It is well-known that formations that exhibit active creep behavior under downhole conditions, such as reactive shales and mobile salts, can form annular barriers across uncemented or poorly cemented annular sections behind casing strings. Such creep barriers can simplify well abandonments, particularly in high-cost offshore environments. Evaluation and qualification of creep barriers in the field, however, have proven challenging and labor-intensive when casing is perforated, and annular rock material is pressure-tested to verify its sealing ability. This work seeks to eliminate the need for pressure testing by allowing the barrier to be qualified using only casedhole log measurements.

Sophisticated rock mechanical laboratory experiments under realistic downhole conditions were conducted to investigate the formation of creep barriers by North Sea Lark shale. The experiments evaluated barrier formation while varying annular fluid chemistry and temperature. Measurement parameters included creep rate, pressure transmission across newly formed barriers, pressure breakthrough through the newly formed barriers as well as ultrasonic responses by the shale.

It was found that the Lark/Horda shale has a distinct anisotropic ultrasonic wave velocity profile that uniquely characterizes it. This can be used to identify its presence in an annular space when contacting the casing. A main conclusion is that a Lark shale barrier can be qualified through casedhole sonic and ultrasonic logging alone without the need for pressure testing if (1) the magnitude of the wave propagation velocity of the shale behind casing can be confirmed (2077 m/s for Lark shale); (2) the characteristic velocity anisotropy profile, unique to the shale (~10.1% for Lark shale), can be verified; (3) good contact with/bonding to the casing is observed; and optionally (4) anisotropy in the time behavior of the shale contacting the pipe is observed when the barrier is stimulated artificially. If these conditions are met, then our experiments show that the barrier will have excellent hydraulic sealing ability, with a permeability of a few microdarcies at most and a breakthrough pressure that approaches the minimum horizontal effective stress value.

Additional findings are that shale heating will accelerate barrier formation but may damage the shale formation in the process. Extraordinary fast annular closure and barrier formation with evident shale rehealing was observed by using a concentrated KCl solution as pore fluid, showing the merits of barrier stimulation by chemical means. This result can be explained by considering the effect of solutes on shale hydration forces.

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