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We use critical-taper wedge mechanics theory to show that the Niger Delta toe-thrust system deforms above a very weak basal detachment induced by high pore-fluid pressure. The Niger Delta exhibits similar rock properties but an anomalously low taper (sum of the bathymetric slope and dip of the basal detachment) compared with most orogenic fold belts. This low taper implies that the Niger Delta has a very weak basal detachment, which we interpret to reflect elevated pore-fluid pressure (λ ≈ 0.90) within the Akata Formation, a prodelta marine shale that contains the basal detachment horizon. The weak basal detachment zone has a significant influence on the structural styles in the deep-water Niger Delta fold belts. The overpressured and, thereby, weak Akata shales ductilely deform within the cores of anticlines and in the hanging walls of toe-thrust structures, leading to the development of shear fault-bend folds and detachment anticlines that form the main structural trap types in the deep-water fold belts. Moreover, the low taper shape leads to the widespread development of backthrust zones, as well as the presence of large, relatively undeformed regions that separate the deep-water fold and thrust belts. This study expands the use of critical-taper wedge mechanics concepts to passive-margin settings, while documenting the influence of elevated basal fluid pressures on the structure and tectonics of the deep-water Niger Delta.
Frank Bilotti is the structural geology team leader for Chevron ETC. Frank received a Ph.D. in structural geology from Princeton University and a B.S. degree in geology and mathematics from the University of Miami. He worked as a structural consultant in Texaco Exploration Technology and was most recently a structural geology specialist at Unocal E&E Technology. Frank's current technical interests are in Gulf of Mexico salt tectonics and three-dimensional restoration technology.John H. Shaw is the Harry C. Dudley Professor of Structural and Economic Geology at Harvard University and leads an active research program in structural geology and geophysics, with emphasis on petroleum exploration and production methods. He received a Ph.D. from Princeton University in structural geology and applied geophysics and was employed as a senior research geoscientist at Texaco's Exploration and Production Technology Department in Houston, Texas. Shaw's research interests include complex trap and reservoir characterization in fold and thrust belts and deep-water passive margins. He heads the Structural Geology and Earth Resources Program at Harvard, an industry-academic consortium that supports student research in petroleum systems.