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Hydrocarbon Accumulation in an Inverted

Segment of the Andean Foreland :

San Bernardo Belt, Central Patagonia

G. O. Peroni G. Laffitte
A. G. Hegedus YPF S.A.
J. Cerdan Buenos Aires, Argentina

L. Legarreta
M. A. Uliana
Buenos Aires, Argentina


T he San Bernardo (“Bernárdides”) structural province is a multiply deformed belt transecting the peri-
Andean segment of the Argentine Patagonia. It is distinctly separate from the fold and thrust belt along
the western South American continental plate. The structured zone encompasses a NNW-SSE trending band
about 600 km long and 100 km wide. The area includes faults and folds that involve Precambrian–middle
Paleozoic basement, upper Paleozoic–Jurassic terrestrial to marine sedimentary and volcanogenic wedges, and
Cretaceous nonmarine fill of the intracratonic San Jorge basin. The Cretaceous cover is dominated by discontin-
uous, narrow, box-shaped folds associated with east- and west-verging reverse faults. Oil finds are restricted to
the low-lying unbreached segment between the Senguerr and Deseado rivers where anticlinal structures
developed by contractional reactivation of preexisting normal and strike-slip faults.
Oil generation is attributed to amorphous, largely algal-derived organic matter (TOC, 1–3 wt. %) formed in
brackish to alkaline stratified lakes. Modeling suggests that oil generation occurred from 110 to 30 Ma. Low-
gravity oil (15–25˚ API) resulted from biodegradation and washing. The reservoir comprises alluvial, channel,
and meander belt facies and multistory sandstone sheets. Stacked pay intervals are separated by shales, which
limit interconnectedness in the fields. Porosity loss is due to authigenic zeolites and devitrified glass by-
products in a volcaniclastic grain framework. Traps were formed in the Miocene by compression and inversion
of Jurassic half-grabens, expressed in local pop-ups, folds, and weakly inverted structures. Local uplift has
resulted in erosional removal and breaching of some traps. Hydrocarbon migration was facilitated by a
normally charged system and vertical drainage during the first phase of migration. The sandstone and tuffa-
ceous shale generally impeded migration. Late inversion processes favored hydrocarbon scattering.


L a provincia estructural de San Bernardo (“Bernárdides”) es un cinturón polideformado que atraviesa el

sector peri-andino de la Patagonia argentina. Se presenta físicamente separado de la faja plegada y
corrida que bordea el márgen occidental de la placa Sudamericana. La región estructurada comprende una
banda de orientación NNW-SSE que se extiende con un largo superior a los 600 km y un ancho casi siempre
inferior a los 100 km. El área considerada presenta fallas y pliegues que involucran al basamento Precámbrico-
mesopaleozoico, a cuñas sedimentarias terrígenas y volcaniclásticas del Paleozoico Superior y Jurásico, y al
relleno no-marino de la cuenca intracratónica del Golfo San Jorge. La cobertura cretácica presenta un estilo
estructural dominado por pliegues discontínuos de tipo “cajón”, asociados con fallas inversas vergentes al este
y al oeste. Los descubrimientos de petróleo se encuentran confinados al sector deprimido y protegido de la

Peroni, G. O., A. G. Hegedus, J. Cerdan, L. Legarreta, M. A. Uliana, and G. Laffitte, 1995, 403
Hydrocarbon accumulation in an inverted segment of the Andean foreland: San
Bernardo belt, central Patagonia, in A. J. Tankard, R. Suárez S., and H. J. Welsink,
Petroleum basins of South America: AAPG Memoir 62, p. 403–419.
404 Peroni et al.

erosión entre los rios Senguerr y Deseado, donde las estructuras anticlinales se desarrollaron como conse-
cuencia de la reactivación compresiva de fallas de rumbo y normales preexistentes.
La Generación de Petróleo es atribuída a materia orgánic amorfa, mayormente derivada de algas (TOC
1–3%), formada en lagos estratificados de tipo salobre y alcalino. El modelado geoquímico sugiere que la
generación de petróleo comenzó alrededor de los 110 Ma y continuó hasta los 13 Ma. Petróleos densos (15-25º
API) son el resultado de biodegradación y lavado. El Reservorio comprende facies aluviales, de canales y fajas
meandrosas, y cuerpos arenosos laminares de tipo multiepisódico. Es común la presencia de reservorios
apilados, separados por lutitas que limitan la interconexión de capas dentro de los campos. Las limitaciones en
la porosidad se relacionan con ceolitas autigénicas y otros minerales relacionados a la devitrificación de trizas
volcánicas. Las Trampas consisten en pliegues anticlinales, “pop-ups” localizados y estructuras débilmente
invertidas, que se formaron en el Mioceno como consecuencia de compresión regional e inversión de los hemi-
grábenes jurásicos. Algunos alzamientos localizados provocaron remoción erosiva y desventramiento de
algunas de las trampas. La Migración de los hidrocarburos se relaciona con un sistema de carga normal y con
drenaje vertical durante la primera fase de movilización. Las areniscas de tipo discontínuo y las pelitas tobáceas
dificultaron la migración, y el carácter tardío de la inversión estructural favoreció la redistribución dispersiva de
los hidrocarburos.

