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More than 90% of the known petroleum accumulations west of the San Andreas fault in California are in strata deposited in areally restricted Neogene basins that formed during a major tectonic reorganization of western California. These deep, localized Neogene basins replaced broad, regionally persistent Paleogene depositional aprons, although some of the Neogene basins in northern and central California had Paleogene precursors. The evolution of each of the Neogene basins is complex, and aspects of the kinematics of each are unique; nonetheless, all can be considered products of an overall right-lateral shear system associated with a sliding margin between the Pacific and North American lithospheric plates.
The sliding margin developed in western California about 29 m.y. ago, when the Pacific plate contacted North America after subduction of the intervening Farallon plate. The initial position of the common boundary between the Pacific and North American plates was along the continental margin. Right slip between the Pacific and North American plates gradually shifted eastward to right-slip faults, such as the San Andreas, located farther inland. This shift seems to be documented by relations in the southern California area. About 300 km of right slip has occurred along the San Andreas fault during the past 10 to 15 m.y., and at least several hundred additional kilometers along associated right-slip faults of the San Andreas system.
The Neogene basins in southern California began to develop during the interval in which the boundary between the Pacific and North American plates shifted from the continental edge to the San Andreas fault, apparently because the step-by-step switch to different surfaces of weakness caused local extension and compression within a broad zone of right-lateral shear. A major phase of basin formation appears to have been synchronous with a change in azimuth of relative shear between the Pacific and North American plates to a more westerly direction, resulting in extensional strain. This change in motion initiated basin development in offshore central and northern California and affected the ongoing development of basins as a result of right slip along the San Andreas and related faults in other parts of California.
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