For reasons deep below the surface and right atop it, the North American shale sector was due for a period of turbulence and contraction. Then came two unforeseen accelerants: a global pandemic and a costly price war—the combined forces of which sent oil prices down by a record 65% during the first quarter of the year.

The double blow to the US shale sector has meant that in all likelihood, hydraulic fracturing activity in North America has peaked. Going forward, there will be fewer players and less production. Some estimates project that by the end of the year, the hydraulic fracturing market will be just 50% of what it was before the latest crash.

Just as likely though is that this disruptive corner of the oil and gas industry will persist. Shale resources in the US remain vast. Even more untapped resources are found elsewhere. But first, costs will have to be cut and a lower-cost business structure will be needed to match this second round of “lower for longer.” 

As rigs drill faster with squeezed day rates, completions operations represent as much as 70% of the total cost it takes to bring in a horizontal well. Therefore, it could be argued the hydraulic fracturing side of the business has the most to benefit from adopting new technologies in the sector’s effort to cross the chasm.

Despite the obvious challenges that come with a shrinking market, a set of emerging technologies are profiled in this article to highlight how the shale sector can get rid of its hidden inefficiencies and reduce the time it takes to hydraulically fracture a multiwell pad. This is a process that takes anywhere from a few weeks to more than a month. Through innovation, these spans can be trimmed and along with that, the capital overhead required to generate each new shale well.

Deep Well Services: A Quicker Drill Out

The Problem. To extend well economics, shale producers have extended the length of modern well designs to 10,000 ft and far beyond. But most traditional coiled-tubing systems—used to mill out plugs between fracturing stages—are not able to reach such extreme lengths, some-times requiring the use of conventional snubbing units that take days to rig up.

The Innovation. The Hydraulic Completion Unit (HCU) was developed by Deep Well Services (DWS) to simplify and speed up the mill-out process of these high-pressure, long lateral wells.

Since starting up in 2008, DWS has carved out a niche by borrowing technology from another niche—the snubbing sector. Snubbing is a workover process that involves pushing pipe and tools down a highly pressurized well. Removing frac plugs during the completions process is not that different, so DWS combined its own customized systems to invent a snubbing unit that would be efficient enough to compete with coiled tubing for work on horizontal wells.

Whenever operators are looking to push the envelope on what defines a long lateral, DWS is usually on that job. “All the longest wells in the lower 48 ever drilled, we’ve drilled them out,” said Mark Marmo, a cofounder and chief executive officer of DWS, referring to the use of the HCU to drill, or mill out, frac plugs.

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