Petroleum Systems in Extensional Regimes

Areas of extension are affiliated with horizontal divergent stress and are found in association with constructive or passive plate boundaries and in intra-plate settings. Thus, extensional stress regimes either are associated with subsidence and basin formation (in intra-plate settings) or characterise active break-up of continents (along constructive or passive margins). Although the conditions for development of petroleum systems in areas of active spreading may be meagre, the remnants of the earlier stages of break-up, now situated in passive margins settings, fulfil all the requirements that characterise productive petroleum provinces. This is because such tectonic regimes have undergone crustal thinning and associated subsidence, which involves all the processes essential for petroleum to be generated, trapped and accumulated in sufficient volumes and concentrations for petroleum fields to be commercially interesting. Accordingly,such settings frequently display an attractive combination and distribution of source, reservoir and cap rocks, structural and stratigraphic traps and the conditions for maturation, expulsion, migration and accumulation of hydrocarbons.

Extensional Basins
The formation of extensional basins may be seen as the first stage of the Wilson Cycle, which begins with thinning, stretching and rifting of the continental crust followed by continental break-up and mid-oceanic spreading. The concept of the Wilson cycle predicts that this process sometimes becomes reversed, causing closure of the ocean, collision between the adjacent continental plates, and hence the construction of a mountain chain along the zone of collision. The junction between the continental plates defines the suture between the two. 
 The major stages in the Wilson Cycle. 
If we use the present North Atlantic as one example, the highly hydrocarbon-rich northern North Sea basin system is situated in a passive continental margin configuration, where the extensional basin system developed during continental break-up. In contrast, Iceland, where petroleum resources are less abundant, is situated on the top of the mid-oceanic spreading ridge. However, if one looks more closely at the structural configuration at depth, one finds that the northern North Sea basin system, which includes the Viking Graben that developed in Jurassic-Cretaceous times, is underlain by an older (Permo-Triassic) basin system. The Permo-Triassic basin system is in turn superimposed on the even older Caledonian suture, which was subsequently affected by gravitational collapse in Devonian times, representing the last stage in a previous Wilson Cycle. 
 Basic configuration of (a) pure shear and (b) simple shear extensional basins.

There are several models for the lithospheric configurations that accompany extensional crustal thinning, the end members of which are the "pure shear" (symmetrical) and "simple shear" (asymmetrical) models. It should be noticed that these models are not necessarily mutually exclusive; we can find basin systems that display elements from more than one model, such as the "delamination model". The "pure-shear model" for extensional crustal thinning has become the most frequently cited in geosciences in modern times. This model assumes thinning of the weak lower crust/lower lithosphere by pure shear, and hence is characterised by the development of a symmetrical configuration. The pure-shear extension of the ductile lower crust is accompanied by thinning of the upper crust by brittle faulting and subsequent development and rotation of fault blocks. 
In this context it is possible to separate the active stretching stage, which is associated with fault controlled thinning of the upper crust, and later subsidence controlled by thermal processes. As a response to extension, the crust and upper mantle lithosphere becomes thinned and, promoted by extensional faulting, the basin floor will subside quickly. This implies that deeply seated warm rocks are transferred upwards in the lithosphere so that the isotherms in the thinned area become elevated and the thermal gradients become steepened accordingly. These deep processes influence the relief of the basin floor because heating causes rock volumes to expand and elastic, quasi-plastic and isostatic adjustments to occur simultaneously at lithospheric, basin (e.g. by uplift of the basin margins) and fault block scales. In the next stage of development (the post-rift stage), the basin will continue to subside due to a combination of thermal contraction, sediment compaction and sediment loading. This sounds complex, but luckily these processes are well understood and can be modelled with
good accuracy on the basis of the algorithms which supplied with additional modelling tools, developed particularly in the late 1990s. 
For modelling purposes and for the analysis of extensional basins with respect to petroleum exploration, three stages of development can be distinguished. 
Three major stages in the development of extensional.