This paper describes the geology and hydrocarbon
habitat of the San Bernardo belt, a structured segment of
the central Patagonian foreland that forms the western
edge of the Cretaceous San Jorge Basin (Figure 1) (Lesta,
1968; Lesta and Ferello, 1972; Fitzgerald et al., 1990). The
oil generation-migration system and trapping style
depart markedly from classic sub-Andean patterns in
which hydrocarbons are associated with marine source
rocks and subtle structural traps superimposed on a
mildly sloping foreland ramp. In contrast, the larger
fields in the buried part of the San Bernardo deformed
belt appear to be linked to lacustrine source rocks and to
high relief structures shaped by Neogene compressional
inversion of pre-Cretaceous extensional fault systems.
The study area in the Chubut and Santa Cruz
provinces dominates the meseta landscape of central
Patagonia. This area is known as the Patagonides (Keidel,
1925) or the San Bernardo foldbelt. The San Bernardo is
characterized by a NNW-SSE striking band of compres-
sional structures more than 600 km long and about 100
km wide (Figure 1). From the western margin of the
Somuncura massif, it extends southward, crosses the
western margin of the San Jorge basin, and finally reaches
the central part of the Deseado massif. Its eastward distri-
bution is restricted by the little-deformed crust under-
lying the South American Atlantic margin (Urien and
Zambrano, 1973). Toward the west, the structural belt is
confined and separated from the Andes by a 150–250 km
wide tract of little-deformed foreland. The most
depressed and least eroded part of the Bernardides belt
occurs between the Senguerr and Deseado river valleys
(Figure 2), where commercial oil pools have been found.
From a hydrocarbon perspective, the study area is Figure 1—Regional map of southern Argentina and Chile
adjacent to and has much in common with the most showing the location of the San Bernardo belt, principal
sedimentary basins (gray), and mountain ranges (shown
prolific of the Argentine oil provinces, the Cretaceous San by crystalline rock symbol). Hachures show location of the
Jorge basin. Production in the San Jorge began in 1907. San Bernardo belt. The rectangle outlines the area shown
Since then, over 50 medium to large fields and many in Figure 2.
smaller fields have been developed. Cumulative oil
production is greater than 350 million m3 (2.2 billion bbl).
Hydrocarbons in Inverted Segment of Andean Foreland: San Bernardo Belt, Central Patagonia 405

Economic Basement
Igneous and sedimentary rocks in central Patagonia of
pre-Middle Triassic age are generally assigned to the
“basement” by the oil industry. These rock assemblages
include a variety of deformed metamorphic units
reflecting early–middle Paleozoic sedimentation at the
Pacific margin of Gondwana. They have been affected by
the subsequent orogenic evolution of the Patagonia
region (Miller, 1976; Hervé et al., 1981; Hervé, 1988;
Hervé and Mpodozis, 1990; Gonzalez Bonorino, 1991),
late Paleozoic intrusive events (Lesta et al., 1980) with
magmatic arc affinities (Forsythe, 1982), and Carbonif-
erous–Permian marine and nonmarine deposits attrib-
uted to fore-arc and back-arc settings (Ramos, 1983; Gust
et al., 1985) (Figure 3).

Lower–Middle Jurassic
A suite of terrigenous clastic and volcanic rocks as
thick as 2500 m is confined to north-northwest oriented
hanging wall extensional troughs, referred to as Lias and
Tobífera or Lonco Trapial (Ugarte, 1966; Lesta and Ferello,
1972). These sedimentary wedges rest on deformed
basement or on the upper Paleozoic succession. The
depocenters are commonly located adjacent to fold-
related thrusts. Substantial facies and thickness changes
are observed in outcrop (Cortiñas, 1984) near bounding
faults. The seismic geometries of these unconformity-
bounded tilted block wedges (Fitzgerald et al., 1990)
suggest that they postdate the onset of extension. The
facies vary widely between subaerial and normal marine
conditions (Musacchio, 1981; Cortiñas, 1984). Several
stratigraphic intervals, especially the upper members,
include volcaniclastic components (e.g., De Giusto et al.,
1980; Cortés, 1990) that were deposited as lahars and
alluvial fans constructed by debris flows; these were fed
into lacustrine systems and restricted marine seaways.
Coarse detritus from basement rocks were shed across
exposed fault scarps.

