Efficient drilling technology is essential to meet the needs of the oil industry. Both the challenges of new oil provinces, especially in offshore waters, and the demands for efficient environmental protection have driven the development of new technology. Drilling mud is a key factor influencing drilling technology used in modern drilling operations. New oil industry developments involve directional and horizontal drilling as well as drilling in frontier areas at greater and greater depths. Such capabilities and conditions demand careful attention to the selection and engineering of efficient mud systems.

Spent drilling fluids and drill cuttings are among the most significant waste streams from exploration and development activities in the oil and gas industry; they pose a serious and costly disposal problem for offshore operators who must barge spent mud and cuttings to shore for land disposal if they do not meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discharge limitations or permit requirements. Suppliers of mud systems have responded to this problem. Since 1990, several non-toxic, biodegradable synthetic-based muds (SBMs) with desirable performance and environmental characteristics have entered the market.

However, EPA regulations apply mud technology that was available when the regulations were developed, namely water- and oil-based muds (WBMs and OBMs). While EPA requirements appear to have been a major driver behind the development of SBM, now concern is focused on the inhibiting effect of discharge limitations on use of alternative mud technologies.

This paper examines and describes SBM systems recently developed as substitutes for conventional drilling muds. Initially, background information on drilling mud is presented to provide an overview. The paper identifies the advantages and disadvantages of alternative drilling muds and assesses their comparative environmental impact and cost/benefit. The paper also characterizes the regulatory factors which affect the introduction and widespread use of innovative alternative mud technology. Finally, the paper asssesses the approach of EPA in administering effluent limitations guidelines (ELGs) and its impact on innovative technology development. It recommends areas of further study and suggests regulatory process improvements to enacourage the development and use of alternative mud technologies.

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