Automated closed-loop drilling is drilling in high fidelity

Critical issues in drilling & completions with Mark Mitchell, group vice president, drilling optimization services, Weatherford International

By Diane Langley, editorial coordinator

Mark Mitchell is group VP of drilling optimization services for Weatherford International.
Mark Mitchell is group VP of drilling optimization services for Weatherford International.

What are some key drilling and completions challenges facing the industry today and how is Weatherford responding to those challenges?

This question could be answered by citing a litany of drilling problems, but it would only be part of the story. Rather, there are four overriding challenges that exist. The first is that it’s all about drilling the undrillable these days. We are faced with drilling more complex plays with increased geological uncertainty. Second, we are faced with a dynamic regulatory environment. It’s not going to be a finite set of regulations. Third, there exist limited in-house engineering resources. Engineering resources have evolved as a limited commodity for a lot of clients and major IOCs; service companies are being relied on more and more to fill the engineering gaps. Fourth, there is an ever diverging gap between technology and knowledge. It’s a huge problem for the industry right now. It usually manifests itself by the client being hesitant to really embrace the technology. Clients are good about embracing a new tool, but when the technology becomes more process-control oriented, they can have a problem with that.

We had a recent experience on a well in the Far East where our closed-loop drilling system yielded well flux information very early in real time, but the client still needed to verify it using conventional methods. Gas to surface was the result. So you can see that a big challenge exists in how to integrate new technology into the decision-making chain at the office and at the well site.

Specifically, what technologies have been proven in meeting these challenges?

An automated closed-loop drilling system does more to address these challenges than any other technology. It offers increased productivity to E&P operators by drilling more pay zone, enhanced safety and reduced risk  – both physical and well safety – and minimizes impact of events. A dynamic well flow event  that previously took a week to get under control now only takes a day. We can see as little as a couple of gallons of influx, and we’re seeing the events as they happen. Automated closed-loop drilling is like drilling in high fidelity – we can ascertain minute changes in the wellbore in real time. From an HSE perspective, this pays huge dividends.

How will the Macondo incident change the way your company conducts its operations, if at all?

Obviously the fallout from the incident will be stricter industry regulations, which is a positive for Weatherford. We will continue to build in additional requirements for Weatherford pressure control equipment and closed-loop drilling (i.e., encapsulating the wellbore) such as kick/loss detection now being detected in seconds as opposed to tens of minutes,  riser gas-handling procedures, a greater focus on safer drilling technologies and practices.

The side benefit to all of this is a reduction in nonproductive time through early well event recognition/avoidance. Closed-loop drilling  – and, on top of that, automated closed-loop drilling – is absolutely the only way to prevent another Macondo.

What are some areas of downhole breakthroughs that Weatherford is working toward making in the next 1-2 years?

Automated closed-loop drilling has the potential to significantly decrease reaction time to wellbore events. Particularly in more challenging drilling environments, this enhances the crew’s ability to proactively manage influxes and losses before they become well control events.
Automated closed-loop drilling has the potential to significantly decrease reaction time to wellbore events. Particularly in more challenging drilling environments, this enhances the crew’s ability to proactively manage influxes and losses before they become well control events.

We are actively working on riserless subsea casing drilling, to be able to land and jet in the conductor and then drill the 20-in. to the top of the salt in a single operation. It will be possible to batch set all of this, making the economics of deepwater more palatable. We are also working on managed pressure cementing to ensure a good cement job. A subsea rotating control device (RCD) will be delivered in this time frame. This device will be positioned on top of the BOP stack at the seafloor; this offers the advantage of gas never being invited into the riser. It serves as a drilling hazard mitigation piece in that the device will aid in mitigating shallow flows.

We have a good business with downhole isolation valves (DIVs) now, but they have an umbilical that must pass through the wellhead to surface. A big advance – a non-umbilical DIV/instrumented DIV – is coming. This will provide us with another barrier for use in the closed-loop drilling process. Also, there will be quite a breakthrough in closed-loop drilling with the addition of four-phase metering and hydraulic modeling.

As sharpening performance and cutting costs are usually operating imperatives, what issues stand in the way of achieving these goals?

Relying on conventional indicators to support the diagnosis of automated systems before reacting and taking action on the information. This wastes valuable time and puts people and property at risk. I don’t think the industry has huge problems with the introduction of a new tool, but when it challenges conventional processes and practices, it is perceived as problematic.

