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Successful Testing of Single Gradient Subsea MudLift Drilling Technology

in Deep Water Gulf of Mexico
Rahman Sharifur, Holt Calvin, Dowell David, Morales Danilo, and Davis Siri, Chevron

Copyright 2015, Society of Petroleum Engineers

This paper was prepared for presentation at the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition held in Houston, Texas, USA, 28 30 September 2015.
This paper was selected for presentation by an SPE 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 and are subject to correction by the author(s). The material does not necessarily reflect
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Subsea MudLift Drilling (SMD) technology is a form of Managed Pressure Drilling (MPD). Similar to
other MPD systems the SMD technology offers early detection of influxes (kicks) and minimizes
downhole losses to weak sub-surface formations. However, very significant and beneficial differences are
built into the SMD system.
Two variations of Subsea MudLift Drilling techniques are currently being tested in deepwater Gulf of
1. SMD Dual gradient (SMD-D) technology also known as dual gradient drilling, and
2. SMD Single gradient (SMD-S) technology also known as single gradient managed pressure
In deepwater drilling operations, the effect of annular friction pressure (AFP) often reduces the drilling
window between pore pressure and fracture pressure. The SMD-S technique allows for the reduction of
the dynamic bottom hole pressure by pumping off a portion of the AFP while drilling. Through greater
management of the bottom hole pressure, this technology enables efficient navigation between the pore
pressure and fracture gradient profile. As a result, tremendous value can be realized through reduction of
non-productive time and the drilling cycle time. Further, the technology may enable drilling highly
deviated extended reach wells in a deepwater environment, which can potentially increase total recovery
with reduced well count.
The SMD-S system was successfully tested on one of Chevrons Deepwater GOM exploration wells.
This deployment was the penultimate step in an extensive testing and qualification process to ensure the
equipment functioned in accordance with all required design conditions, and that the operational
procedures allowed for delivering a well safely. In addition to training key operator personnel, rig
contractor, and service company personnel, engagement of third party reviewers and regulatory agencies
was critical throughout the process.
Lessons learned were recorded and corrective actions implemented throughout the process, from initial
testing at the component level through the subsea deployment of the entire system. As these items are
addressed and incorporated back into the equipment design, training, and operational procedures, a plan
is in development to drill an entire well utilizing the SMD-S technology.


This paper will highlight the benefits of SMD-S technology, the execution of the most recent
deployment and test results that are the final steps in moving towards continued managed pressure drilling
operations in the deepwater GOM.

Subsea MudLift Drilling is a sophisticated subsea managed pressure drilling technology development and
commercialization project that has just completed its fourth offshore deployment. With every deployment,
the learnings were captured and successfully addressed. The most recent deployment in deep water Gulf
of Mexico (GOM), has demonstrated that the technology works as designed by successfully accomplishing nearly all test objectives. The confidence is now very high that the industry will see the successful
commercial delivery of a world class drilling technology that offers potential for a more efficient drilling
operation. In addition, this technology will ultimately lead to enhanced production and recovery from deep
water assets.

Technology description
The Subsea MudLift Drilling (SMD) system has two operational modes (Figure 1).

Figure 1Subsea MudLift Drilling Technology Modes


Subsea MudLift Drilling Dual Gradient (SMD-D):

A fluid with a density equivalent to seawater is used in the riser and a heavier mud weight is used below
the mud line. This combination of gradients results in an annular pressure profile that more closely follows
the natural pore pressure and fracture gradient trends. This significantly improves the ability to stay within
the pressure window much longer without changing mud weights. Dual gradient drilling helps eliminating
casing points that are required in conventional drilling and offers significant production benefits in
deepwater environment.
In order to maintain constant bottom hole pressure, this technique allows annulus pressure to be
trapped below a subsea rotating control device (SRD) during connections by increasing the MaxLift pump
(MLP) inlet pressure to help manage ballooning or control wellbore stability.
Subsea MudLift Drilling-Single gradient (SMD-S):
The same mud density is placed in the riser and below the mud line so the well is effectively in Single
Gradient mode. Static and dynamic bottom hole pressures are established with the following equation for
a SMD-S system:
Static Bottom Hole Pressure MLP inlet pressure Hydrostatic column below MLP
Dynamic Bottom Hole Pressure MLP inlet pressure Hydrostatic column below MLP AFP