Upper Jurassic–Neocomian
The 2000–3000-m-thick Upper Jurassic–Lower Creta-
ceous Las Heras Group records the transition from
restricted sedimentation within multiple depocenters to
amalgamation into a more widespread interior basin
system (Fitzgerald et al., 1990). Persistent subaqueous
depositional environments and limited clastic supply are
reflected in the transgressive internal geometry
(Fitzgerald et al., 1990), the predominantly low
sandstone to shale ratio, and the pervasive black
mudstone and carbonate facies (Lesta and Ferello, 1972;
Barcat et al., 1989). A Classopollis-dominated pollen flora,
ostracod faunas, and widespread zeolites indicate the
Figure 2—Schematic map showing main structural existence of large and persistent saline to alkaline lakes
features and oil fields in the central San Bernardo belt. See and a semiarid climate (Van Niewenhuise and Ormiston,
Figure 1 for location. 1989). Occasional foraminifera in some wells (Laffitte and
Villar, 1982) record an episodic connection with the
Pacific realm.
406 Peroni et al.

Figure 3—Chronostratigraphic summary of San Jorge basin. Numbers on the left are ages (Ma) attributed to the principal
sequence boundaries (SB). (Modified after Fitzgerald et al., 1990.)

Middle–Upper Cretaceous occasional sandstone interbeds (Simpson, 1940; Feruglio,

1948, 1949, 1950). A stacked succession of alternating
The Upper Cretaceous Chubut Group consists of a loess (Spalletti and Mazzoni, 1979) and tongues of
500–2000-m-thick succession of monotonously alternating shallow marine deposits suggests a low-relief setting that
mudstones and sandstones with high pyroclastic influx was episodically flooded by Atlantic waters during
(Teruggi and Rosetto, 1963). Lateral facies and thickness periods of eustatic highstand (Legarreta et al., 1990).
changes are gradual (Brown et al., 1982; Fitzgerald et al., Although previous authors have postulated a Cretaceous
1990). Proximal members contain numerous paleosols, folding event (Keidel, 1925) and multiple episodes of
while their more distal equivalents incorporate mudstone Andean compression (e.g., Feruglio, 1929), the persis-
and cross-bedded sandstone lenses and sheets (Roll, 1938; tently parallel seismic reflection patterns argue against
Sciutto, 1981). These depositional systems are attributed to the occurrence of separate deformation phases. North of
anastomosing and meandering river channels, broad Las Heras (Figure 2), the lower–middle Miocene strata of
alluvial plains, and shallow ephemeral lakes and flood- the Superpatagoniano succession are involved in the
plain swamps (Teruggi and Rosetto, 1963; Sciutto, 1981). Bernardides compressional folding, suggesting that
Open marine influence is only encountered toward the contractional deformation of the foreland began no
top of the succession in the Salamanqueano beds (Feruglio, earlier than the end of the middle Miocene (10–15 Ma).
1948, 1949, 1950). In the Colhue Huapi–Musters lake
district (Figure 2), the Cretaceous tuffaceous sandstones
and mudstones provide a coherent beam that produced
broad buckles and box folds. STRUCTURAL STYLES
The San Bernardo mobile belt displays considerable
Cenozoic along-strike variation in tectonic style, a pattern that
resulted from vertical changes in the nature of prevalent
The Tertiary record is represented by a 500–700-m- deformation and variable levels of erosional exposure.
thick column of pyroclastic-bearing clays and tuffs with The central part of the belt, from central Chubut to north-
Hydrocarbons in Inverted Segment of Andean Foreland: San Bernardo Belt, Central Patagonia 407

Figure 4—(a) Regional east-west seismic section I and (b) interpreted geologic cross section, showing location of the San
Bernardo belt isolated within a noninverted segment of the Patagonian slab. See Figures 1 and 2 for location.

