Relative permeability has a significant impact on gas or oil and water production, and is one of the most complicated properties in unconventional reservoirs. Current understanding of relative permeability for unconventional reservoir rocks is limited, mainly because of a lack of direct measurement of relative permeability for rocks that have a matrix permeability at the submicrodarcy level. Because of the difficulties related to direct measurement, most studies on relative permeability in unconventional reservoirs are based on indirect or modeling methods. In this paper, a modified gas–expansion method for shale matrix–permeability measurement (Peng et al. 2019) was adopted to measure gas relative permeability directly under the scenario of water imbibition for samples from different unconventional reservoir formations. Evolution of gas permeability, along with gas porosity and fracture/matrix interaction, during the process of water redistribution (which mimics what occurs in the shut–in period in real production) was also closely measured. Results show that gas relative permeability in the matrix decreases during water redistribution because of water imbibition from fractures to the matrix coupled with a water–block effect. The water–block effect is more significant at low water saturations than at higher water saturations, leading to a rapid–to–gradual drop of gas relative permeability with increasing water saturation.

A conceptual model on water redistribution in a fracture/matrix system and the change of gas and water relative permeability is proposed on the basis of experimental results and observations. Influencing factors including pore size, shape, connectivity, and wettability are taken into account in this conceptual model. The combined effect of these four influencing factors determines the level of residual gas saturation, which is the most important parameter in defining the shape of relative permeability curves. Water relative permeability is predicted on the basis of the conceptual model and the measured gas relative permeability using modified Brooks–Corey equations. Deducing the oil/water relative permeability is also discussed. The implications of relative permeability for gas or oil and water production and potential strategies for optimal production are also discussed in the paper. The hysteresis effect is not included in this study but will be addressed in future work.

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