The pre-rift stage is characterised by gentle flexuring and fracturing of the lithosphere. In some rifts we see the development of a gentle bulge, caused by mantle doming and associated warming and hence expansion of the lithosphere. In other cases, a gentle subsidence, defining a broad, shallow basin is seen, caused by mild extension of the cold (not-yet-heated) lithosphere. In both cases, the lithosphere is prone to develop steep fractures on a crustal or even lithospheric scale. These fractures have the capacity to accommodate magma, generating dikes. Regarding hydrocarbon reservoir potential characterising the pre-rift stage, sand deposits are likely to be sheet-like and relatively thin, with few structural traps developing at this stage. Sediment transport is mainly transverse to the basin axis, but quite homogeneous due to lack of pronounced gradients in the basin. The marginal sediment transport system is prone to act in concert with the axial transport system, feeding the latter with sediments. This may consist of braided or meandering river systems, depending on factors like axial basin gradient and climate. Since most rifts are generated by break-up of continents, a terrestrial depositional environment would be most common for the pre-rift stage, so that source rocks and cap rocks, which are mostly of marine depositional origin, may be scarce. There are, however, numerous examples of both source rocks and cap rocks of terrestrial origin. 
In the active stretching stage extension, and hence also subsidence, accelerate. Simultaneously, heat input increases due to upheaval of hot layers of the mantle lithosphere. The steep fractures generated in the pre-rift stage will not be able to accommodate the extension and a new set of low-angle planar or listric faults will be activated, separating fault blocks that are detached from the lower crust by a sub-horizontal zone of weakness. Gliding on the system of detachments, the fault blocks and their internal beds will rotate away from the basin axis. From the view of the petroleum explorationist, the active stretching stage deserves particular attention because of the variety of structural and stratigraphic traps that may develop. This stage is also characterised by a complex sediment distribution system that is likely to produce a variety of lithofacies due to the increasing topographic relief associated with high fault activity. The marine transgression that commonly follows the increased subsidence of the basin floor also contributes to this variety in sedimentary facies. Sand that is eroded from the high-standing parts of the basin (basin shoulders and crests of rotated fault blocks) may be trapped in lows in various structural positions and these units are likely later to be covered by transgressive marine sediment accumulations. The sediment transport system in the active stretching stage is likely to be dominated by complex transverse and locally bidirectional fluvial systems that are strongly influenced by the elongated, rotated fault blocks, generating axis parallel transport in segments along the basin margin. The central part of the basin may be less complex and axial-parallel sediment transport would prevail there. 
In the thermal subsidence stage, thermal contraction of the lithosphere dominates the basin subsidence pattern. Because solids typically contract during cooling, the parts of the basin that have experienced the strongest extension (those that have been thinned the most and hence heated the most) will contract and subside more than other parts. In a pure-shear configuration this is most likely to be the central segment running along the basin axis. This means that the rotation of strata upwards away from the basin axis becomes reversed so that strata begin to rotate downwards towards the basin axis. This rotation is strengthened by sediment loading and compaction (thickest sequence in the central part of the basin). 
The transverse sediment transport will persist during the thermal subsidence stage, while the basin floor becomes gradually smoothed. An axial transport system may also still be active, but is likely to become less pronounced through this stage of development. Depending on the balance between subsidence and sediment input, the water depth will vary from one basin to another, but the depositional environment is likely to be marine and the central part of the basin may attain great water depth (thousands of metres). The fault systems that dominated the basin floor geometry during the active stretching stage are now quiescent, and stratigraphic hydrocarbon traps rather than structural ones are likely to be the most common. 
Syn-rift to post-rift transition. The pure-shear model predicts that a simple geometrical change of the outline of extensional basins will accompany the transition from the syn- to the post-rift stage. In this model the margins of the relatively narrow, steep-walled rift, which traps the syn-rift sediments, become overstepped at the syn- to post-rift transition. This implies that the basin becomes wider and the rate of subsidence decreases asymptotically during the following post-rift stage. Thus, one defines the beginning of the post-rift development as the stage by which the syn-rift faults become inactive and subsidence becomes controlled dominantly by thermal contraction and sediment loading. 
