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SPE/IADC 166735

Wellbore Stability Optimization in Shale Gas Wells by Integrating

Geomechanics and Drilling Practices
Safdar Khan and Anurag Yadav, Schlumberger

Copyright 2013, SPE/IADC Middle East Drilling Technology Conference and Exhibition

This paper was prepared for presentation at the SPE/IADC Middle East Drilling Technology Conference and Exhibition held in Dubai, UAE, 79 October 2013.

This paper was selected for presentation by an SPE/IADC program committee following review of information contained in an abstract submitted by the author(s). Contents of the paper have not
been reviewed by the Society of Petroleum Engineers or the International Association of Drilling Contractors and are subject to correction by the author(s). The material does not necessarily
reflect any position of the Society of Petroleum Engineers or the International Association of Drilling Contractors, its officers, or members. Electronic reproduction, distribution, or storage of any
part of this paper without the written consent of the Society of Petroleum Engineers or the International Association of Drilling Contractors is prohibited. Permission to reproduce in print is
restricted to an abstract of not more than 300 words; illustrations may not be copied. The abstract must contain conspicuous acknowledgment of SPE/IADC copyright.

Horizontal wells with multi-stage fracturing are typically used in shale gas plays for them to become economically feasible to
produce gas. Two distinct types of challenges are faced while drilling horizontal wells in shale, first type is wellbore
instability potentially leading to stuck pipe incidents in the build section, and the second type is loss circulation, potentially
compromising well integrity in the lateral section. This paper presents a workflow on handling these challenges effectively by
integrating geomechanics with efficient drilling practices.

Drilling shale gas wells is quite a challenging job due to inherent shale instability and its deterioration with time. Historically,
shale formations account for 90% of the wellbore instabilities. Main challenges faced in unconventional/shale gas wells are
hole pack-off, tight hole, stuck pipe making wellbore instability a major issue while drilling and completing the horizontal
wells. Most organic rich shale formations (target zones) are overlain by thick high clay mudstone formations. These
formations have thinly bedded laminated structures resulting in anisotropic rock strength. When a well drilled at an oblique
angle to laminations, it is exposed to planes of weakness causing severe instabilities. Higher mud-weight (MW) is required to
stabilize the collapsing shale at higher inclination which in turn raises another problem of fracturing the formation leading to
partial or total losses if more than required MW is used; this becomes even more critical in the lateral section as the safe mud
window is typically narrower in the target zone due to low clay and high silty or carbonaceous lithology, in addition any
surge in equivalent circulating density (ECD) can have the same negative impact. In case of losses it becomes difficult to
achieve a good cement bond for casing/liner which can jeopardize the fracturing operations. In summary, following are the
key challenges in drilling shale gas horizontals:
Avoiding stuck pipe incidents due to severe borehole stability in the build section
Achieving well integrity by avoiding losses while drilling or cementing in the lateral section

In order to handle these challenges effectively, geomechanics is integrated with efficient drilling practices at various stages of
well construction design as described in the subsequent sections.


Building a pre-drill Wellbore Stability (WBS) model is a key in optimizing well construction design in shale gas horizontal
wells. This consists of the following 4 key steps:
Construct a one-dimensional Mechanical Earth Model (1-D MEM) for pilot vertical hole, and extrapolate it for
proposed sidetrack and horizontal well trajectory
Conduct pre-drill WBS analysis for horizontal well, predict potential drilling risks and safe mud weight profile
Optimize well trajectory by carrying out well deviation and azimuth sensitivity in the curve/build section
Update MEM and WBS model with LWD data while drilling, calibrate models with real-time drilling incidents, e.g.
cavings, losses, fractures etc.,
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A 1-D MEM was built using full suite of wire line logs from a pilot vertical hole across the formations through which curve
sections were to be drilled, and was calibrated with micro-frac data obtained from a wire-line based formation tester tool
across the reservoir, formations above and below reservoir. The calibrated MEM from pilot vertical hole was extrapolated for
the proposed sidetrack horizontal well and pre-drill WBS was conducted to predict problematic zones, and accordingly
estimate safe mud weight window and identify casing points. Target zone was only 50-60 feet thick, it was not possible to
build the angle in the target zone, therefore, it was planned to enter formation above the target zone at 77 deg so that the
horizontal can be landed in the target zone. The pre-drill analysis indicated several unstable zones and potential hole pack-off
zones due to severe breakouts in the curve section if drilled with 77 deg in the formation above the target zone, and predicted
quite high MW (more than 15 ppg) to avoid possible stuck pipe situation as shown in Figure 1, some intervals did not have
any safe window.

Figure 1. Mud weight verus deviation. Figure 2. High DLS design with RSS.