ernmost Santa Cruz, is conspicuous because of its broad configuration of the fold tract shows limited along-strike
structural features that involve the Cretaceous–lower persistence of the main structural elements. The overall
Cenozoic sequences. The areas north and south of this structure forms a series of blocks characterized by linear
middle segment that span the central Deseado and elements with slightly different prevailing orientations.
western Somoncura massifs expose deeper horizons and Smaller folds and faults with oblique orientations
show the structural attitude at the level of the earlier provide a link between these main segments.
Mesozoic and Paleozoic sedimentary and volcanic Many of the anticlines are sinuous to subparallel. In
successions. The following discussion focuses on the detail, they are discontinuous and irregularly spaced,
central part of the Bernardides where long and arcuate and they locally relate to one another in en echelon or
anticlines, broad synclines, and a variety of associated relay patterns (Feruglio, 1929). Their cross sections show
faults provide opportunities for hydrocarbon exploration relatively short wavelengths and medium to high ampli-
(Figure 4). tudes. Large folds are usually narrow to box shaped with
The best exposures of the fold trend occur in the intact cores, and in most cases, at least one of their flanks
Musters–Colhue Huapi lake region in central Chubut is cut by reverse faults. The surface anticlines have asym-
(Figure 2), where the Bernardides form a distinct group metric profiles, but they lack a consistent vergence
of anticlinal mountains separated by broad synclinal direction. Backward and forward vergences alternate
valleys. South of the Senguerr River “elbow,” the folds along and across the Bernardides belt (Feruglio, 1929;
plunge beneath the level of the Patagonian meseta Sciutto, 1981), and several of the larger anticlines display
(Figure 5), but industrial seismic imaging demonstrates along-strike changes in facing direction.
their continuity as far south as the Deseado River valley. Seismic control demonstrates that steep to slightly
South of that latitude, the northward-oriented folds crop overturned limbs generally evolved into longitudinal
out again over the northern fringe of the Deseado massif. thrusts. Changes in vergence appear to be associated
Along the western side of the belt, transition to the with relay transfers between thrusts located along each
nonfolded adjacent domain is abrupt and defined by a of the flanks. In consequence, sections across fold culmi-
sharp increase in the structural relief (Fitzgerald et al., nations show the core zones as bivergent thrust slices or
1990) along steep fold limbs or reverse faults. The eastern downward-pointing “pop-up” wedges (Figures 6, 7).
margin of the folded zone displays a more gradual loss The southern plunge of the Castillo anticline illustrates
of structural relief across a zone where the folds interfere the nature of along-strike changes in shortening style
with east-west oriented normal fault blocks. The internal (Figure 8). A series of right-lateral tear faults accommo-
408 Peroni et al.

Figure 5—Aerial photograph

showing outcrop pattern and
the southern plunge of the
Codo del Senguerr anticline.
See Figure 2 for location.

date the transfer from an asymmetric buckle into a

westward-dipping thrust fault. Galeazzi (1989) has
reported about the same amount of shortening north and
south of the transfer zone.
Previous studies of the area (Barcat et al., 1984;
Galeazzi, 1989; Meconi, 1989) found that the large anti-
clines display internal complexities related to strike-slip
faults. The long and arcuate Chenque-Challao anticline
(Figure 9) (Barcat et al., 1989), for example, shows consid-
erable internal segmentation due to differential displace-
ment along variably oriented tear faults that we interpret
as Riedel shears. These lower hierarchy fault surfaces
have not been detected in seismic sections, presumably
because of their limited extent and small vertical offset. It
is not known whether these tear zones involve basement
rocks. Working at a regional scale, Barcat et al. (1984)
noticed the existence of en echelon fold patterns and
deduced the presence of northwest-oriented strike-slip
faults trending at an angle to the Bernardides master
alignment. These left-lateral oblique shears do not
obviously cut the Cretaceous succession but are recog-
nized as a result of basement activity along preexisting

Figure 6—(a) Seismic line II and (b) interpreted geologic

cross section, showing inverted half-graben near Alto Río
Senguerr–Barranca Yankowsky. Numbers in (b) refer to
sequence boundary ages (Ma). See Figure 2 for location.
Hydrocarbons in Inverted Segment of Andean Foreland: San Bernardo Belt, Central Patagonia 409

Figure 7—Geologic cross section based on seismic line IV showing structural styles that form the anticlines exposed near
Rio Deseado–Cerro Bayo. See Figure 2 for location.

