The JV operator was looking for a combination of technologies to optimize drilling in Canada's Mackenzie Delta region. The area is characterized by a permafrost section up to 2,000 ft (609 m) thick. This shallow permafrost section is dominated by unconsolidated silt with freshwater ice ranging from 60% volume to pure ice layers. Historically, mechanical heat input has melted the frozen layer, resulting in increased hydrates/shallow gas risks, extreme hole enlargement/cleaning problems, rig support issues, wellbore instability, stuck pipe, hydraulic isolation, and environmental impact issues.
Optimizing drilling operations through the shallow section is critical to maximize the number of wells that can be drilled with the available rigs in this limited-access area. To move the rig requires approximately 3 ft (1 m) of ice cover, which significantly limits the operating season, increasing the need for rig efficiency and reduction of non-productive time (NPT). The industry has endorsed the importance of mud cooling through the shallow permafrost and the underlying hydrate-bearing formations to avoid borehole instability and to control hydrate dissolution. However, the industry has struggled to maintain sufficiently cold mud at the high pump/power rates required to effectively drill/clean the larger surface holes.
To solve the challenges, the operator utilized a casing-while-drilling (CwD) and casing bit system with a unique-to-the-industry mud-chilling technology and a variety of controlled drilling parameters. The CwD and casing bit system allowed the operator to drill and set casing through the problematic zones in one operation with relatively low flow rates to avoid hole enlargement. The lower flow rates also enabled the use of smaller, lighter rig equipment that reduced the required ice thickness to move the rig and therefore increase the winter season operating period. Following the successful implementation of the CwD and casing bit system on the first well of a winter program, the second well was drilled safer with the elimination of a casing string, which further reduced drilling time and cost.
Oil and gas operators have explored in the Arctic regions of northern Canada, Alaska, and Russia for more than 40 years. Early drilling campaigns encountered significant problems drilling through the shallow permafrost sections due to degradation of drilling conditions as a result of permafrost thaw. Experience from these earlier operations and experiments conducted by Kutasov et al (1988) has highlighted the need to maintain chilled drilling mud to minimize permafrost thaw during the well construction process. Production operations in the Canadian Arctic have not yet reached development stage. Industry experience in other Arctic regions, including Alaska—as well as Canadian National Energy Board (NEB) regulations—dictate a need to protect permafrost substrata through the entire life cycle of the well.