This article, written by JPT Technology Editor Chris Carpenter, contains highlights of paper URTeC 3968851, “Breaking the 5-km Barrier: Superlaterals Delivery Challenges—Are They Feasible in Vaca Muerta?” by Julio Palacio, SPE, Walid Ben Ismail, and Richard Walker, K&M Technology Group, et al. The paper has not been peer reviewed.


Driven by increased production rewards, multiple operators in the United States have been improving their unconventional wells by increasing lateral length. Several “superlaterals” with lengths greater than 23,000 ft have been drilled successfully in several US basins. The complete paper describes the technical challenges faced in drilling and running casing in superlaterals and the difficulties in implementing them in the Vaca Muerta unconventional play.


In 2012–2015, many operators began to drill longer laterals. Because production did not appear to decline with increasing lateral length, one operator drilled 11 superlaterals in 2017 in the Utica shale, reporting critical cost reductions and a greater recovery per foot. This operator used the term “superlateral” to describe a lateral length of 15,000 ft or greater. At the time of writing, several wells have exceeded a lateral length of 23,000 ft and can be categorized as extreme-reach wells. Typically, any well in the extended-reach region requires a large focus on operational practices and may require important design changes and special technologies or techniques to achieve its goals.

Geomechanics Challenges

The Vaca Muerta/Quintuco system is a late Jurassic to early Cretaceous play with a depth of more than 8,200 ft true vertical depth (TVD). Pore pressure in Quintuco can vary between 14.2 and 18.8 lbm/gal. Fractures connecting different zones and depths lead to discontinuity and important uncertainties in both pore pressure and fracture gradient. Historically, Quintuco was isolated by running casing before entering the Vaca Muerta. However, several operators drill Quintuco and Vaca Muerta in the same section to reduce the well cost. Using this approach, Quintuco pressure uncertainties effectively limit the maximum lateral length. To reduce this uncertainty effect, managed pressure drilling (MPD) has been used successfully in current laterals.

Bedding-plane instability limited early development of unconventional horizontal wells. Its effect is not commonly perceived while drilling but can affect bit trips and casing runs catastrophically. Higher mud weight (MW) has helped mitigate, but not eliminate, bedding-plane instability in unconventional plays around the world. However, higher MW can constrain more than the MW window requirements in the Quintuco/Vaca Muerta system.

As the lateral progresses in length, the annular pressure increases proportionally. Given that the TVD remains almost constant in horizontal wells, the equivalent circulating density (ECD) change will increase proportionally to the lateral length. Because of this ECD behavior in horizontal wells, MPD cannot be used to manage the wellbore-stability (WBS) margin reduction in longer laterals or to eliminate pressure fluctuations during connections.

In very long laterals, the only way to better manage the WBS margin, bedding-planes issue, and induced wellbore instability can be a well-design change to increase the annular clearance after performing extensive modeling. MPD and surface-parameter control can marginally help to control the problem.

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