Several authors have attempted to define the amount

and mode of basement participation in the Bernardides
folds (Ferello and Scocco, 1952, in Lesta and Ferello, 1972;
Barcat et al., 1984; Fitzgerald et al., 1990). The existence of
considerable basement relief is demonstrated by drilling
in the region (Ferello and Lesta, 1973), but a more
complete answer will have to await studies of structural
styles in the Deseado and north-central Chubut where
roots of the system come to the surface.
The reflection seismic and well data coverage between
the Senguerr and Deseado valleys provides some clues
to the juxtaposition of contrasting deep and shallow
structures at the level of the basement and the Creta-
ceous cover (Figures 4, 6, 7). Considerable evidence
suggests that the preexisting fault pattern, shaped by
Mesozoic tensional vectors, strongly influenced the
present Bernardides compressional fabrics. Clastic
Figure 8—Schematic map of Castillo anticline. See Figure 2
wedges that formed after Jurassic basin inception
for location. (Simplified after Galeazzi, 1989.)
became contracted and were subjected to incipient to
moderate amounts of tectonic inversion. Most of the
reactivated normal faults show reverse offsets only at and transfer zones) produce a mosaic of blocks and slices
intermediate levels and retain a dominant normal sepa- having slightly different structural attitudes (Cerdán et
ration at depth. Thus, in spite of the impressive upper al., 1990).
level folds and buckles, the amount of total shortening is
thought to be modest.
In striking contrast, the dominant structural style in GEODYNAMIC INTERPRETATION
the noncontracted eastern San Jorge basin is that of a
normal fault block assemblage. The basic architecture The structural geology and development of the oil
consists of 15–25-km-wide structural panels bounded by systems in central Patagonia are best understood in
east-west oriented basement-involved and listric normal terms of the tectonic events that occurred in the final
faults. The activity of these basement fault blocks on a stages of the late Paleozoic Pangea, its Mesozoic breakup,
regional scale is believed to have controlled the deforma- the Cretaceous drift of South America away from Africa,
tion of the Cretaceous–Cenozoic succession. The rupture and finally, the change in boundary conditions that
pattern of the sedimentary cover is one of open to dense induced Cenozoic Andean orogenesis.
upward-branching planar faults rooted in a single The earliest evidence of structural activity along the
basement-penetrating fold (Figure 10). The areal configu- San Bernardo trend was related to the depocenters that
ration of the smaller accommodation faulting is complex, controlled accumulation of the thick upper Paleozoic
particularly at shallow levels. Frequent fault trace discon- successions (Ugarte, 1966; Lesta et al., 1980). Evolution of
tinuities (presumably related to relays, dog-leg offsets, these basins was linked to the tectonic history along the
410 Peroni et al.

been proposed for the proximal side of the Paleozoic

foreland of north-central Argentina. Fernández-Seveso
et al. (1993) and Fernández-Seveso and Tankard (1995)
envision several early Paganzo subsiding troughs as a
distant response to oblique subduction along the South
American margin.
Control of early Mesozoic subsidence (Lesta and
Ferello, 1972; De Giusto et al., 1980) was dominantly
extensional (Table 1) and related to volcanic activity and
emplacement of granitoid stocks (Gust et al., 1985). This
Triassic–Jurassic history fits a framework of supracrustal
gravity collapse (e.g., Dewey, 1988) at the core of a
thermally weakened Paleozoic orogenic welt. Extension
and related volcanic activity became widespread during
the Middle–Late Jurassic, influencing areas well beyond
the San Bernardo belt (Uliana et al., 1985, 1989). Most
authors admit that the Mesozoic Tobífera (Chon Aike,
Lonco Trapial) episode heralded the Africa–South
America decoupling, while crustal extension developed
through a Basin and Range style multicomponent rift
system. Variations in the amount of regional stretching
were accommodated by intracontinental shear zones
aligned with future traces of the mid-Atlantic transform
faults (Windhausen, 1924; Uliana et al., 1989; Rapela,
By earliest Cretaceous time, the southern South
Atlantic Ocean began to open and fault-driven subsi-
dence started to die out in many Argentine basins
(Uliana et al., 1989). During the Cretaceous and
Paleogene, while South America drifted westward,
intraplate deposits accumulated in a broadening interior
sag. Detailed section balancing (Cerdán et al., 1990)
reveals that gentle extensional faulting, linked to
basement fault systems, segmented the Cretaceous sedi-
mentary cover. As a consequence, the reservoir-prone
Chubutiano suite was dissected by an accommodation
fault network that provided a crucial migration and
trapping element.
Late in the Cenozoic, the extensional stress field was
replaced by compressional conditions leading to
Bernardides folding and inversion, at which time the
structural belt began to emerge as a positive physio-
graphic element. Roughly coeval development and uplift
of the North Patagonian Cordillera (Skarmeta, 1976)
suggests that inversion of the San Bernardo was
promoted by a horizontal stress field generated by differ-
ential interaction at the Nazca–South America plate
boundary. Considering the distance between the
inverted belt and the subduction zone, the notion of
orogenic float (Ziegler, 1987; Oldow et al., 1990; Shaw et
Figure 9—Schematic map of Chenque-Challao anticline. al., 1991) provides a possible mechanism to explain the
See Figure 2 for location. (Modified after Barcat et al., transfer of motion into a spatially segregated transpres-
1984.) sional system that was active behind the late Cenozoic
magmatic arc and the Cordilleran thrust front.
The lack of a well-defined fold vergence suggests that
Pacific margin of Patagonia (Forsythe, 1982; Hervé, 1988; the San Bernardo belt was not deformed as a result of a
Gonzalez Bonorino, 1991). The presence of transtensional unidirectional deformational wave (“bulldozer” mode).
troughs developed along NNW-SSE oriented mega- Instead, the structural styles and stratigraphic relation-
shears might explain the thick Carboniferous and ships within the Tertiary series point toward deforma-
Permian sequences that are confined to linear and tion by regional collapse (“accordion” mode). This
restricted depositional sites. A similar interpretation has involved more or less simultaneous reactivation of older
Structural and Tectonic Controls of Basin Evolution in Southwestern Gondwana 411
Hydrocarbons in Inverted Segment of Andean Foreland: San Bernardo Belt, Central Patagonia 413

