Underbalanced drilling via air drilling is deeply rooted in the Northeast United States due to its distinct geology, high rates of penetration (ROP) and drilling efficiency, and low cost of circulating material. The active drilling programs of several independent operators in the Marcellus and Utica Basins are well suited for air drilling down to the final kick off point by virtue of competent, stable formations, low static reservoir pressures, and manageable water ingress to the wells. Air drilling provides near-atmospheric pressure at the borehole bottom, since there is no fluid column with resulting hydrostatic pressure. The result is very high ROP with essentially 100% drilling efficiency, allowing the completion of intervals in one or two bit runs. A service company deployed a cross-functional product development team to optimize oilfield air bits for these applications over the last two years, resulting in decreased drilling costs through increased performance and reliability.

The oilfield air drilling environment places unique challenges on drill bit design due to the increased risk of downhole vibrations, corrosion, abrasive wear, heat generation, and seal infiltration of very fine cuttings. The application requirements have increased due to deeper intervals requiring passage through multiple high unconfined compressive strength formations, extended tangent angles, and rising input energy levels. Accordingly, enhancements to both the cutting structures and sealed bearing systems were vigorously pursued. Several cutting structure design iterations were evaluated in both laboratory and field tests. A new sealed bearing system was developed and implemented for increased life and reliability. Modifications to the bit body for stability were included, and the bit hydraulics were further optimized.

Through an understanding of the objectives and application challenges, unique solutions were developed for Northeast oilfield air drilling applications. The optimization process for the new air bit designs is described, and the resulting positive performance metrics are presented. Improvements were observed in distance drilled, ROP, seal effective rate, and dull condition. Lessons learned were also used to refine the recommended drilling parameters and practices through the challenging formations encountered in these tangent sections, which can span in excess of 7000 feet. These enhancements all contributed to reduced drilling cost and days per well, for increased rig productivity.

The natural gas fields throughout the Marcellus and Utica Basins in the Northeast U.S. continue to deliver rising total gas production for the U.S. and the world through increased capacities in pipelines and LNG trains. Improved drilling performance as documented in this paper are driving continuous improvement in the overall upstream drilling economics of the region.

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