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Driving innovation

02nd August 2012

Technological innovation for shale exploration is moving forward at an impressive pace. Baker Hughes engineering and technical support director, Ian Ayling tells Oil & Gas Technology how the constant pursuit for best practices for reservoir management and environmental sustainability is keeping the shale industry on its toes.

Baker Hughes believes understanding the reservoir and surrounding subsurface geology allows the shale gas industry to improve efficiency

Two million wells have been fractured since the late 1940s in North America alone. But it is not just here where technological opportunities for the shale industry are heating up. Areas in the Asia Pacific, South America, Middle East and Europe all have huge – well documented potential – to exploit their reserves. The opportunity to transfer the know-how, along with the technology, therefore presents an enticing prospect for companies such as BH, keen to get a firm foothold in this potentially game-changing global industry.

The company is actively pursuing efficiency improvement through technological innovation in stimulation design, supply chain, logistics and operational processes.

Characterising the reservoir and using that understanding to optimise drilling and completions is an integral part of this. “This understanding allows us to improve multistage horizontal well performance by optimising the stimulation and contacting more of the reservoir,” according to Ayling. “Understanding the reservoir and surrounding subsurface geology allows us to improve efficiency.”

Moreover, the combination of horizontal drilling, multistage completions and fracturing innovation has allowed BH to contact more of the reservoir to economically produce low permeability reservoirs that were previously inaccessible, says Ayling.

Not forgetting the environment

Through continuous investment in technology and people, hydraulic fracturing can occur in a safe and environmentally protective manner, believes Ayling.

The VaporFrac fracturing fluid technology is one way the company is trying to reduce the water use and the amount of additives required on the front end, and the volume of flowback on the back end of the process. The technology is applicable to water sensitive and low-pressure reservoirs and replaces up to 98 percent of water with nitrogen, according to Ayling.

BH  also has set up a dedicated water management group that offers a customised process to quickly diagnose and deploy water management solutions across the entire water lifecycle. 

Hoping to leave no stone unturned, the company in addition is addressing air emissions. A small test program is being run in Oklahoma, where BH has converted a number of light duty vehicles to natural gas, explains Ayling. As natural gas infrastructure develops, it will look at similar pilot programs in other areas, as well as opportunities to deploy electric rather than diesel engines. 

All hot air?

Many of the allegations regarding groundwater contamination have been proven either unrelated to exploration and production entirely or related to well integrity rather than hydraulic fracturing, adds Ayling.

Although the company recognises surface spills are the “biggest potential risk,” BH has an “excellent track record” on this front and is actively addressing avoiding this.

For example, by optimising drilling and completions and sophisticated real-time monitoring of the fracturing process, a more controlled environment can be created for stimulation, says Ayling.

BH also is the first company to develop – and publish – a chemical evaluation framework dedicated to the continuous improvement of its hydraulic fracturing chemistry, the result of which can be seen in its SmartCare line of environmentally-preferred products.

Well integrity

Proper well integrity is the “single most important preventative measure in mitigating communication between the hydrocarbon and aquifer, regardless of whether the well has been hydraulically fractured,” according to Ayling.

Beyond the mechanical safeguards of the well itself, groundwater is protected by physical factors. Hydraulic fracturing itself usually occurs at depths well below where usable groundwater is likely to be found, often separated by a mile of rock with multiple layers of confining, impermeable rock that provide natural geologic barriers to the upward migration of fluids, he explained.

Directional drilling solutions

Directional drilling has allowed the company to start drilling multiple wells from a single location while accessing the same amount of reservoir volume. Ayling believes the process, known as pad drilling, is yet another way to reduce the operation’s environmental footprint.

The use of specially designed drilling rigs that simplify mobilisation and demobilisation process enables pad drilling and offers efficiency. “Technologies that allow for the drilling and completion of wells with multiple laterals and extended reach horizontal laterals have allowed us to reduce the total number of wells drilled,” he told OGT.

The vision

The longevity – and proliferation – of the industry will largely depend on research, especially in materials. Ayling hopes to see the creation of a new set of tools or building blocks for the toughest challenges in frontier environments from extreme temperatures and pressures – both hot and cold – to aggressive corrosive environments.

“We are creating new alloys, new elastomers, new smart polymer materials – all of which either allow us to move into a new operating area or to replace existing material supply chains with more efficient solutions,” he told OGT.

Fundamental chemistry will be another core area of development, says Ayling. BH will work on creating a “new set of greener options for many of our activities in well construction, production enhancement and facilities.”

“Smart chemicals that perform different functions over time or under different load conditions lead us to the goal of producing more, recovering more and leaving less footprint,” he added.

Above all, people will be key to BH technological innovation, “paving the way to more efficiently recovering our natural resources using few raw materials while consuming less power per unit of energy created,” concluded Ayling.

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