Offshore wells drilled in the central and northern North Sea have historically suffered from borehole-instability problems when intersecting the Upper/Lower Lark and Horda Shale formations using either water-based mud (WBM) or oil-based mud (OBM). A wellbore-stability investigation was performed that focused primarily on improving shale/fluid compatibility. It was augmented by a look-back analysis of historical drilling operations to help identify practical solutions to the borehole-instability problems.

An experimental rock-mechanics and shale/fluid-compatibility investigation was performed featuring X-ray-diffraction (XRD) and cation-exchange-capacity (CEC) characterizations, shale accretion, cuttings dispersion, mud-pressure transmission, and a new type of borehole-collapse test for 10 different mud systems [WBM, OBM, and high-performance WBM (HP-WBM)]. The results of this investigation were then combined with the results of a well look-back study. The integrated study clearly identified the root cause(s) of historical well problems and highlighted practical solutions that were subsequently implemented in the field.

The borehole-instability problems in the Lark and Horda Shales have a characteristic time dependency, with wellbore cavings occurring after 3 to 5 days of openhole time. The problems were not related to mud-weight selection but were instead caused by mud-pressure invasion into the shales, which destabilizes them over time. An experimental testing program revealed that this effect occurs in both WBM and OBM to an equal extent, which explains why nonoptimal field performance has historically been obtained with both types of mud systems. New HP-WBM formulations were identified that improve upon the mud-pressure invasion and borehole-collapse behavior of conventional OBM and WBM systems, yielding extended openhole time that allows the hole sections in the Lark and Horda Shales to be drilled, cased, and cemented without triggering large-scale instability. Look-back analysis also indicated that secondary causes of wellbore instability, such as barite sag, backreaming, and associated drillstring vibrations, should be minimized for optimal drilling performance. A new HP-WBM system, together with improved operational guidelines, was successfully implemented in the field, and the results are reported here.

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