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Part 11 - Relief Wells:

Advancements in technology and application engineering

make the relief well a more practical blowout control
John W. Wright, Blowout Advisor, John Wright Company, Houston,
L. Flak, former Wright, Boots & Coots employee.
This article describes evolution of the relief well in blowout control in
terms of technology, strategy, planning and use . Concepts reviewed
explain when a relief well is appropriate and the final section describes basic steps
in design and execution of a relief well operation.
More blowouts now warrant evaluation of a relief well as a primary control
option. In the past, relief well developments in technology and strategy occurred
only during unique blowout control operations. Now, how ever, a continuous
process of improvement has evolved, aided by hydraulic kill models. As a result,
strategic planning and new technology provide a more adaptive and efficient
control option.

The relief well has traditionally been a
last resort when other surface kill efforts
fail. This has changed with increasing
technology requirements for horizontal,
deep, offshore, hostile environment, or
high pressure wells. Questions arose
whether blowouts of some wells could
be killed at all, especially with the
possibility of under ground blowouts.
Fortunately, relief well advancements
paralleled this period of technology
growth and now provide viable blowout

control options. The operator of a blowing well will likely consider surface capping
methods before snubbing or relief well options. Some of the events influencing
choice include:

Is the well on fire?

How long will it take to clear debris?
Can the well be capped once access is gained?
Should the fire be extinguished, given possible pollution or H2S?
If there is no fire, should one be ignited to avoid flammable gas clouds or
other risks?
Can the well be capped while on fire?
Can it be shut-in and killed by bullheading or circulating, or should it be
What if casing fails, causing an underground blowout or cratered well?

If a well clearly cannot be capped, the decision is simple-drill a relief well. But if it
is uncertain whether the well once capped can be killed, then additional options
remain. These include (1) rig up a snubbing or coil tubing unit to run a kill string
and perform a circulation kill, (2) drill a relief well, or both. A planning team must
quickly evaluate each option, associated safety risks, pollution, escalating
severity, logistical obstacles, public concern, available resources, and other
factors that might override preferred strategy. Complex, informed decisions must
be made, especially when considering parallel surface and relief well operations.
To make a decision, the operator must be aware of changes in technology,
applications, planning technique, and demonstrated success. Starting a relief well
plan is not only cheap insurance should initial strategy fail, but a demonstrated
means of efficiently killing blowouts.

A change in relief well technology has always prompted a refinement in
application strategy, often broadening the range of uses. Strategy has become a
tool in itself, supported by software models and complex decision analysis.
The original purpose of a relief well was to relieve pressure on a blowing
formation by drilling a vertical well around the blowout and producing it (them) at
high rates.
A directionally drilled relief well on a prolific cratered blowout near Conroe,
Texas, in 1933 marked the first mile stone in relief well development. New

borehole survey instruments and the openhole whipstock allowed controlled

directional drilling and first changes in relief well procedure from drilling vertical
producing wells. A directionally drilled relief well intersected the flowing reservoir
below the blowout surface location, water was pumped into the reservoir, and
the well was successfully killed.
Between 1933 and 1970, most relief wells followed this basic strategy. Due to
limitations of borehole surveying instruments, actual distance between blowout
and relief holes was subject to significant bottomhole position uncertainty. Two
or more relief wells thus were often used to increase probability of gaining
hydraulic communication.
Early procedure was to pump water into the reservoir to communicate with the
blowout well, sometimes killing the well by flooding the reservoir. Other cases
required pumping weighted mud into the blowout well bore after gaining
communication through a channel created by water flow, acid treatment, or
fracturing. However, increased drilling depths, high GOR producers and low
permeability reservoirs resulted in blowouts that could not be killed with such
In 1970, Shell Oil Co.'s Cox 1, a 22,000-ft Smackover exploratory well, blew out
near Piney Woods, Mississippi. Accurately drilling a relief well to that depth with
existing techniques was doubtful. This challenge led to the first direct intersection
of a blowout tubular using a detection method. Wireline instruments were
developed to detect proximity of a tubular by measuring distance and direction
from the relief well to the blowout casing. Ultimately, the well was intersected
and killed at 10,500 ft, with communication gained by perforating from the relief
well to the blowout. This success was the beginning of the modern relief well,
establishing strategy and planning for future relief well projects and the basis for
commercial casing detection instruments (outside the Soviet bloc).
Magnetostatics. In 1975, a Gulf of Mexico blowout provided economic incentive
for developing the first commercial magnetostatic or "passive" casing detection
tools, still in use. These instruments measure perturbations of the earth's
magnetic field caused by remnant magnetic poles on the blowout casing or
drillstring. Basic physics allows determination of relative distance and direction
from relief well to blowout. The outer range of detection is 20 to 40+ ft depending
on magnetic pole strength.
This method was used on most relief wells through the mid-1980s requiring
ranging on tubulars in the blowout well.