In order to determine the best case scenario for safe mud window to avoid stuck pipe, well deviation/azimuth sensitivity
analysis and well trajectory optimization was conducted using the calibrated MEM and pre-drill WBS model. Safe mud
window gets narrower with increase in well deviation as illustrated in Figure 1. After running various simulations, it was
found that a deviation between 63-68 deg in the problematic zone would give the best possible safe mud window. It was
learnt from these WBS simulations that increase in inclination angle (attack angle) across the problematic formation was
directly affecting wellbore stability due to the thin layering/fissility of shale. The attack angle sensitivity analysis as shown in
Figure 1 suggested a well profile that cuts through the unstable formation at a lower inclination is safer. From this
perspective, trajectory should enter the problematic zone with 63 deg or less and exit with 68 deg or less deviation. However,
it was not possible to keep this deviation as the problematic zone was directly above the target zone and well should be
landed within 15 feet right below the problematic zone. Therefore, it was decided to enter the problematic zone with 65 deg
and exit with 73 deg deviation realizing that it could pose some wellbore instability which could be managed by controlling
appropriate MW. Exiting with 73 deg would give enough room to build rest of the angle to land the well within 15 feet below
the problematic zone. In a bid to reduce directional work required across problematic formation, inclination was reduced by
about 10 degrees resulting in a curve section to have a 10-degree per 100 feet dogleg severity below the problematic
formation. To achieve this higher dogleg severity curve, new age rotary steerable system (RSS), which has capability to
deliver high doglegs was utilized as illustrated in Figure 2. The advantages of high dogleg severity (DLS) were as follows:
Deeper kick off
Reduced inclination by 10 deg across problematic formation
Improved/widened mud window by about 1-2 ppg
Minimized footage drilled across problematic formation by +/-100 ft MD
Higher build rates to land
Earlier reservoir entry and reduced uncertainty
Allowed casing to be run at immediate exit of problematic formation and helped secure drain hole

Furthermore, it was initially planned to run 9 5/8 casing on the vertical pilot hole by
SPE/IADC SPE 166735 3

Plugging back the pilot and sidetrack out of cement plug

Drilling 12 hole to 15 deg inclination and run 9 5/8 in the deviated hole

However, with WBS simulations and trajectory optimization, it was decided to

Set the 9 5/8 casing in vertical pilot at a pre-planned depth
Drill 8 3/8 vertical pilot & plug it back after logging
Sidetrack out of cement plug with PowerDrive Archer675 to drill the horizontal

This revised plan eliminated 12 hole, running whipstock as illustrated in Figure 3, and enabled us to drill the target zone
at a lower mud-weight and potentially avoid any drilling induced fractures or loss circulation as the reservoir had a relatively
lower fracture gradient. Final optimized trajectory with less severe attack angle and high DLS design provided a better safe
mud window as indicated by calibrated MEM and WBS model shown in Figure 4, safe mud window widened by about 1-2
ppg in the problematic zone.

Initial Design

Archer Design
Initial Design High DLS Design
MW window MW window

Figure 4. High DLS design provides a wider mud window.

Figure 3. Elimination of whipstock for sidetracks.

Shale in problematic zone was brittle in nature, for this reason, any mechanical action (induced by reaming, backreaming,
high RPM, fast tripping speed etc.) or hydraulic impact (ECD resulting from flow rates or heavier pills, pressure impact due
to swab & surge load etc.) would result in brittle failure causing breakouts which would potentially lead to hole pack-off and
stuck pipe situation. The formation above the problematic zone bore features of sloughing shale which oil based mud (OBM)
was equipped to handle but the problematic formation was extremely dependent on mechanical actions carried across it in
order to prevent borehole failure/pack off/breakout. Hence on entering the problematic formation, extreme precaution was
exercised in order to limit any mechanical or hydraulic impact to prevent possible borehole collapse/pack-off.

Several horizontal wells have been successfully drilled without having any stuck pipe incident. In addition, with high DLS
inspired well design, an average of 14 days savings per curve section drilled has been achieved.


Although laterals were drilled without any stuck pipe issues, the biggest challenge was to drill the laterals to planned TD
because the narrow mud window was causing pre-mature well TD due to encountering loss circulation. Challenges in drilling
lateral section are different from challenges in curve section, mainly due to drastic changes in lithology. Target zone lithology
is typically less clay, more silty or carbonaceous which has lower fracture gradient than the upper zones with higher clay
volumes. The mechanical earth model and wellbore stability analyses predicted a narrow mud window with a lower loss
circulation mud weight limit as shown in Figure 5. For this reason, partial losses has been a common phenomenon while
drilling lateral sections in shallow and thin shale plays, this phenomenon can become even more severe if the formation
contains natural fractures.
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LWD sonic data was acquired in the lateral section to enable geomechanics models to be updated in real-time, get better
estimate of stresses and fracture gradients, and predict mud weight window ahead of the bit while drilling. In order to deal
with narrow mud window, real-time geomechanics (RTGM) support was availed to monitor the borehole condition and well
behavior. The well signatures in real-time monitoring were pointing towards drilling induced fractures. The MEM updated
with RTGM observations and LWD data indicates the actual ECD is closely approaching and at times even exceeding the
loss limit as illustrated in Figure 5 (green curve). While heavy losses were reported in some intervals, flow was also reported
in some subsequent intervals, it clearly indicates signature of ballooning. The effect of ballooning was not only critical for
well integrity but was also going to affect well productivity as it will result in inefficient fracturing job due to compromised
cement bond quality.