Pressure can be pumped off during circulation or trapped during connections with the MLP by reducing
or adding pressure below the SRD to offset the effect of annular friction pressure as the rig pumps are
ramped up to the drilling flow rate. This effectively allows the system to maintain a dynamic bottom hole
pressure (BHP) in the well which is approximately equivalent to the static BHP, thereby providing greatly
improved stability through tight pressure windows as commonly seen in the deep water Gulf of Mexico.
Note that a unique attribute of the SMD-S system is the ability to pump off AFP from under the bearing
latch assembly (BLA) in the SRD. In this configuration, the well is always hydrostatically over-balanced,
even in the event of an equipment failure or unplanned loss of power to the system.
SMD equipment testing
In order to safely and reliably perform SMD-S drilling, the SMD system hardware and operating
procedures were required to satisfy a number of basic requirements. The system needed to demonstrate
defined performance criteria of all routine drilling operations, safely manage non-routine drilling operations (e.g., well control and lost circulation events, etc.) and maintain the well in a safe condition in the
event of equipment failure.
Overall, cased-hole testing results were very positive and the technology concept was successfully
validated along with the mechanical and operational viability of the MLP and the SRD to perform
single-gradient managed pressure drilling operations. 44 test objectives were attempted during the testing
sequence and successfully passed 43 test objectives.
The main focus of the testing program for SMD-S was to determine the stability of the MLP inlet
pressure and the ability to manage the wellbore pressure profile within a controlled and predictable range.
Routine drilling procedures were tested in cased-hole, with special emphasis on the start and stop
circulation procedure while controlling AFP. Further, an assessment of the MLP inlet pressure control
while tripping pipe through the bearing latching assembly (BLA) installed on the SRD was done, as well
as verifying the ability of the pump to maintain a close to constant bottom hole pressure during these
operations. Within the non-routine operations, the ability to detect a kick and respond to a potential
equipment failure was also tested.


Test Results and Key Findings

MLP Inlet Pressure Control Test
The MLP pressure showed stability at different conditions. Flow rates were varied from 300 gpm to 800
gpm combined with different MLP inlet set points from 400 psi to 1,000 psi.
The MLP demonstrated control of the setting inlet pressure while following a schedule automatically
from 750 psi to 1,000 psi as rig pump flow rate was reduced 800 gpm to 0 gpm, followed by manual
control of the ramp up schedule. Very good MLP inlet pressure stability was observed while pumping at
different flow rates once steady state flow was achieved.
The MLP managed small increments of pressure (25 psi steps) during AFP management while
controlling the setting manually or automatically. During normal drilling related tests, the system was able
to maintain bottom hole pressure within a 10 psi band.
The SMD-S test for dynamic flow check procedure was performed by reducing the MLP inlet pressure
from ~1000 psi to ~400 psi while maintaining both rig and MLP pump rates at a constant 800 gpm;
equivalent pressure reduction was observed on the bottom hole pressure which was verified with the
real-time measurement data from the annular-pressure-while-drilling (APWD) tool (Figure 2).

Figure 2Bottom hole pressure reduction (AFP pump off)

AFP Management during connection

The SMD-S connection procedure was tested and verified successfully. The AFP algorithm works by
automatically adjusting the MLP inlet pressure against a pre-defined flow rate vs pressure table input by
the system operators. While the AFP algorithm worked reasonably well for the MLP ramp down


sequence, logic errors were noticed during MLP ramp up which needed the manual intervention of the
system operators to correct.
The BHP tracked the MLP inlet pressure during the connection procedure test. This test demonstrated
that the bottom hole static density (ESD) and bottom hole circulating density (ECD) can be precisely
controlled by using the SMD-S technique (Figure 3).