Specialty kill fluids. In 1976, specialty fluids were used during a unique cratered
blowout in the Persian Gulf from a high permeability gas section of the Asmari
formation at 3,500 ft. Hole size was 17-1/2 in. With casing at 1,100 ft. Four relief
wells gained hydraulic communication with the borehole, but were unable to
control the flow with conventional kill fluids. This resulted in first use of polymer
systems as kill fluids. Two polymer types were pumped through separate relief
wells. An extremely viscous, cross-linked guar gum was pumped into salt cavities
above the reservoir, and a high molecular weight HEC polymer was pumped into
the reservoir matrix. The guar filled the cavities and decreased gas flow while the
HEC blocked off loss of kill fluid to the vuggy, fractured reservoir matrix.
A similar technique was successful on Mexico's offshore Ixtoc blowout in 1980.
Dynamic kill. In 1978, Mobil Oil documented the technique of "dynamic kill" on a
prolific gas blowout in Arun field, Indonesia.4 The technique involves circulating a
light initial fluid, such as water, with sufficient friction pressure to kill the blowout
(hence the name "dynamic"), followed by mud with sufficient density to contain
reservoir pressure. Advantages include its use when kill pressures in the well bore
must be developed in a controlled manner to prevent formation fracture; simple
hydraulic calculations; and use of the relief well drillstring for real time
measurement of BHP during pumping. Disadvantages include high hp
requirements for killing a well with a light fluid. This technique laid the foundation
for future engineered kill procedure designs.
Electromagnetic casing detection. In 1980, another blowout in the Gulf of Mexico
led to commercial development of the first electromagnetic "active" ranging
instrument. By applying AC electric current to the blowout tubulars, a wireline
instrument in the relief well can detect the induced AC magnetic field. Instrument
sensors measure field direction and intensity, providing data for calculating
relative distance.
A blowout in 1982, using a modified technique with downhole current injection,
demonstrated that casing could be detected at a range of at least 200 ft. The
technique efficiently located blowout tubulars for a direct intersection. Casing
detection and other developments in surveying and MWD proved a technique for
triangulating the blowing well, reducing plugging and sidetracks. This again
changed basic strategy for designing relief well trajectories. Accuracy meant
savings; few blowouts after this date involved two relief wells.
Borehole surveying technology and procedures began to advance in the 1980s.
Small diameter north-seeking rate-gyro systems, with greatly increased cased
hole survey accuracy, became commercially available in 1982. MWD technology
advanced rapidly in this period, particularly with respect to reliability,

