Natural fractures have long been suspected as a factor in production from shale reservoirs because gas and oil production commonly exceeds the rates expected from low-porosity and low-permeability shale host rock. Many shale outcrops, cores, and image logs contain fractures or fracture traces, and microseismic event patterns associated with hydraulic-fracture stimulation have been ascribed to natural fracture reactivation. Here we review previous work, and present new core and outcrop data from 18 shale plays that reveal common types of shale fractures and their mineralization, orientation, and size patterns. A wide range of shales have a common suite of types and configurations of fractures: those at high angle to bedding, faults, bed-parallel fractures, early compacted fractures, and fractures associated with concretions. These fractures differ markedly in their prevalence and arrangement within each shale play, however, constituting different fracture stratigraphies—differences that depend on interface and mechanical properties governed by depositional, diagenetic, and structural setting. Several mechanisms may act independently or in combination to cause fracture growth, including differential compaction, local and regional stress changes associated with tectonic events, strain accommodation around large structures, catagenesis, and uplift. Fracture systems in shales are heterogeneous; they can enhance or detract from producibility, augment or reduce rock strength and the propensity to interact with hydraulic-fracture stimulation. Burial history and fracture diagenesis influence fracture attributes and may provide more information for fracture prediction than is commonly appreciated. The role of microfractures in production from shale is currently poorly understood yet potentially critical; we identify a need for further work in this field and on the role of natural fractures generally.

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