Figure 3Ramp up/Down (AFP control)

Kick Detection
The purpose of this test was to verify the kick detection mechanism with the SMD system and test the
ability to shut in and line up to circulate out a kick conventionally. During the test, the drill crew was able
to identify the influx in less than a 2 bbl gain in the system, even with the low influx rate of only 25 gpm.
The kick detection capability of the pump worked as designed (Figure 4).


Figure 4 Kick Detection

Bearing Latching Assembly (BLA)

The BLA successfully latched into the SRD joint and sheared from the running tool, so the setting
procedure was executed as designed. After setting, The BLA sealing element was successfully tested in
holding a pressure differential across the seal. The test simulated tripping 70 tool joints through the
element while varying tripping speed, rotary speed, and MLP inlet pressure, and the maximum differential
pressure tested was 750 psi. Rotary speed was varied from 50 to 100 rpm.
The BLA sealing element was inspected at the providers shop after retrieval and it showed no signs
of abnormal wear.
Overall Operations
Deploying and retrieving the system (Figure 5) has improved to where it has become a normal procedure.
Simulantous operations and time step analysis are two examples of best practices being employed to
reduce times significantly. Improvements in safe handling practices have insured incident free operations
and deployment time of less than 24hrs.

Figure 5Deployment of SMD System


Benefits of SMD-S
The cased hole test results proved the operational concept of the SMD system and the effectiveness of the
drilling procedures as they were designed and risk assessed.
Wells currently on the deepwater Gulf of Mexico portfolio will benefit from the application of the
technology in the following areas:

SMD-S will improve the likelihood of accessing the top of the Wilcox formation with larger drift
by eliminating the contingency casing strings that are set as a result of dealing with losses and
kicks encountered while drilling through tight pressure windows.
By adjusting the MLP inlet pressure, SMD-S will allow better management of the BHP to mitigate
or eliminate losses when drilling through tight margins.
Ballooning can be mitigated by maintaining near constant BHP during drilling.
Figure 6 depicts typical deepwater Gulf of Mexico lower tertiary well where the application of SMD
can potentially allow extending the open hole by mitigating the encountered drilling hazards.

Figure 6 Typical Deepwater GOM Well Drilling Window

SMD Forward Plan

Testing results clearly demonstrated that the design fundamentally works and the SMD system can offer
tremendous value to deep water wells through managed pressure drilling. The system demonstrated
control and sensitivity to wellbore pressures well within the design parameters. There is still room for
improvement based on lessons learnt to improve the robustness and reliability of the system. In the near
term, Chevron plans to use and mature SMD-S technology drilling deepwater Gulf of Mexico wells.


Once the SMD-S technology is successfully implemented, testing of SMD-D (Dual Gradient Drilling)
will commence. It is notable that the equipment used for SMD-D is unchanged from SMD-S, so testing
of the dual gradient capabilities is effectively an operational procedure test.
SMD-D remains the ultimate objective, as this is the only technology available today that offers the
ability to eliminate casing strings in a deepwater well while maintaining all conventional drilling margins.
While eliminating casing strings does save drilling time and reduces mechanical risk in deepwater wells
from tight mechanical clearances, the real value-adding benefit is that it offers the ability to reach a
reservoir with larger casings than conventional single gradient MPD systems can. This opens the door to
production enhancement opportunities not available today.
Abbreviations and Definitions
AFP (psi): Annular Friction Pressure
BLA : Bearing Latching Assembly
ESD (ppg): Equivalent Static Density.
ECD (ppg): Equivalent circulating Density
Drilling Window (psi or ppg): Difference between pore pressure (PP)
and fracture gradient (FG).
Drilling Margin (psi or ppg): Difference between leak-off test/formation integrity test
(LOT/FIT) at the previous shoe and
the MW (Downhole).

MW (ppg) : Mud Weight

MRL: Mud Return Line
MPD: Managed Pressure Drilling
SMD-S: Subsea MudLift Drilling-Single gradient
SMD-D: Subsea MudLift Drilling-Dual gradient
SRD: Subsea Rotating Device

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