transmission speed, smaller sizes and directional instrument accuracy. Major

advances were also made in under standing and correcting error sources inherent
in MWD and electronic multishot surveying with respect to sensors, mechanical
flexures in the BHA and BHA magnetization.
Due to a better understanding of the earth's magnetic field and the ability to
sample raw data from accelerometer and magnetometer arrays, quality control of
surveys became easier. Relief wells could be targeted more precisely with better
information and more confidence.
Surface kill equipment. Basic requirements have not changed, but advances in
high pressure hydraulic fracturing in the 1980s increased efficiency of controlling
a kill operation. Skid-mounted portable high pressure pumping assemblies are
easily manifolded and tandem-stacked if necessary for offshore applications.
Higher hhp frac pumps are available for many land operations. All pumps can now
be remotely operated from a single control point, facilitating quick changes in
pump rates or kill fluids, and making kill pumping operations more coordinated
and controlled. Modular high pressure manifolding systems, once custom
manufactured, are now avail able in various sizes for up to 20,000 psi discharge
Blowouts offshore pose problems in accessing wellheads, pumping equipment
and kill lines. Steel flex hose technology allows connections to sub sea wellheads
in deep water. Remotely operated valves, relief valves and hydraulic disconnect
units make quick isolation of a kill line safe and practical during the kill.
Computer vans or offshore modules are available for monitoring pressures and
flowrates required during a kill in a single air-conditioned quiet room. The kill
supervisor can direct operations in a non-hostile environment with multiple
television screens plotting various data sets for quick analysis. Self-contained
stimulation vessels are now available in many offshore areas of the world and
make suitable kill platforms in some situations.
Steerable systems. In 1988, fully steerable directional drilling systems were first
used on a relief well. Using stabilized bent housing motors in various
configurations with a reliable and accurate MWD system facilitates precision
directional work required to drill complex relief well trajectories for ranging
triangulation and direct intersections. Relef well strategy changes made this same
year combined relief well trajectory and electromagnetic ranging constraints into
better planning for more accurate and efficient placement of the relief well.
The result. In 1989, the result of 20 years of new technology and strategy proved
itself in the North Sea on the Saga petroleum 2/4-14 blowout, with a direct

intersection of an 8 1/2-in. borehole at a depth of nearly 5 km.(7) No sidetracks

were requred and only nine electromagnetic fixes were made.
The project further led to development of a sophisticated, fully dynamic, twophase hydraulic kill simulation. This software allows complex evaluation of many
kill scenarios with various sensititivites, to determine the most efficient kill
method. This capability has become a powerful tool in optimizing relief well kill

Blowout contingency plans were instituted for many international operators int
he early 1990s. These plans document general emergency procedures, apply
newly developed control strategies to specific wells and offshore structures, and
provide a basis of examination. The process has helped define and address critical
problems that might be encountered in controlling a blowout with a relief well. It
also allows for continuous strategy refinement.
Horizontal drilling activity has resulted in BHAs capable of producing controllable
dog-leg severity rates >20 deg/100 ft, increasing options for relief well trajectory
design, particularly for shallow blowouts. Rugged rate-gyro survey sensors
provide instrumentation for steering tools used while drilling with a mud motor.
This is especially useful for drilling a relief well next to casing in a vertical blowout.
Recent advances in borehole survey technology provide small diameter full
inertial navigation systems, using both steel and laser gyros capable of mapping
borehole trajectory with an uncertainty approaching 1 ft/1,000 ft of hole depth in
a fraction of the usual gyro survey time.
Electromagnetic detection advances have reduced uncertainty in relative
distance measurements by using better measurements of the electromagnetic
Direct measurement of distance now is possible independent of the amount of
current flowing in the target at distances up to 30 ft with uncertainties of +5% of
the distance. Another tool, providing measurement along the z-axis, enables
placement of a vertical relief well over a horizontal blowout or other high
approach angle situation. Where surface access of the blowout is possible, such as
a simultaneous snubbing operation, an AC electromagnetic source can be
deployed by wireline in the blowout well. A sensor in the relief well measures the
induced magnetic field and determines distance and relative direction with

uncertainties less than +10% of the distance. These casing detection options
support a broader range of relief well design possibilities.
Specialty fluids today. Two blowouts in 1993 resulted in further refinement in
application of specialty kill fluids when conventional fluids (water, brine, weight
mud) did not work. Conditions that call for a special fluid, or a two part reactive
fluid mixture, that can set up quickly and plug off and/or separate two flowing
zones include:

High flow potential gas reservoir s with low fracture strength and/or very
high permeability with vugs and caverns
Blowout flowpaths at vertical depths that will not allow a static kill without
fracturing the formation
Two or more zones flowing which cannot be practically killed
Supercharged recipient zones in underground blowouts which unload the
kill fluid above, lowers hydrostatic below, and again allows reservoir flow.