Table 1—Summary of Structural and Depositional Evolution Controlling the Oil System in the San Bernardo Belt

basement faults distributed throughout the contractional observations and wide dispersal of points on Van
zone. The displacement of the focus and the magnitude Krevelen plots reveal a mixture of terrestrial and aquatic
of contractional structuring across the Bernardides were vegetable remains and the presence of type I, II, and III
probably accommodated by strike-slip displacement kerogens, similar to those found in nonmarine basins in
along former graben-bounding and transfer faults. China (Talbot, 1988).
Observations under transmitted light microscopy,
however, demonstrate the dominance of amorphous
organic matter. Organic matter counts show that the
HYDROCARBON HABITAT presence of Celiphus rallus-like nonmarine algae (Figure
11) coincides with the prevalence of amorphous matter
Source Rocks (Figure 12). Where the algae are scarce or absent, the
samples record an increased proportion of terrestrial
Several authors have recognized the hydrocarbon- matter (woody and coaly). The association of algae and
generating potential of the black shale and mudstone in low terrigenous levels suggests that the presence of high-
the Aguada Bandera, Guadal, D 129, and equivalent yield organic matter resulted from peaks in lake produc-
intervals (Laffitte and Villar, 1982; Rodrigo Gainza et al., tivity, attributed to highstand conditions. Several oils in
1984; Yllañez et al., 1989; Van Niewenhuise and the San Jorge basin have been correlated with source
Ormiston, 1989). These Upper Jurassic–Neocomian rocks dominated by amorphous matter and identified as
deposits preserve total organic carbon (TOC) and soluble type II or III kerogens (Yllañez et al., 1989).
organic matter (SOM) levels well above the source On the basis of the deep to shallow water interpreta-
threshold. TOC content ranges between 1 and 2% and tion of the San Jorge lacustrine depositional systems
locally above 3%; SOM is locally above 1000 ppm, and (Fitzgerald et al., 1990) and the apparent vertical changes
total thicknesses may exceed several hundred meters in in organic matter type and richness (G. Laffitte, personal
places. Thickest developments are known at Cerro communication), we suggest a secular change in the
Guadal, Aguada Bandera, Meseta Senguerr, Paso Río productivity and preservation regime. Uppermost
Mayo, Mata Magallanes, and Aguada del León. Visual Jurassic–lower Neocomian organic-rich accumulations
414 Peroni et al.

Figure 11—Photomicrographs of oil-prone organic matter.

(a) (a) Prevalent amorphous organic matter. (b) Elongate form
is a Celiphus rallus-like freshwater algae. (c) Close-up of
the freshwater algae.

(b) (c)

appear to have developed following deeper anoxic and

mildly brackish conditions and in humid climates with
little seasonal contrast. Less prolific upper Neocomian
organic facies appear to represent shallower lakes with
ooidal benches, containing brackish to saline (alkaline)
waters promoted by semiarid climates.

