The Incredible Shrinking Footprint

Environmentally friendly drilling program gains success promoting low-impact technologies
[Print Article: October 2012, by Maurice Smith] As the shale oil and gas revolution spreads to ever more North American and, increasingly, worldwide regions—including areas lacking a history of drilling activity—one of the greatest challenges is gaining social acceptance for the large-scale drilling efforts that go with it.

Often entailing massive hydraulic fracture completions, and all the traffic and logistical support that go with them, the surge in drilling has sparked opposition that, along with concerns with potential ground- and surface-water contamination, has led to drilling moratoriums in some jurisdictions.

Under the circumstances, an effort in Texas to shrink the drilling footprint that predates the upswing in shale gas drilling is looking increasingly prescient. The Environmentally Friendly Drilling (EFD) Systems program was established in 2005 by the non-profit Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) and the Global Petroleum Research Institute at Texas A&M University. The program seeks to adhere strictly to the “unbiased science” and remain apart from the sometimes acrimonious debate over the environmental impact of the oil and gas industry generally. And it maintains that tremendous strides have been made in recent years to lessen drilling’s impact on the environment.

“When we first started back eight years ago, environmentally friendly drilling was an oxymoron,” states Richard Haut, EFD program manager and HARC senior research scientist. “Now it has become a pretty acceptable term, so I think that’s tremendous progress.”

While drilling targeting shale gas and tight oil has led in some areas to both an upswing in drilling and to multistage hydraulic fracturing on an often massive scale, that impact has been partly counteracted by such advances as horizontal and pad drilling, where several wells can be drilled from one central location with long lateral extensions, dramatically cutting down on surface disturbance compared to single-site vertical drilling. Further downsizing has been made possible with such innovations as modular small footprint rigs, closed-loop drilling fluid systems and centralized hydraulic fracking operations that serve several satellite drill sites.

On the drilling side, the EFD program has studied a number of lower-impact technologies, from coiled-tubing drilling, casing while drilling and expandable-casing technology to fast-skidding rigs, aluminum alloy drill pipe and alternative power sources, all offering some sort of environmental advantage. It is also actively involved in the study of low-impact road and drilling pad surfaces, including interlocking composite mats and composite planks held together with stainless steel cables. Another technology described on the EFD program website uses artificial gravel made of sludge from on-site pits used for drilling fluids, solid waste and concrete to build a road base that, when no longer needed, is plowed under.

The program recently embarked on an effort, jointly funded by industry and the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, to field test new technologies to accelerate commercial development. The Technology Integration Program is creating regional centres to undertake field tests and perform case studies of prototype technologies, and to enable local issues to be addressed by local experts, says Haut, who held various management positions with predecessor companies of ExxonMobil and served as deepwater integrated technologies manager with Halliburton before co-founding the EFD team.

“For example, water processing is a key issue. At least half a dozen different companies with the latest and greatest technologies have agreed to allow us to test their processes. We have a mobile analytical chemistry laboratory built in a trailer that Texas A&M University runs, and we are currently doing water process testing. We are able to measure the properties of the produced water before it gets processed and afterward and see how effective some of these water processing technologies are, and share [that] with industry.”

Part of what sets the EFD program apart is the diversity of its stakeholders, from industry, government and academia to prominent environmental groups, Haut says, which both encourages environmentally friendly practices and helps to develop technologies that promote that goal.

“When we say environmental footprint a lot of people just think about that land footprint, but it goes beyond that—it goes to the number of trucks that are out there to haul stuff around, and to all the logistical support, the air emissions associated with it and so on, so that’s why we look at the whole system. We also look at the social side of it, such as what the general public view is, societal issues and so on, and I think that is very unique about us.”

Indeed, the program claims that compared to a few decades ago, the industry can reduce its footprint up to 90 per cent if low-impact technologies are combined in a system. But the program’s mission goes beyond promoting new technologies—it seeks a change of mindset among those in the industry. Haut likens it to the change of attitudes around health and safety issues, which has been taken up as a core value by the industry. The EFD program has teamed with Gregory M. Anderson, author of Safety 24/7—Building an Incident-Free Culture, Haut says. “We are now working with Greg to write the sequel, called Environmental 24/7. Our goal is to get into the mindset of employees, everywhere from the field hand up to the corporate boardroom, about environmental awareness.”