Fluid types used include crosslinked and linear polymers, with gel time and
strength controlled by temperature and pH. Other two-fluid reactive mixtures
must be pumped separately or in slugs similar to pumping a gunk plug for lost
circulation. Soft plugs (diesel oil, bentonite and cement that react with water) can
be successfully used in specific situations. Chemicals that will form hard plugs
when properly mixed can seal off a borehole or aid in the killing process when
combined with heavy mud and/or cement. Such a plug controlled a prolific gas
blowout in Argentina in 1993.


This guide outlines non-routine steps in planning a relief well based on proven
technology. The design usually requires several revisions before an acceptable
plan is achieved (Fig. 33). The blowout scenario controls the planning process. If
the scenario or severity changes, the relief well plan may require dramatic
When to start a relief well. The first step is to determine if the blowout well can
be capped and killed by bullheading or circulating down existing tubulars. If there
is significant uncertainty in the ability to cap the well, a pre-emptive relief well
planning team should be formed (within 48 hrs of the blowout). Cost of a plan is
cheap insurance should a relief well be needed and the relief well can often serve
as a replacement well.

If the well cannot be capped, the relief well(s) can then start as soon as possible.
If the well can be capped but not killed, then use a snubbing or coil tubing unit for
a circulating kill, or drill a relief well, or start both operations simultaneously.
Planners complete basic snubbing and relief well evaluations and identify
weaknesses. Blowout snubbing operations that require fishing or have high gas
flowrates have a high incidence of problems. If there is major uncertainty in
snubbing success, then a relief well should be started parallel with snubbing.
Advantages of either may be altered by overriding factors such as pollution,
safety, etc.
It may be more cost effective to drill a relief well rather than snub if:

A blowout can be capped, but can not be shut-in without risking an

underground blowout. It can be put on emergency production while drilling
a relief well.
An evaluation of risk of casing wear during fishing operations indicates
likelihood of causing an under ground or broached blowout even while the
well is on production.
A serious pollution problem requires the well be ignited to limit
environmental damage, yet it is not practical to cap the well while burning.

Task force. Organize a dedicated task force for planning and executing the relief
well. Depending on project size, this may be a few people or a large organization.
The leader should be a senior drilling engineer or drilling manager from the
operating company. There may be an office planning team and a field execution
team. Teams are normally broken into two functions, one planning the kill
operation and the other planning the drilling and intersection pro gram. At least
one relief well advisor and one senior drilling engineer should be assigned to each
group. Support personnel are added as needed depending on project size.
Initial decisions. Once the task force is formed, it should at least consider these

Does getting critical equipment, contractors and supplies involve

considerable lead time?
What rigs are available and are they suited for drilling the relief well?
If a rig is ready, can a surface location be picked immediately and the well
spudded before planning is completed?
What sizes and grades of casing will be required and are they readily

There should always be a mechanism to update and review the decision-making

process, and a careful pacing of the decision itself. Though there is always a sense
of urgency in evaluating decisions during a blowout (and many can be made
quickly with the help of a relief well advisor), some decisions take time and
research to clarify
Planning process. Relief well planning is a repetitive and parallel process requiring
simultaneous evaluation of the kill pumping program and the drilling and
intersection program. The kill point governs outcome of both programs. The kill
point must be weighed against what is best for killing the well and what is best for
drilling and intersecting. Experience will help make initial assumptions. The kill
team then analyzes the kill program based on the given point and the drilling
team analyzes the drilling and intersection pro gram based on the given point. If
either group finds the chosen point unacceptable, it will be moved up or down
the well and re-analyzed until an acceptable plan is reached.
Once the chosen relief well design is presented, it should be continuously
analyzed for safety, logistics, probability of success and economics (see box).
Coming next: The concluding article in this series will discuss the developing role
and interrelation between oil well firefighting companies, blowout engineering
advisors, service companies and operators to better manage blowout control
Table: Relief well planning considerations
Iterative systematic planning

