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The Better Business Publication Serving the Exploration / Drilling / Production Industry

Technical, Economic Trends

Opening New Possibilities
For Multistage Completions
By Brad Rieb and Stephanie Weiss
HOUSTONTechnical advances and economic drivers are rapidly changing
the definition of conventional horizontal completions and enabling new
multistage stimulation strategies, bringing operators unprecedented initial
production results in both unconventional oil and natural gas reservoirs.
Horizontal wells that might have been completed with six or eight
transverse fractures a year ago now are being completed in 20 or more frac
stages, largely because economical zonal isolation technology, fluid systems
and stimulation techniques have redefined the conventional cost/benefit
The trend toward multistage completion and stimulation provides great
boosts in initial production, leading to new operator expectations for
technology development, and a universal desire for reliable tools and
stimulation technologies that provide the means to economically stimulate
20, 40 or even more intervals of one horizontal well bore.

Reproduced for BJ Services Company with permission from The American Oil & Gas Reporter
SpecialReport: Well Stimulation & Completion Technology

Conventional reservoir engineering held that stimulation comprise multiple zones with 100 feet or more between isolating
programs should be designed to maximize reserve recovery elements. When the stimulation treatment begins, the frac can
within the bounds of the rock properties: porosity, permeability, initiate anywhere in that space, without regard to what reservoir
net pay, water saturation and assigned drainage area. engineering may suggest is the best location. So although the
Although it is not necessarily contradictory, the new field goal may be to place fracs in the center of each interval, the
development paradigm strongly promotes early production, reality may be that the fracs are only a few meters apart, or one
driven by financial market incentives for short-term profits, and interval may promote initialization of multiple fractures,
tax and royalty incentives that delay or minimize payments increasing the chances of early screen-out.
until after several months of production or capital recovery. The Second, in an open-hole completion, the isolating elements
fuel for this drive has been the abundance of technology that fa- (packers) must seal against whatever formation shape is created
cilitates exploitation of more reservoir, more cheaply and more during drilling, rather than a smooth steel casing. While this
quickly than ever before. may not be an issue for a carefully drilled well in a competent
To economically develop gas shale reservoirs, the goal of formation, a nonoval hole or washed out zones can create
completion is to maximize the stimulated area of the hydrocar- isolation problems that prevent a good seal or create the potential
bon-bearing rock exposed to the well bore. The economic con- for packers to initialize fractures as they set.
straints include: Despite (or because of) these economic and technical trade-
Zonal isolation costsThis may include liners and cement, offs, both types of completions continue to be used throughout
hardware such as packers and frac ports, or diversion technologies the industry. And new technologies continue to increase the
such as ball sealers, which may be required to isolate each number of zones that each type of completion can accommodate.
interval of the horizontal well bore for optimial stimulation. It
would also include the time required to run or manipulate the Packers And Frac Ports
tools and hardware. In many parts of North America, multizone completion is
Stimulation costsThis includes perforating systems, fluids synonymous with frac ports. These ports typically are run
and proppants, as well as hydraulic horsepower and personnel into an open-hole well and landed using drill pipe or tubing.
required to design, optimize and perform the treatment. Each port is isolated from the others with open-hole packers,
Environmental impactOften left out of the cost equation
in the past, regulatory pressure is prompting operators to
consider ways to reduce this cost by using less fresh water, pro-
cessing flow-back water before disposal, and minimizing
ecological footprints.
Although it always has been technically possible to stimulate
40 or more intervals of a horizontal well bore using a host of
isolation technologies, it has not been economically or logistically
practical because of the cost of the packer running and setting
operations, the stimulation fluids and proppants, disposal of
flow-back water, etc.
In the past few years, however, all these constraints have
seen great changes, creating synergies that change the economic
feasibility of massively multistage completions.
Open Versus Cased Hole
An initial economic consideration for horizontal wells is the
question of open-hole completions versus cased-hole, cemented
completions. Both options allow multizone completions, with
some technical or economic trade-offs.
The benefit of open-hole completions in competent formations
is the reduced well construction cost, because these completions
need no liner/casing, cement or perforating. Continuous stimulation
is theoretically faster because there is no need to wait for perfo-
rations to be created or for plugs to be set between intervals.
Coordinating all the equipment, personnel, materials and proce-
The downside of open-hole completions and the upside of dures involved in massively multistage completions requires
cased wells, however, is in controlling the fracture path. Cased new levels of on-site management and control to efficiently run
and cemented completions allow better interval selectivity and 20, 30 or even 40 or more stimulation stages in horizontal oil and
gas shale wells.
isolation for two reasons. First, most open-hole completions
SpecialReport: Well Stimulation & Completion Technology