And to take a page from another sector, the building industry, the EFD program is near completion of a scorecard developed to promote advanced technologies for low-impact drilling. The comprehensive scorecard will measure environmental tradeoffs associated with implementing low-impact drilling technologies. Haut got the idea after working with the U.S. Green Building Council to create a scorecard for that industry. “It took them 10 years to develop that first scorecard for new buildings, and I thought, why can’t you do that for the oil and gas industry as well?”

He organized a workshop attended by over 80 experts from a variety of disciplines to initiate its development. They identified six major attributes with which to assess drilling technologies, he says: air, water, site (soil/sediment), waste management, biodiversity/habitat and societal issues. “Now we are in the process of ground truthing it—going out to different drill sites and testing it, trying to see whether it can be effective as a common lexicon for the public, for regulators, and so on, to have the same language. We are hoping to get all this done this year.”

Another project, scheduled to be rolled out this fall, is a 3-D virtual rig built using gaming software provided by the Epic Software Group to demonstrate the latest advances in environmentally friendly drilling. The multimedia web application allows users to “actually now go in and explore a drill site,” says Haut. When users see something that interests them, they can play a video, visit a website or get additional information on a green product related to that part of the rig.

Devon Energy Corporation, a longtime industry sponsor of the EFD program, is one company putting the latest low-impact techniques to use in both the United States and at its Canadian operations. In Texas, where it’s a leading Barnett Shale producer, it developed “green” completions, where it captures methane from the frac flowback stream rather than flaring or venting it, generating billions of cubic feet of sales gas while slashing emissions.

In Alberta, Devon’s adoption of slant drilling at its Pike in situ oilsands appraisal program in 2010-11 enabled it to drill several wells from one location. In specific areas, it helped the company achieve a 35 per cent land footprint reduction. “With the use of the slant rigs to drill up to five wells from one surface location we have reduced the amount of clearing and access road significantly,” says Chris Walsh, senior foreman, construction facilities.

In addition to the reduced impact, it saves money when there are three or more wells on one surface location, adds Brandt Tracey, superintendent, drilling. Though they cost about 40 per cent more, drilling slant wells from one surface location is still less than two vertical locations, he says. “Slant rigs also have equipment that is designed to make the job of the workers much simpler and safer,” he adds.

There are tradeoffs to slant drilling, Tracey says. It can sometimes be difficult to orient the rig properly on some leases and slant wells are required to be drilled to a greater measured depth. “For example, if a vertical well is to be drilled to 500 metres, a 45-degree slant well needs to be drilled to approximately 710 metres, in order to reach the same depth vertically. [But] at the end of the day these are quite minor drawbacks; the benefits definitely outweigh the drawbacks,” he notes.

Devon has taken additional measures to lessen its footprint, says Walsh. “We utilize wood mulch to build road and pipeline approaches. This saves digging borrow pits, which means we do not need to clear additional lands to obtain the dirt. Mulch has also been used to retain frost and extend our drilling period as spring thaw approaches,” he says.

“We also have a central drilling fluid processing facility. This site helps to reduce drilling impacts by reusing drilling fluid and water from the drilling rigs. When a drilling rig has finished its well, the fluid is brought back to the central site where the fluid is offloaded. The main purpose of this site is to remove unwanted solids that are contained in the drilling fluid while the well is being drilled. Once the fluid has been stripped of these solids, they can then go back out to the rig.”


Richard Haut
Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems Program
Tel: 281-364-6093
Email: [email protected]

  • DRILLING DOWN Houston-based National Oilwell Varco Inc. was one of the Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems Program's industry sponsors, along with Huisman of Schiedam, the Netherlands, to participate in a project investigating low impact drilling. The project's goal was to reduce the physical drilling site footprint to less than one acre.
  • SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL Huisman's containerized, fully integrated drilling rigs and associated technologies were examined in an Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems' study on the advances of small footprint rigs.
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