Shale gas has recently become the most promising source of unconventional hydrocarbon energy. Shale gas well deliverability and economics depend on extremely low permeability that is not only dependent on the rock bedding trend but is also controlled by in-situ stresses. Thus, prediction of well’s deliverability requires understanding permeability of a dipping shale with natural bedding under conditions of unequal stresses in-situ. The purpose of this study was to determine relative contributions of normal and tangential stresses with respect to the rock bedding plane on permeability evolution of Longmaxi shale in the Sichuan Basin, southwest China.

The study involved an analysis of the rock bedding structure, followed with triaxial testing of rock samples and theoretical modeling. We used SEM observation to identify existence of microfractures and numerous inter-particle pores along the shale bedding planes that provide dominant pathways for gas flow depending upon closing stress value. Stress-dependent permeability was tested with a newly-developed multi-functional true triaxial geophysical (TTG) apparatus providing for a steady state gas flow through the rock sample under conditions of normal stress and two unequal tangential stresses. Also simulated were the effects of stress-bedding and load cycling.

The results showed shale permeability reduction during the stress loading process and its gradual recovery during the unloading process for both normal and tangential stress loading cycles. A hysteresis of the permeability response to cyclic loading was the largest when normal stress cycling was dominant. Moreover, permeability change was more pronounced in response to normal stress but some effects of the tangential stresses were also observed — particularly when the tangential stresses were dominant. A theoretical model was derived to describe permeability change with effective stress in the presence of normal and tangential stresses. The model was empirically matched with the experimental results.

Assessment of relative contributions of normal and tangential stresses was quantified with the analysis of variance (ANOVA). The analysis revealed significance levels of normal stress, and two tangential stresses σt1 and σt2 on shale permeability as 81%, 5% and 14%, respectively, showing dominant effect of normal stress with clear contribution of tangential stresses. An almost 20-percent contribution of tangential stress loading to permeability response indicates a need for improvement in computing effective stress in permeability predictions of the Longmaxi shale. It also warrants testing other gas shales to specifically determine the effect.

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