which seal against the formation to create zonal isolation.

During stimulation, at the end of each frac stage, a ball is
pumped down hole. The ball seats in a hardware seating assembly
that shifts the next frac port open while sealing off the previously
stimulated interval. After all treatments, the well is placed on
production, allowing the balls to be returned to surface with
well production.
Frac port technology is not new, but the number of frac
stages possible in each well has increased dramatically over the
past year as a result of operator demand and heightened compe-
tition among suppliers. Even one year ago, state-of-the-art
systems could sequentially stimulate nine or 10 well segments.
Now, technology is available to treat 20 segments or more.
Potential drawbacks of frac sleeve technology multiply as the
number of zones increases. Running into the well may damage As evidenced by this three-well simultaneous frac job in the
sleeves or packers, so most suppliers recommend reamer runs to Bakken Shale play in Montana, simultaneously fracturing multiple
ensure smooth runs without damage. In addition, because reliable parallel well bores requires enormous horsepower, fluids and
proppant. Simultaneous fracturing is designed to take advantage
isolation is critical to achieving a fracture, it is useful to include of residual stress interference between wells to redirect propa-
at least two packer elements per sleeve, with some separation gating fractures to enhance the degree and intensity of fracturing
between packers to protect against one packer landing against a between well bores, maximizing communication with the natural
washout area where it cannot seal.
The next critical function of a frac sleeve system covers the pumped, isolating previously stimulated zones. After all stages,
balls and seats. These completion systems use sequential sets the coiled tubing would be used to clean out all the sand plugs,
of balls in one-quarter inch increments for as many as 12 zones. allowing the well to flow.
Newer systems with more sleeves rely on even smaller ball in- Gravity effects and sloughing limited the sand plug technique
crements. Poor quality assurance during tool manufacturing to vertical wells until a composite sand plug was developed that
and conditions created while pumping the stimulation job (for used a patented ultralightweight proppant and proppant flow-
example, wide differences between surface and bottom-hole back additive to provide a stable sand plug in cased-hole
temperatures) can prevent proper operation of these systems. horizontal completions. This low-risk system provides quicker,
In addition, anecdotal evidence from operators suggests that more efficient isolation than conventional mechanical technologies
some balls may fragment on impact with frac sleeves and other and operates at differential pressures exceeding 6,000 psi. The
downhole objects, rendering them unable to shift their respective technology has been used to stimulate hundreds of stages in
sleeves. If the surface pressure chart does not show sufficient Canada, with typical completions featuring eight or nine stages
pressure response when the sleeve shift is expected, then the at 300-foot zone spacing.
lower zone may not be isolated and the frac may retreat the The technology showed its versatility and reliability for the
same zone rather than the intended one. new horizontal fracturing paradigm when used in the Barnett
Finally, balls may not return to surface on initial production, Shale for a record-setting completion: 44 zones in a 2,800-foot
requiring an operation to drill them out. In addition, some horizontal well in only 17 days of daylight-only operations.
operators mill out the seats even if the balls flow back normally. Stage spacing for the record-setting Barnett well varied from
To simplify a milling operation, some systems have locking 50 to 80 feet. The high frac density was designed to connect as
seats that will not spin during a drill-out operation, saving much rock as possible across the horizontal segment without
hours of time per zone. breaching a nearby water zone. Therefore, compared with less-
dense operations, the job was designed to create more, smaller
Annular Fracs With CT fracs.
Using coiled tubing-assisted annular fracturing in cased and A total of 4.2 million pounds of sand were pumped for the
cemented horizontal wells also has expanded significantly. This combined operation. All the sand plugs performed as designed.
is partly because of new and sophisticated technologies that can Surface treating pressures averaged 3,500 psi with pump rates
be applied in horizontal wells. from 10 to 18 barrels a minute.
Initial applications of the technology used coiled tubing to More recently, a fast and reliable alternative to sand plugs
convey a jetting tool that would create clean, undamaged perfo- has been developed. The new process, licensed by ExxonMobil
rations through the well casing. The coiled tubing was then Upstream Research Company, provides zonal isolation using a
pulled up the hole to the next stimulation segment while the resettable packer on the CT bottom-hole assembly. The proprietary
frac was pumped down the annulus between the CT string and assembly is run into the well and positioned precisely using a
the casing. At the end of the frac, a large sand plug would be mechanical collar locator. Slips and the packer are set with
SpecialReport: Well Stimulation & Completion Technology