Also, the procurement process is sometimes detrimental to the uptake of technology. Operators can be encumbered by their tendering and procurement process. These processes often stand in the way of new technologies and solutions that seek to redefine the process of constructing the well. The procurement process is very formulaic. When it comes to a technology that involves a process that is game changing, like drilling hazard management, rather than a tool, tendering for conventional services can get in the way.

What challenges typically stand in the way of delivering technological solutions in the drilling and completions arena?

The biggest challenge is to build a business around the technology instead of simply delivering a one-off science project. We have clients that come to us and say, “I’ll fund the whole thing if you can solve this problem.” But if I can’t build a business around the technology that is developed, it can become a “one-off” solution and the technology is left in limbo. It is important that we find ways of commercializing the technology.

How will recently introduced drilling and completion technologies address overall industry challenges? What issues do these technologies address and what is the level of progress that has been made?

Closed-loop drilling technology has been widely accepted, most notably in the offshore markets, as a method of meeting diverse drilling challenges: shallow water- or gas-flow hazards, wellbore instability, narrow margins between pore pressure and fracture gradient, and safety, environmental and cost concerns. Many of these challenges are due to the open mud return system and the limitations it imposes on identifying, understanding and managing influxes and losses.

Great progress has been made with closed-loop drilling to resolve many if not all of these pressure-control problems. In doing so, it fundamentally changes the drilling model with new economics and new operational capabilities.

Working back to the fact that we as an industry are attempting to drill the undrillable, closed-loop drilling is one of the few technologies that excites the contractor as well as the operator. Closed-loop drilling is a key enabler, ensuring that rigs have new prospects to drill.

Do you feel that your area of expertise is critical to the well integrity issues so prevalent in the industry today?

We can no longer leave success to chance. The pre-job planning inherent in hazard mitigation coupled with close-loop drilling and an array of mitigating technologies are critical in facing well integrity issues. Drilling hazard mitigation (DHM) is changing the way wells are planned and drilled.

Drilling hazard mitigation is absolutely critical. It’s not just the technology and tools but rather a holistic way of looking at keeping the well on its critical path earlier in the process. It’s a way of looking at the whole rather the pieces.

DHM is the thoughtful application of any number of technologies to solve a specific problem. It started out here at Weatherford as an assembly of product lines, a manual form of managed pressure drilling, underbalanced drilling, air drilling and drilling with casing and solid expandables. The whole idea was that these are all tools and techniques for mitigating drilling hazards.

What made this assortment different was that Weatherford began to become proactive and tried to have a unique conversation with the client. Left to his own devices, a client would just call us up when there was a problem. However, to really mitigate hazards properly, DHM needs to be planned far in advance. Combining DHM technologies with solid drilling and engineering techniques creates a drilling hazard management approach.

This proactive approach coupled with client education was our way of bringing adjacent product lines together in a much more meaningful way to the client and putting applied engineering at the top of those product lines. Otherwise service companies end up delivering widgets to the wellbore in a long series of unconnected events.

What role does technology play in keeping the well on its critical path before, during and after drilling?

There is technology, and then there is technology applied. Technology alone does little to ensure success. Our DHM philosophy adds applied engineering to the technology mix.

When does DHM actually begin?

DHM begins well before the well is drilled. It begins in the planning stages of the well. For DHM to truly be effective, it must be holistically applied. It is not as effective when simply delivered as individual widgets to the well site or wellbore.

Does mitigating risk also optimize operations?

DHM is absolutely the most effective way to minimize and eliminate nonproductive time. In fact, once one begins to practice DHM, drilling optimization quickly follows. This happens simply by osmosis. DHM is simply the first step in effective drilling optimization. Once drilling hazards are understood and mitigated further, steps can be made to optimize the process.

How does the human element factor into these areas of DHM, managed pressure drilling and pressure control?

The human element is the most notable inhibiting factor. An automated system reacts faster and more accurately than manual control where multiple operations are spread across the rig. Skill and teamwork are particularly important in a manually controlled managed pressure drilling operation. But the speed and precision required to balance out rapid wellbore pressure oscillations can exceed the skills of the most seasoned drilling team.

