A long-term suspended subsea exploration well within a producing gas reservoir needed to be decommissioned after 21 years. During a pre-decommissioning diving campaign, bubbles confirmed as reservoir gas were observed to be percolating from the well bore through a hard silt / cement debris plug inside the wellhead. A pressure study established that the reservoir may have re-charged to 2,200 psi. An alternative pressure controlled well re-entry method was required to safely re-enter, tie-back the well to surface with 16-in. high pressure riser, install BOP while preventing gas from reaching the rig floor from seabed. Two existing cement plugs would then be drilled out under controlled conditions due to the potential for high-pressure gas beneath the plugs. Casing integrity evaluation and cement bond logging would be carried out to establish the path of gas ingress into the wellbore. Remedial work would be conducted, and permanent abandonment barriers installed in the well. Casings and wellheads would then be recovered from a depth below the seabed.

A customized managed pressure drilling (MPD) system was designed using a rotating control device (RCD) and modified drilling chokes. A pioneering plan was developed to meet the specific well re-entry requirements of the percolating suspended well to account for the potential for virgin reservoir pressure at seabed and the wellhead silt plug preventing deployment of BOP test tools. A hazard and operability study (HAZOP) was conducted with key personnel, which supported development of well-specific operating procedures and decision matrices. Successful deployment included MPD system calibration, well behavior fingerprinting, and training of rig personnel at the well site.

The combination of experienced personnel, innovative MPD equipment, specific procedures, team interactions and risk analyses were key to safely completing this well re-entry and decommissioning scope. The strategy enabled drilling out of two cement plugs with potential high-pressure gas trapped beneath them. Both cement plugs, 356ft and 669ft long, were drilled without any well-control or plugged-choke events. Throughout the process, the well was monitored using MPD equipment, which included an RCD on top of rig's BOP, modular drilling chokes and multiple pressure gauges and sensors installed at critical points. Additionally, temporary modifications were made to the rig and new lines of communication between the rig crew and the MPD team were established to ensure all pressures were correctly interpreted and the decision matrix was correctly applied. An effective close partnership developed between the equipment service provider, well operator and drilling contractor was a key enabler to deliver this very challenging novel implementation of MPD technology within eight weeks. The MPD approach was estimated to have saved 9 days of rig time, when compared to alternative coiled tubing-based solutions.

This paper describes the first MPD-assisted well re-entry for well decommissioning in the UK North Sea sector. The novel application of existing technology can help operators to cost effectively re-enter and decommission troublesome legacy wells without harm to people, environment or assets. This new approach resulted in the safe unconventional re-entry and decommissioning of a potentially live gas well.

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