Hydrocarbon-bearing zones consist of tuffaceous
sandstone strata in the Aptian–Campanian Castillo and
Bajo Barreal formations (Sciutto, 1981). The reservoir
interval thickness spans 1000–2000 m in which the indi-
vidual productive members typically show limited
lateral continuity.
Studies of outcrops adjacent to some of the fields
(Sciutto, 1981; Galeazzi, 1989; Meconi, 1989; Figari et al.,
1990) demonstrate that most of the reservoirs consist of
sandstone and conglomeratic sandstone filling fluvial
paleochannels of various types. Distinctive sandstone
facies include sheet-type accumulations above mobile
channel belts, ribbon deposits linked to fixed channels,
and nonchannelized depositional lobes attributed to
crevasse splaying. They mostly represent multistory Figure 12—Geochemical profile of the organic-rich interval
complexes showing a high degree of internal hetero- in well A. See Figure 2 for location.
geneity. Paleocurrent measurements by Meconi (1989) of
outcrops at the Senguerr River elbow indicate a south- In most fields, the average pay thickness varies
eastward flow direction that shifts to an eastward flow between 7 and 12 m and is usually distributed in three or
toward the younger part of the sequences. These changes four zones. Reservoir quality is mediocre and generally
in flow direction reflect variations in discharge. Earlier inferior to most San Jorge basin reservoirs, a hydro-
conditions of braided patterns and bed load dominance carbon province not noted for performance of its indi-
were replaced by facies attributed to high-sinousity vidual producing zones (Eussler, 1970). Petrographic
rivers and mixed load sedimentation (Galeazzi, 1989). studies by Teruggi and Rosetto (1963) recognize a
Hydrocarbons in Inverted Segment of Andean Foreland: San Bernardo Belt, Central Patagonia 415

Figure 13—Temperature–burial modeling based on data

from well B. See Figure 2 for location.

mineral assemblage derived from andecite-dacite

materials and the frequent presence of glass shards,
suggesting deposition modified by volcanic activity.
These authors emphasize the presence of apparently
contrasting petrographic characteristics. These
encompass a mixture of angular quartz and plagioclase
clasts, with rounded rock fragments and interstitial
material composed of fragments of different origins and
sizes, that together resemble a graywacke texture. These
textural patterns are overprinted by interstitial analcime
and glass shard montmorillonitization, resulting in low-
performance reservoirs susceptible to formation damage.

Maturation and Migration

Figure 13 shows an attempt to model the time–
temperature evolution of a well located near the center of
the inversion tract. These calculations are in broad
agreement with assessments of present thermal condi-
tions based on vitrinite reflectance measurements. The
results were used to interpret the thermal and migration
histories in the region. The study implies that the
kerogen-rich interval, the oldest of the units with oil-
generating potential, remained in the oil generative zone
Figure 14—Structural geometry contour map showing oil-
for about 80 Ma (Albian–Oligocene). An early entrance bearing anticlinal cluster near Cerro Guadal–Loma del Cuy.
into the oil window (Table 1) implies that, like other See Figure 2 for location.
parts of the San Jorge basin, the oil had ample opportu-
nity to migrate vertically along faults and to become
hosted in pre-Miocene extension-related traps. The (Figure 14). Closures tend to be best defined at shallow
modeling also suggests that late deformation forming the levels and are less common down section. Seismic
present closures postdates the main generating phase control shows that at greater depths the superficial
and may even have formed after the oil had invaded the folding is replaced by faulted structures (Figures 4, 6, 7).
porous Chubutiano strata. Consequently, we speculate Several fields have faulted flanks that have been
that the main effect of structural inversion processes was subjected to variable amounts of structural inversion,
to promote reaccommodation and cause possible suggesting the presence of a whole family of prospects
substantial loss of previously trapped hydrocarbons. that are largely underexplored.
Hydrocarbon distribution patterns within the closures
Hydrocarbon Traps are irregular. Closure sizes are often larger than the oil-
bearing outlines, and hydrocarbon distribution appears
Most of the commercial hydrocarbon occurrences are to be discontinuous within them. These anomalies are
controlled by elongate anticlinal closures that follow an attributed to stratigraphic heterogeneity and local leak
irregular to locally clustered areal distribution of fields zones related to faults having throws below seismic reso-
416 Peroni et al.

lution. Other nonproductive closed structures, such as

the Aguada Bandera anticline, might reflect unfavorable
locations relative to forced relocation of hydrocarbons at
the time of Miocene structural events. As a result of
structural inversion and regional uplift, many folds
located near the northern and southern ends of the
productive tract were eroded down to levels below the
Chubutiano, thus losing their trapping effectiveness.
Although precise figures for cumulative production
and reserve size are not available, we estimate a recovery
level (primary) near 25–30 million m3 for the established
fields. On the basis of these estimates and of the density
of traps expected in inverted belts and an assessment of
the present levels of exploration and delineation in the
region, we suggest an undiscovered potential in the
15–30 million m3 range (Figure 2).