Define objectives and establish kill point

Design hydraulics for various scenarios
Establish surface equipment requirements
Detail kill procedures
Design casing program
Establish relative position uncertainty
Establish number of relief wells
Determine initial casing search depth
Establish surface location(s)
Design relief well and drilling program
Define special equipment requirements

Surface equipment

High/low pressure pumping equipment

High/low pressure manifolding
Tanks, mixing and transfer equipment
Water/diesel requirements and storage
Rig specifications and deck layout

Hydraulic design

Blowout fluid and reservoir properties

Various kill fluids and injection rates
Relief well tubular sizes and strengths
Maximum predicted surface pressures
Hydraulic horsepower requirements
Drill string ejection pressure
Kill fluid volumes and time to achieve kill

Kill procedures

Communication and chain of command

Decision tree and detailed scenarios
Testing of equipment as a system
Plugging blowout and relief wells

Stimulation vessel as kill platform

Special and backup equipment

Establishing kill point

Status of blowout casing and wellhead

Flow path and tubing performance
Blowout and kill fluid properties
Formation properties at kill point
Formation drillability time
Directional constraints and control
Surface and special equipment
Risk analysis and success probability

Initial search depth

Type of search instrument

Blowout casing and sidetracked fish
Chemical and physical characteristics
Drilling mud in blowout and relief well
Relative position uncertainty
Formation drillability near detection point
Well control considerations
Well path and dogleg considerations

Relief-well geometry

Kickoff point, build drop and turn rates,

Well control
Casing detection
Survey accuracy

Borehole uncertainty

Survey sensors
Geographic location
Borehole attitude
Instrument uncertainty model
Instrument calibration data
Field quality assurance
Survey comparisons

Surface location

Insurance and regulatory requirements,

surface/ seabed hazards or obstacles
Hydrogen sulfide concentration
Prevailing winds, currents, waves and ice
Heat radiation or bubble plume
Shallow gas hazards and bathymetry
Geologic hazards
Directional and survey considerations
Rig type

Establishing fluid communication

Direct intersection with bit

Low pressure acid or water squeeze
Hydraulic fracturing
Perforating guns or explosives

Coming Next
Well control incident management and critical alliances. The final ariticle in this
series on blowout control, summarizing the contents of the series and providing
insight as to the future of blowout control.
Next Article

Literature Cited

1. Bruist, E. H., "A new approach in relief well drilling," SPE 3511, New Orleans, La., 1971.
2. Morris, F J., R. L. Walters and J. P Costa, "A new method of determining range and direction from a relief
well to a blowout" SPE 6781, Denver, Colo., 1977.
3. Arnwine, L. C. and J. W. Ely, "Polymer use in blowout control," SPE 6835 Denver, Colo , 1977.
4. Blount, E. M., and E. Soeiinah, "Dynamic kill: Controlling wild wells a new way " World Oil, October 1981.
5. West, C L., and Kuckes, A. F., "Successful ELREC logging for casing proximity in an offshore Louisiana
blowout," SPE 11996, San Francisco, Calif ,1983.
6. Flak, L. H. and W C. Jr Goins, "New relief well technolngy is improving blowout control" World Oil, Dec. 1983
and January 1984.
7. Leraand, F., J. Wright, M. Zachary and B. Thompson, "Relief well planning and drilling for a North Sea
underground blowout," JPT, March 1992.

The authors
John Wright's photo and biography appeared in Part 1 of this series. Please see
World Oil, Nov. 1993, page 78.
L. Flak is a former John Wright Company employee.