Horizontal drilling transformed the oil and gas industry. Its story belongs not just to the annals of technology but to the annals of geology. Especially the geology of Texas and New Mexico.
Much has been written on the 21st Century resurgence of the Permian Basin, the biggest-producing oilfield – not just in America – but the world. Now more than 100 years active, the Permian Basin enjoys the best years in its long history. Sprawling across Far West Texas and Southeast New Mexico, the Permian Basin became, especially in the 2010s, the hotbed and laboratory for the Shale Revolution that transformed energy forever.
Horizontal Drilling: a Plus for Wireline
Oilfield service companies such as Integrity Wireline owe much to the development of horizontal drilling and other breakthrough technologies. Without those advances, wireline technologies – and wireline activity – would be far less prevalent that they are. So-called “unconventional” development has been good to wireline and other services.
The so-called “stacked payzones” of the Permian furnished the ideal proving grounds for the new technologies that revitalized oil and gas. Before horizontal drilling became a significant factor, wells were drilled vertically. The only contact a wellbore had with any payzone was its penetration of that zone, top to bottom, on the well’s progress down to total depth.
That exposure might be as little as 50 or 100 feet, or it might even in extreme cases be hundreds of feet, but that range marked the extent of it.
Deviating from the Vertical
To get more exposure to a given payzone, a driller can angle the trajectory of the drill bit, deflecting it from a strictly vertical path. “Directional drilling” does that job. Defined as ‘the practice of accessing an underground oil and gas reserve by drilling in a non-vertical direction” (Investopedia), directional drilling has been around for the better part of 100 years.
Horizontal drilling, a more recent refinement, comes from angling the bit’s trajectory all the way to the horizontal path. That technique, in the right geological zone, can keep a wellbore solidly in a single zone for, literally, miles.
Conventional Versus Unconventional
There was never much reason to do this sort of thing back in the years when reservoir drilling simply tapped a reservoir in the same way as a water well reaches and taps a water table. When a wellbore ends in a water table, the surrounding water constantly flows to, and refills, the wellbore as water is pumped out of the well.
But the oil in “unconventional,” “tight” shale beds does not flow easily from point A to point B. A shaley or tight sand zone resists easy flow. It takes hydraulic fracturing to open up pores in the rock and create pathways for oil to pool in a wellbore.
Horizontal Drilling Gets Lined Out
Thus, when hydraulic fracturing came into its own, horizontal drilling made sense in a way it never had before. The long “laterals” drilled by operators were frac’d at multiple intervals along their length. The fracturing made fissures in the payzone that allowed oil to flow into the well bore. Thus, long, horizontal exposure to a “tight,” normally-unyielding payzone now proved effective.
Horizontal drilling reduced the need for multiple vertical wells and lowered the overall cost of production.
The development of horizontal drilling in the Permian Basin began in the late 20th Century but was not widely used until the 2010s. Prior to that time, the Permian Basin was facing a decline in production, and many thought that the region had reached its peak.
Henry Petroleum Plays a Part
However, companies such as Henry Petroleum began to “crack the code” to make frac’ing work in “oily” rock. Frac’ing had succeeded spectacularly in “gassy” rock, such as is found in the Barnett Shale of North Central Texas. Henry Petroleum tweaked the recipe and found huge success in the Permian Basin pumping oil at quantities not seen for decades.
Later, Pioneer Natural Resources, Concho Resources, and other major independents began to commit heavily to the Permian Basin, and the results were remarkable.
Five Million-Plus Barrels a Day
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Permian Basin produces more than 5 million barrels of oil per day, accounting for some 40 percent of U.S. crude oil production. This marks a significant increase from the 1.2 million barrels per day produced in 2009, before the widespread use of horizontal drilling and frac’ing. The increase in production has also led to a surge in employment and economic growth in the region.
The development of horizontal drilling in the Permian Basin has been aided by advancements in technology. The use of 3D seismic imaging, for example, has allowed companies to more accurately identify the location and size of oil and gas reservoirs, reducing the risk of drilling dry wells.
Horizontal Drilling: One Breakthrough Among Many
Directional drilling tools have also improved, as well as the technique of “measurement while drilling,” allowing for more precise drilling and control of the wellbore’s angle. Additionally, the use of drilling muds and other fluids has been optimized to reduce friction and improve the efficiency of the drilling process.
One of the key benefits of horizontal drilling lies in its ability to access previously untapped reserves. In the Permian Basin, this has led to the development of the Wolfcamp and Bone Spring formations. These comprise two of the most significant oil and gas reservoirs in the region. These formations were once considered too difficult and expensive to be economical, but horizontal drilling and frac’ing made them viable.
To the Future
As with any non-renewable resource, the oil and gas reserves in the Permian Basin will eventually be depleted. However, companies have invested in technologies such as enhanced oil recovery (EOR). EOR involves injecting carbon dioxide or other gases into the wellbore to increase the amount of oil that can be extracted. EOR has been used successfully in other regions, and there is hope that it can help prolong the life of the Permian Basin’s oil and gas reserves.