Hydrocarbon Occurrence Figure 15—Cross section based on seismic line III,

showing structural relief and hydrocarbon stratigraphic
Commercial oil fields in the San Bernardo belt occur at distribution at Los Monos–Huetel. See Figure 2 for
depths of 400–1300 m (Figure 15). Pools consist of location.
“black” oil, with gravities between 0.840 and 0.880 g/cm3
and low sulfur content. Gas to oil ratios are usually low,
near 200–700 m3/m3, but some fields have associated structural style is characterized by high-relief structures
free gas accumulations as well. Volume factors are close resembling the deformation patterns typical of some
to 1, and bubble points are lower than the original hydro- compressional belts and intraplate zones of inversion.
static pressures. Reservoirs with significant hydraulic Similarities with the Syrian Palmyrides (Lovelock, 1984;
drive are unknown, and most wells are produced by Best et al., 1990) and the northern African Atlas-Rif
pumping units. Under these circumstances, recovery Mountains (Mattauer et al., 1977; Wildi, 1983) are
factors are low, from 8 to 18%. Common field sizes vary apparent. The Sumatra back-arc system is a prolific oil
from 1 to 2.5 million m3; individual well cumulative province developed in a comparable tectonic setting on
production varies irregularly from 8000 to 25,000 m3. the foreland side of a late Cenozoic orogenic belt that is
linked to a noncollisional convergent plate junction
(Hamilton, 1979; Barber, 1985). Positive structures such
as the “Sunda” type folds of Eubank and Makki (1981)
CONCLUSIONS and Letouzey (1990) form traps related to transpressional
inversion. These have many similarities with our central
The geologic nature and petroleum habitat of the San
Patagonian interpretation.
Bernardo inversion belt are different from the typical
Exploration activity in Chubut and Santa Cruz
sub-Andean petroleum province. Prolific segments of the
suggests that, despite favorable factors such as genera-
South American foreland oil and gas trend, such as the
tion potential and structural traps with substantial
Colombian Los Llanos basin, the Eastern Venezuela
retention capacity, it is unlikely that the Bernardides will
basin (Demaison and Huizinga, 1991), and the
contain fields larger than those already discovered. The
Argentine–Chilean Austral (Magallanes) basin (Pittion
absence of large oil pools is possibly explained by the
and Goudain, 1991), are characterized by laterally
lack of adequate time between structural inversion and
drained petroleum systems that reached the generative
the principal episode of migration (Table 1). Available
stage relatively late during the Cenozoic. Oil and gas
evidence suggests that late inversion resulted in disper-
fields in these basins are located near the base of the
sive reaccommodation of hydrocarbons and partial
largely marine Cretaceous–Tertiary wedge that parallels
degradation of petroleum that was previously trapped
the Andean orogenic belt, in which hydrocarbons are
by extensional faulting such as the large fault block oil
trapped by low-relief structures located updip from the
fields in the prolific San Jorge play belt.
thermally mature source rocks. In contrast, the Bernard-
ides belt is characterized by a predominantly Mesozoic
succession in which both the organic-rich and reservoir
units were deposited in nonmarine settings. Acknowledgments The authors wish to thank ASTRA
From a source rock and reservoir rock perspective, the C.A.P.S.A Exploration and Production for encouragement and
Patagonian succession resembles the depositional styles for permission to publish this paper. Editorial and technical
developed at intraplate hydrocarbon provinces, such as comments by Tony Tankard and an anonymous reviewer are
the eastern China basins (Zaiyi, 1990; Fajing and Shulin, greatly appreciated. Our appreciation is extended to Raúl
1991) and some African basins such as the Sudan (Schull, Genovesi for drafting preparation and to Maria Cristina
1988). The Bernardides are very different in that their Bardelli for typing the manuscript.
Hydrocarbons in Inverted Segment of Andean Foreland: San Bernardo Belt, Central Patagonia 417

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Hydrocarbons in Inverted Segment of Andean Foreland: San Bernardo Belt, Central Patagonia 419

Authors’ Mailing Addresses

G. O. Peroni
A. G. Hegedus
J. Cerdan
L. Legarreta
M. A. Uliana
Astra C.A.P.S.A.
Exploración y Producción
Tucuman 744, Piso 7
1049 Buenos Aires

G. Laffitte
Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales S.A.
Roque Sáenz Peña 777
1049 Buenos Aires