by Tom Smith

    Digging Downward Going Forward – The Ever-increasing Innovation of Oil Drilling Techniques

    When we think of oil drilling, we generally imagine a pipe in some warm country, being bored straight downward into the ground, ending in a crude oil reservoir. In many cases this is true, and has been since the earliest recorded wells in 3rd century China. However, drilling technologies are changing at a pace commensurate with other 21st century innovations It’s no coincidence, because new oil reservoirs are increasingly difficult to find and tap into. The combination of these factors has resulted in a variety of drilling techniques and technologies. In the high risk, high reward world of oil extraction, each technology has its own particularities, costs, and consequences.

    Modern Directional Drilling

    Perhaps you recall, during the 1990s, Iraq’s accusations that Kuwait was drilling diagonally across the border in order to steal oil. It sounds like a cockamamie plot. But strangely enough, lawsuits in the 1920s about diagonal drilling to steal oil from neighbours were actually the original manner in which the oil industry at large became aware of the possibility to drill in other directions than straight down. Of course, the applications of the technique go far beyond theft. And since the mid-1930s, directional drilling has become increasingly common and sophisticated, allowing for drill angles that span completely horizontal.

    The first benefit of directional drilling is that it allows access to oil that’s under something you can’t drill into, like a mountain, lake, or town. It also can increase the length of the exposed section of the pipe in the actual reservoir, as reservoirs are generally wider than they are deep. A diagonal pipe can also be used to relieve pressure from a well that’s blown out and gushing, though this is less and less common as gushing pipes become more preventable. Increasingly, diagonal drilling is used to bore multiple holes outward in different directions from a single surface location reducing surface ecological disruption as well as costs.

    The downside of directional drilling is that it’s slower, requires more surveying, and it can be more expensive. At higher angles, it can also be more challenging to lower equipment and tools into the hole. However, all these mitigating factors are being reduced by advances in drilling motors and surveying technologies.

    Offshore Drilling

    Drilling offshore is, in principle, exactly the same as drilling onshore, except that there’s water between the top of the pipe and the actual ground. It seems simple enough. You build a rig to make sure there’s a platform above for workers and away you go. People have been doing it since the 1890s. In practice, offshore drilling is far more expensive, far more risky, and requires much larger production facilities and transportation operations. Also, because oil drilling is all about pressure and using pressure to force out oil against the will of gravity, the increased pressure in deep waters present a considerable technical challenge.

    And, of course, the ecological risks are enormous. The water surrounding offshore sites can be contaminated by “produced water”, an industry term for water carrying the industrial waste from the process. But there are two far larger risks: oil tanker spills like the Exxon Valdez and underwater pipeline breaks like Deepwater Horizon. As we saw with the Deepwater Horizon, the technology to stop leaks and recover oil is still in its infancy, and when these disasters occur, the companies responsible can have very limited or even non-existent contingency plans. The result? Five million barrels of crude oil released into delicate marine ecosystems from this one spill alone.

    Arctic Drilling

    Arctic offshore drilling is as difficult and risky as it sounds. Take all the challenges of offshore drilling and add tonnes of ice, incredibly harsh conditions, and the most remote locations on Earth. It’s highly controversial in most jurisdictions. If such a leak comparable to the Deepwater Horizon were to occur in arctic waters, there’s literally no telling how long it could take to get under control. The technologies to respond to such an emergency simply do not exist. But a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic Circle contains 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, recoverable oil. That’s in the ballpark of $10 trillion worth. So you can bet that, regardless of the outcome, this debate has only just begun.

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