pressure and weight, isolating any lower zones. Perforations material is needed for an operation. This reduces both the cost
are jetted. Finally, the fracture treatment is pumped down the and environmental impact of the fluid systems.
annulus. After the treatment, the anchor slips and packer retract, In addition, many shale basins and other unconventional plays
and the assembly can be moved up hole to the next zone, where face significant water shortages and environmental pressure to
the sequence is repeated. reduce fresh water requirements for stimulation. The issue is par-
The process can be used in a variety of completion systems, ticularly significant because long horizontal wells require large
including conventionally cemented liners or expandable liners. volumes of treatment fluid, and even if increased frac density
In addition, recovery from screen-outs is quick and no post-job means smaller fracs, the fluid requirements are immense.
milling or sand clean-outs are required. Field operations include: As a result, service companies have worked with operators in
A 22-stage well in the Bakken Shale, treated with 22,000 a number of key plays to develop fluid and additive systems that
pounds of 20/40 Ottawa sand per stage to a measured depth of are compatible with recycled frac fluid or produced water. Field
9,500 feet in a single trip of 51 hours; proven in hundreds of treatments, these fluids not only promote
A 30-stage well in the Bakken Shale, treated with 11,000 environmental stewardship, but also save operators money.
pounds of Ottawa sand per stage to a measured depth of 8,500 For example, an operator in the Bakken Shale used a borate
feet in a single trip of 66 hours; and cross-linked system that was mixed with produced water from
A 12-stage well in the oil-bearing Viking formation, another well. The operator estimated the system saved 10-15
treated with 25,000 pounds of Ottawa sand per stage to a depth percent of the total stimulation cost because of reductions in
of 4,900 feet in a single trip of 17 hours. hauling, heating and disposing of fluids, and related costs.
Service companies produced water-compatible and recyclable
Advanced Fluid Systems
systems also include surfactant gels, low-pH chemistries and
As isolation technologies have improved, so have technologies slick-water systems.
related to achieving optimal stimulation treatments. Fluids, Although slick water suggests a low-tech approach to
proppants and delivery technologies have evolved in a short fluid design, state-of-the-art slick-water systems include
time to accommodate operators technical, economic and envi- engineered friction reducers, biocides and clay management
ronmental needs. The three needs were fortuitously comple- products that are efficient and compatible, and meet or exceed
mentary, as changes in one area tended to aid the others. local, regional and national environmental regulations. Com-
For example, technical requirements of fluids in low-perme- modity-level slickwater systems frequently use low-quality
ability oil and gas fields typically include high viscositywhich potassium chloride or a substitute for clay management, and
must persist through the course of a long pump time to effectively unregulated bleach in place of true biocides, leading to a risk of
stimulate the farthest interval at the toeand low polymer damage from swelling clays and reservoir souring.
loadings. In many cases, new fluids that function with lower
polymer loadings may use more expensive polymers, but less Minimizing Proppant Settling
In applications that rely on slick water as the carrier fluid for
high-volume treatments, ultralightweight proppants have been
used to replace traditional white sand. With specific gravity as
low as 1.06, these proppants are nearly neutrally buoyant in
water, so they can be transported farther within a created
fracture. This, in turn, allows effective placement of proppant
partial monolayers, which produce a conductive fracture geometry
similar to traditional multilayer proppant packs.
Because the ultralightweight proppant does not settle out of
the fluid as rapidly as normal sand, it can achieve far greater
distribution into the created fracture area, creating larger effective
fracture half lengths. And because much less proppant is required
than in a typical sand frac (around 90 percent less), the
technology has proven to be economically and technically
superior in massive slick-water fracs.
Ultralightweight proppant is also the basis for a new system
Ultralightweight proppant is a key component in a new small-
footprint system designed for fluid-sensitive and underpres- designed for water-sensitive and underpressured formations.
sured formations, such as Devonian shales in the Appalachian The technology has proven to be more effective than conventional
Basin. The ultralightweight proppant is premixed with a nondam-
aging viscoelastic fluid to create a slurry that is pumped directly
foam fracs in underpressured, fluid-sensitive Devonian shales
into a high-pressure nitrogen or CO2 gas stream to successfully in the northeastern United States. In this case, the proppant is
fracture zones that do not respond well to slick water or conven- premixed with a nondamaging viscoelastic fluid to create a
tional foams.
slurry that is pumped directly into a high-pressure nitrogen or
SpecialReport: Well Stimulation & Completion Technology