In practical terms, the identification of this stage in the basin development is not trivial, because the transition is frequently not synchronous all over the basin, and the criteria for identifying the transition in reflection seismic data are not always well constrained. To overcome this problem, the syn- to post-rift transition should be defined more precisely as the point in time when net heat out of the system is greater than net heat into the system. It is recognised that a lateral heat flow gradient commonly exists perpendicular to the basin axis. This implies that the area closest to the basin axis, which coincides with the area of greatest thinning, is also the part of the basin displaying the highest heat flux at the end of the syn-rift stage. The lithosphere beneath the central part of the basin will accordingly undergo the greatest vertical contraction during the post-rift stage. The enhanced subsidence at the basin axis is further enhanced in cases where the basin is filled by sediments, creating an extra load and also a greater total compaction. Hence, the syn-topost rift transition coincides with a regional shift in tilt from fault block rotation away from the graben axis during the syn-rift stage to tilting directed towards the basin axis during the post-rift development. This change is due to a shift from bulk thermal expansion to bulk thermal contraction of the lithosphere and is in most cases clearly distinguishable in reflection seismic data. 
It needs to be emphasised that the syn- to post-rift transition is unlikely to occur simultaneously throughout the entire basin. This is due to differences in structural configurations, e.g. the existence of graben units, and thermal inhomogeneities associated with variable stretching both along and transverse to the basin axis. The entire Cretaceous sequence of the northern North Sea is included in the post-rift development sensu stricto. Furthermore, analysis of the basin topography permits three sub-stages to be identified within the framework of the post-rift development: the incipient, the middle and the mature post-rift stages. The configuration at the syn-rift/post-rift transition is treated separately in the present analysis. 
In the analysis of basin subsidence it is important to remember that in addition to the effects of fault-related subsidence and thermal expansion and contraction, the basin’s subsidence is affected by elastic deformation and isostasy, and in many cases also by extra-basinal stress. 
The simple-shear model for extensional basins is in considerable geometrical and mechanical contrast to the pure-shear model for extensional basins in that the simple-shear model assumes that extension is concentrated along one or several inclined fault zone(s) affecting the entire crust. Still, when thermo-tectonic and isostatic responses are concerned the principles are similar to those of the pure-shear model. The simple-shear model is based on observations in the Basin-and-Range of North America. The Basin and Range basin system displays a particular geometry in that the lithosphere is extended to the degree that the lower crust, described as a metamorphic core complex, has become uplifted and exposed in the central part of the basin. The asymmetrical configuration of the basin particularly influences the pattern of isostatic response to extension. An important factor is the relative thickness of the upper mantle/lithosphere. This is because the lower crust commonly is denser than the upper astenosphere, causing large-scale contrasts in differential subsidence and uplift across the basin. Superimposed on this are more local isostatic effects, associated with contrasting thicknesses of layers with different densities and the topography of the basin. 
Since the same tectono-thermal principles that apply for the pure shear basinal so are valid for simple shear basins, the main basin stages and the conditions for hydrocarbon generation and entrapment are also the same. Even though the simple-shear model was inspired by analysis of the Basin-and-Range basin system it has proved relevant for many other basins too, suggesting that simple shear is a common component in the formation of basins. 
Model of the Viking Graben, displaying elements of pure and simple shear. 
The delamination model can be seen as a combination of the simple- and pure-shear models. In this case the upper and middle crust extends by simple shear. At depth, the master fault flattens and merges with the lower crust, which becomes thinned by pure shear. TheViking Graben of the northern North Sea seems to have a configuration that fits the delamination model. Also in this case, the thermo mechanical pure-shear model applies and, with some modifications, can be used to model the basin development. However, the delamination model makes it necessary to take into account an additional variable parameter, namely that the two parts of the lithosphere situated above and beneath the delamination surface have undergone different amounts of extension.