakage along faults caused by imposed stresses, related to glacial loading during the Quaternary. The Jurassic reservoirs in these areas are, however, bounded by faults produced during the Upper Jurassic rifting, when the sediments were still soft and, for the most part, uncemented. These faults do not represent zones of weakness. Because of strain hardening and later diagenesis in sandstones and cementation in mudstones, the fault zones are commonly stronger than the adjacent rocks. They are therefore not likely to be reactivated tectonically. Furthermore, there is little evidence of glacial deformation in the Quaternary sediments overlying these oil fields. It has been proposed that very large horizontal stresses, inferred to be related to periods of glacial loading, caused shear failure at pore pressures below fracture pressure and subsequent leakage along these shear zones. We argue that this is not a likely mechanism during progressive burial in sedimentary basins. Very high horizontal effective stresses, up to 60 MPa, at about 3 km (1.8 mi) depth, at Haltenbanken would have caused more mechanical compaction and grain crushing than that observed in situ. External stress, i.e., plate-tectonic stress from spreading ridges (ridge push), will be transmitted primarily through the basement and not through the much more compressible overlying sedimentary rocks.
During progressive basin subsidence, chemical compaction, i.e., caused by quartz cementation, causes rock shrinkage, which will relax differential stresses. This makes brittle deformation (shear failure), resulting in open fractures less likely to occur at stresses below the fracture pressure. In subsiding sedimentary basins with progressive compaction, horizontal stress will normally not exceed the vertical stress except when there is significant shortening of the underlying basement.