While evaluating the root causes for loss circulation in the laterals, it was observed that drilling ECDs were higher than the
planned ECDs as shown in Figure 6. Since mud weight was maintained constant across the section, higher than planned ECD
pointed towards mud maintenance issues. When mud rheology and low-end rheology were closely evaluated, it was observed
that the mud parameters were not within the range of prescribed extended reach drilling mud parameters. Poor hole cleaning
and presence of drill solids in the mud which were potentially causing higher than planned ECD due to increased pressure
drop across the annulus (reduced flow path area in annulus due to cuttings bed) and increased fluid internal friction

9.5 10.5 ECD 11.5 12.5

Figure 6. Highher than planned ECD indicating poor mud

Figure 5. MEM updated with RTGM and LWD indciates
ECD closely following the loss limit.

In addition, it was observed that usage of sweeps had an adverse effect on hole cleaning, continuous sweeps usage was
making actual mud property maintenance bit challenging while sweeps were not bringing any extra cuttings at surface. The
sweeps performance was closely followed through cuttings flow meter and it was observed that reducing the pills usage, i.e.
pumping after every alternate stand not only helped in increasing cuttings recovery but also helped to keep ECD in check.
Mud maintenance had a positive impact on ECD reduction, mud treatment to reduce drill solids resulted in immediate
reduction of ECD as indicated in Figure 7 which was the key to optimize existing mud window available at hand.

After evaluation of loss circulation in the laterals, it was observed that the ballooning effect validates the loss gradient
estimated by RTGM calibrated MEM. The curable losses indicate that the losses were of the nature of drilling induced losses,
whereas higher than planned ECD points towards inefficient mud properties maintenance, so the root causes of loss
circulation were categorized as (a) ECD management, and (b) Mud maintenance. Based on these findings, following changes
were incorporated in drilling procedures:
Drilling at lower mud weights: for wider mud window
Better solids control while drilling the laterals: efficient ECD management
Reduced sweeps usage, pumped every alternate stand: better mud property maintenance
These recommendations have resulted in drilling the laterals to the planned TD without encountering severe mud losses and
loosing well integrity.
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About 0.25-0.5 ppg drop

in ECD after mud dilution
& running centrifuges

Figure 7. Impact of mud maintenance on ECD.

Two distinct wellbore instability challenges were experienced in drilling unconventional/shale gas horizontal wells. First
challenge was related to hole pack-off, tight hole, stuck pipe in the curve section; and the second challenge was to maintain
ECD within the loss limit in the lateral section as the mud weight window in the lateral becomes quite narrow. In order to
handle these challenges effectively geomechanics and efficient drilling practices are integrated.

Full logging suite acquired in the pilot helped build pre-drill mechanical earth model for the sidetrack and horizontal, identify
potential instability intervals and mud-weight window limits. Subsequently, the model was updated using LWD data and
calibrated with RTGM observations in the horizontal. Pre-drill and calibrated MEM greatly assisted in entire well planning
and well construction design. MEM predictions on wellbore instabilities and mud window limits were closely verified by real
time drilling incidents. This has increased the confidence in relying on its predictions and following its recommendations.

Challenges in the curve section were managed by (a) adjusting attack angle and DLS appropriately which minimized the
exposure of problematic shale intervals; (b) drilling with a rotary steerable system which could deliver high DLS; (c)
employing cuttings flow meter, an advanced hole cleaning monitoring system which allowed maximizing drilling time,
reducing tripping time and off bottom circulating time by quantifying whether hole is breaking out or needs hole
conditioning; (d) avoiding unnecessary wiper trips or reaming/backreaming after entering problematic formation.

Loss circulation was the main challenge in the lateral section which forced early TD for some wells. This challenge was
overcome by (a) effectively managing ECD within the allowable limit and (b) maintaining mud parameters as required.
Sweeps performance was closely monitored, reducing the pills usage, i.e. pumping after every alternate stand rather than
every stand helped increase cuttings recovery, as well as keep ECD within the limit. Mud treatment (reducing drill solids)
resulted in immediate reduction of ECD which was the key in managing the loss circulation.

This integrated approach and recommendations mentioned above have aided in drilling the laterals successfully to the
planned TD.