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The Capitan depositional system was studied in the subsurface using seismic and well data from the northeastern Delaware basin. Seismic data of the Capitan depositional system show characteristics that include (1) a massive prograding reef/slope, (2) back-reef/shelf reflectors that dip and diverge basinward before disappearing into the massive reef, and (3) layered bottomset beds that thicken basinward by the addition of younger reflectors. A wireline log cross-section of nearby wells illustrates the stratigraphy in more detail than the seismic line. Basinward-dipping shelf strata are interbedded sandstones and carbonates that diverge and pass basinward into massive carbonate of the reef. Correlative markers within the massive reef are difficult to find. Slope carbonate beds thin and basinal siliciclastics thicken toward the basin. Bottomset beds in the basin consist of interbedded sandstones/siltstones and low-porosity carbonates. This subsurface stratigraphy is very similar to outcrop stratigraphy described in the Guadalupe Mountains.

Lithologic differences between outcrops and their subsurface equivalents are due largely to variations in dolomitization and evaporite dissolution on outcrops. Distribution of porosity in the Capitan depositional system is closely related to depositional facies. Back-reef sandstones and some shelf carbonates adjacent to the reef have good porosity and moderate permeability, but porosity and permeability in those strata generally decrease landward. The subsurface Capitan reef has moderate porosity and high permeability and is a regional aquifer. Carbonate beds in the basin are generally not porous, but some basinal sandstones filling elongate channels have good porosity and moderate permeability.

Hydrocarbons are not present in the Capitan reef because it does not occur in a setting that allows structural or stratigraphic closure and/or isolation from active meteoric aquifers. Many oil fields (10-400 million barrels recoverable) occur in back-reef equivalents of the Capitan reef, primarily the Seven Rivers and Yates formations, on the Northwestern Shelf and western edge of the Central Basin Platform. Those reservoirs are generally in stratigraphic or combination stratigraphic-structural traps, where porous and permeable sandstones pass up-dip into impermeable sandstones/siltstones, carbonates, and/or evaporites. Oil also occurs in channelized basinal sandstones equivalent to the reef, but the basinal fields have <5-30 million barrels of oil recoverable, and hence are generally smaller than those of the back-reef.

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