That said, the human element brings invaluable resources to the table as well; for example, the engineering expertise across the entire DHM service spectrum is vital to a project’s success.

Automating the process reduces the time from the receipt of information to action being taken. In difficult wellbore environments, this greatly enhances the ability to proactively manage influxes and losses before they become well control events.

The faster response provides the degree of operational control needed to safely work at optimal mud weights, which can improve drilling efficiencies and lower fluid costs. Automated systems are particularly advantageous in quickly changing pressure regimes, where a faster-than-human response is needed to equalize pressure.

The type of process automation that automated closed-loop drilling brings to the equation will eliminate the gaps created by entity hand-offs and breakdowns in chains of command and communication at the well site.

Are there gaps in expertise and knowledge levels? If so, what is being done to close those gaps?

The faster that technologies evolve, the faster skill sets and existing knowledge bases must adopt and expand. We are lucky to have a great variety of skill sets within Weatherford, and through training we are able to develop the hybrid skills that some of these new technologies require. This is especially critical in implementing closed-loop technology. Cross training is focused on successful well delivery, not just technology delivery. “It’s about the well not the widget.”

Absolutely there are gaps in knowledge levels. Every time we add a piece to the solution, it can completely change the qualifications of the person who needs to be there. By using closed-loop drilling and the people who have training on these jobs, we’re not just piling people on top of the problem. Instead we’re training people in the hybrid skills that these technologies require. Product line silos and working across these silos has not always been easy. But well engineering has been the overarching umbrella that ties these silos together.

Real-time operating centers will become an imperative as a result of the number of available experts or cross-trained personnel and because of the need to keep the number of personnel at the well site to a minimum.

Do you believe that operators and service companies are employing risk mitigation practices and techniques when and where they should?

As an industry, we are still too reactive. A speaker at a recent deepwater conference presentation in Galveston gives us food for thought on this point – “NPT – challenges or warning signs?” I think that says it all.

What stands in the way of successful mitigation activities? What have been the consequences of not applying risk mitigation practices within the industry?

Poor planning or the lack of planning. It never ceases to amaze me that, as an industry, we don’t learn from the experience of others within our industry and outside of it. Sometimes we as an industry don’t even learn from our own mistakes by not performing unbiased root cause analysis.

As I stated earlier, procurement can be detrimental to the uptake of technology. The tendering process can stand in the way of new technologies and solutions that seek to redefine the process of constructing the well. I think we are too locked into the linear approach to planning and constructing a well.

The consequences of unsuccessful mitigation techniques are an inability to reach the reservoir or reaching the reservoir with a wellbore design that does not support the asset economics; lack of available prospects; wasted time and money; and, most importantly, the risk to people and the environment.

How can DHM activities be strengthened within the industry?

Operators and service companies must develop a more comprehensive way of working together and viewing the well. We must proactively plan together to mitigate drilling hazards. Reacting is no longer sufficient.

Have there been any new developments in the DHM area? If so, how are they being implemented?

We’re starting to apply this DHM philosophy to casing and tubular running services. Aside from the technologies that we have already spoken about, Weatherford is beginning to expand the linkages to include casing tubular running. As we analyze client applications, we are focusing on well integrity and getting casing to TD and successfully cemented.

We have at our fingertips best-in-class technology for rotation and reciprocation of the casing, reaming or drilling the formation while casing is being run, and technology that allows the initiation of the cement process immediately upon casing hang-off, rather than having to wait with an unsecured wellbore for a separate cementing operation to rig up. We have the kit today to go out to the well site and make sure these things happen as a whole solution to meet the operator objective. We are effectively changing the conversation from tubular make-up to well integrity.

What has the advent of secure drilling services done for the industry as a whole? What new technologies or techniques are needed in this area and what stands in the way of that development?

As managed pressure drilling technologies evolve, the benefits of closed-loop drilling takes on new importance as a watershed improvement over conventional drilling operations. From its fundamental drilling safety and efficiency capabilities, the closed-loop system is evolving rapidly as it opens the door for significant advancements in optimizing the well and exploiting the reservoir. What began as a simple change in the fluids return system now promises new production opportunities over the life of the asset. Multiphase metering and flow modeling will greatly enhance managed pressure drilling capabilities.

Related Articles

One Comment

  1. I am curious to learn about the WFT closed-loop system.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button