carbon dioxide gas stream. Energized fluid qualities range from

93 to 99 percent of the total fluid volume.
The technique significantly reduces water requirements and
virtually eliminates post-frac cleanup time and water disposal
costs. It enables successful fracturing in wells that do not respond
well to slick water or conventional foams. It also enables operations
in a small footprint, which is a critical benefit on the typical tight
locations in northeastern U.S. shales, where it has resulted in ex-
ceptional production increases in both vertical and horizontal wells. BRAD
Techniques And Tools Brad Rieb is the regional technical manager for BJ
Another stimulation trend in North American shales is to use Services Company Canada Ltd. in Calgary. He has held
the technique of simultaneously fracturing two or more parallel senior technical roles in production, completion, reservoir
well bores. These enormous operations are designed to take ad- engineering and business development. Rieb holds a diploma
vantage of residual stress interference between wells, redirecting in petroleum technology from the Southern Alberta Institute
propagating fractures to enhance the degree and intensity of of Technology and a B.S. in petroleum engineering from
fracturing in the area between the well bores, maximizing com- Montana Tech of the University of Montana.
munication with the natural fractures.
The logistics of simultaneous operations require considerable
experience to ensure communication among well pads (if they
are not immediately adjacent) and adequate supplies of horsepower,
fluids and proppant.
Finally, a relatively new but powerful trend in these plays is
using real-time microseismic monitoring technology to analyze
fracture propagation. During hydraulic fracturing operations,
sensors monitor and measure the microseismic events that
indicate key fracture properties, including azimuth, height, WEISS
length, volume and complexity of the induced fractures. Stephanie Weiss is senior technical editor for BJ Services
Microseismic data are helpful because by understanding Company in Tomball, Tx. Before joining BJ Services in
how the fracture is propagating, operators can make on-the-fly 2006, she worked in the photonics industry. Weiss holds a
changes to the stimulation plan to optimize a treatment. In bachelors from Southern Methodist University.
addition, after the microseismic data set has undergone thorough
analysis and modeling, operators can use the data to optimize
treatments in subsequent wells, potentially reducing the number
of well bores required to develop a field.