The Enigma of Large-Scale Permeability of Gas Shale: Pre-Existing or Frac-Induced?

Viet T. Chau, Cunbao Li, Saeed Rahimi-Aghdam, Zdenek P. Bažant*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


The existing commercial programs for simulation of hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking, or frac) of gas (or oil) shale predict parallel vertical cracks to spread in vertical parallel planes, with no lateral branching. These cracks emanate from the perforation clusters on the horizontal wellbore casing, typically spaced 10 m apart or more. For such a large spacing, the rate of gas production observed at the wellhead can be explained only upon making the hypothesis that the large-scale (or regional) permeability of shale is (even at 3 km depth) about 10,000 times higher than the gas permeability of shale measured in the lab on drilled (nondried) shale cores under confining pressures corresponding to shale at the depth of about 3 km. This hypothesis has recently been rendered doubtful by a new three-phase medium theory that takes into account the body forces due to pressure gradients of pore water diffusing into the pores. This theory predicts the fracking to produce a dense system of branched vertical hydraulic cracks with the spacing of about 0.1 m. This value matches the crack spacing deduced from the gas production rate at wellhead based on the actual lab-measured permeability. It is calculated that, to boost the permeability 10,000 times, the width of the pre-existing open (unfilled) natural cracks or joints (whose ages are distributed from one to several hundred million years) would have to be about 2.8 μm (not counting possible calcite deposits in the cracks). But this width is improbably high because, over the geologic time span, the shale must exhibit significant primary and secondary creep or flow. It is shown that the creep must close all the cracks tightly (except for residual openings of the order of 10 nm) even if the cracks are propped open by surface asperities. The inevitability of secondary creep (or steady-state flow) is explained theoretically by activation of new creep sites at stress concentrations caused by prior creep deformation. The time of transition from primary to secondary creep is taken equal to the Maxwell time estimate from geology. The overall conclusion is that the 10,000-fold increase of large-scale permeability is most likely not pre-existing but frac-induced. Although this conclusion will make little difference for long-Term forecasts, it would make a major difference for the understanding and control of the frac process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number061008-1
JournalJournal of Applied Mechanics, Transactions ASME
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Mechanical Engineering


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