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SPE 149058

Selecting Optimum Completion Strategy – Examples from Saudi Arabia’s

Unconsolidated Unayzah Reservoir
Hasan D. Al-Anazi, SPE, Adel A. Al-Qahtani, SPE, Zillur Rahim, SPE, Mohammed Masrahy, SPE, Bandar H. Al-
Malki, SPE and Adnan A. Al-Kanaan, SPE, Saudi Aramco

Copyright 2011, Society of Petroleum Engineers

This paper was prepared for presentation at the 2011 SPE/DGS Saudi Arabia Section Technical Symposium and Exhibition held in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, 15–18 May 2011.

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, as presented, does not necessarily reflect any position of the Society of Petroleum
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The Unayzah reservoir in SA-1 field is highly unconsolidated with heterogeneous sequence of Early Permian sandstones
saturated with condensate rich gas. Reservoir characterization based on the seismic, geological, and petrophysical analysis has
indicated many stratigraphic units within the main Unayzah-A interval, which consists of well developed Eolian sandstones
represented by Eolian dunes, sandsheets and closely associated inter-dune and lake deposits. Due to the unconsolidated nature
of reservoir rock, conventional drilling and completion pose a very high risk of producing formation sand along with gas
production, which can cause immense damage to production string, wellhead, surface flow lines, and gas plant equipment. In
the early development stage of SA-1, frac-pack (F&P) was used and had been successful for several years. The method
consisted of creating a short fracture, packing it up with proppant, and placing a screen as part of the completion system across
the reservoir section. After years of producing from wells completed with this F&P completion, the scale due to fines
migration buildups in the proppant within the annulus and causes high positive skin and deterioration of the screen, and
consequently, needs a complete workover to regain lost potential. The workover for a F&P well is nothing less than drilling a
new sidetrack as the completion cannot be de-completed and pulled out.
After detailed study and modeling, it was decided to change this strategy and complete the wells with an expandable sand
screen (ESS). The completions using the ESS were effective and successful in terms of trouble-free deployment of the
equipment and sustained a long-term sand-free rate.
The conventional sand screen (CSS) assembly has also been used in this reservoir. The initial test of this equipment conducted
in one of the high producers was successful; however, long-term sand-free production as well as maintaining screen integrity
cannot be ascertained. Among the disadvantages of CSS completion is the possibility of wellbore collapse on the screens with
the depletion of reservoir pressure (changing near-wellbore stress environment) during production life of the well. In such
case, the screen can incur partial or total damage and can no longer resist sand production.

The paper describes in detail the reservoir characteristics and presents numerous examples of different completion methods
implemented in the field to prevent sand and ensure high, sustainable flow rate. Long-term performance data are analyzed and
presented in this paper to show the performance of sand screen technology.


The SA-1 field, discovered in 1982 and developed in 2003, is located southeast of the giant Ghawar Field. The reservoir is in
the early Permian age Unayzah A member, which underlies the pre-Khuff clastics. The reservoir is deep, highly
unconsolidated, with an average porosity of 17%, but with ranges up to several Darcies. The unconsolidation of sand is
presented in Fig. 1 where several core sections from two wells are depicted.
The Unayzah A member consists of well developed Eolian environment sandstones. Geological analysis has divided the
reservoir into five main facies: sand dune, sand sheet, interdune, paleosol, and playa lakes. The dune and sand sheets are the
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main productive reservoir units, while the paleosol and playa deposits have low porosity and permeability (<1 mD) and act as
flow barriers.

Fig. 1. SA-1 field showing severe uncosolidation of sand in the Unayzah formation.

Sand production or sand influx is a serious problem in unconsolidated sandstone reservoirs. These reservoirs usually have
tendencies to produce a high amount of sand because of fragility of rocks and their ability to break into small pieces. Sand
production occurs when the well fluid under high production rates dislodges a portion of the formation solids leading to a
continuous flux of formation solids. Sand production drastically increases risks by eroding casing, pipes and pumps or plugs
the well if sufficient quantities are produced. Erosion creates a need for regular workovers, and it can force the production rate
to be kept below a considered safe limit. In such cases, the well cannot be produced in its full potential. Sand production is
also enhanced by the condensate present in the reservoir when the pressure reaches below the dew point of the fluid. Unayzah
reservoir in SA-1 field contains very high condensate level.
Several methods are being used in the petroleum industry to overcome this problem. Saudi Aramco had been using three types
of completions in the Unayzah reservoir to avoid the sanding influx. Initially, frac-pack (F&P) was applied that was
subsequently changed to use sand screens. Two different types were used, the expandable sand screen (ESS) and the
conventional stand-alone sand screens (CSS) assembly, and ESS has been adopted as the preferred method for further
development of the field.
Table 1 illustrates the characteristics of different completion types in this field and illustrates the advantages of ESS over other
Table 1. Different types of completion assembly used in SA-1 field

Number  Forming debris between  Strength &  Long‐term 

Deployment Wellbore Diameter Cost
of wells completion and wellbore Reliability Productivity
Not favorable due 
F&P 8 Risky Same High possibility High Moderate
to increased skin
High possibility Î Damage may incur 
CSS 4 Less risky Same Moderate Moderate
erosion and skin failure
Highly robust &  Tested excellent/ 
Expands Î
ESS 12 Less risky No High reliable/Borehole  zonal isolation 
Maximize flow area
support possible

Completion Strategies

Many of the fields producing from sandstone are susceptible to sand production. Sand production is detrimental to wellbore,
surface chokes and pipes, and reduces flow capacity of a well by increasing skin damage around the wellbore. Once sanding
happens, it only increases with time and is very difficult to control. The remedy to sanding is to ensure that such phenomena
occurring in the reservoir never affects anything inside the wellbore.

Sanding can basically be controlled by implementing two measures: (1) Perforating the well in a non-sanding interval, then
fracturing it to communicate with the developed reservoir, Fig. 2, and subsequently producing it with smaller drawdown by
choking the well, or (2) Complete the well with mechanical screens that act as a filter between the reservoir and the well and
also maintain wellbore integrity, Fig. 3.

Option (1) above is known as the indirect fracturing technique. A subset of option (1) is to perforate the entire interval, place a
screen, and conduct a fracture treatment. This is known as the frac and pack operation. For option (2), the screen functions are
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to keep specified filter integrity and not allowing the sand to enter the wellbore. At the same time, it must not decrease well
production potential. Screen failure mode is easily measurable at surface from production profile and sand measurement. Two
types of screens are available: the CSS also known as stand-alone sand screens and the ESS. When either of these types are
used, fracturing is not required. For the selection of sand screen, careful measures must be taken to select optimal screen
dimension with proper sieve analysis of the target reservoir rock under different stress regime. This process will ensure long-
term screen integrity and sustained production.
0.5 V/V WATER 0
0.5 V/V MOVED OIL 0 0
0.5 V/V RESID OIL 0 0

Zone of interest

Fig. 3. Typical screen assembly showing filtering section.

Fig. 2. Indirect fracture treatment on a sanding well.

The following sections illustrate the pros and cons of each strategy tested in the field.

Frac-Pack Completion (F&P)

F&P technology, Fig. 4, was introduced and adopted as a completion design to minimize conductivity damage due to solid
flowback control additives, reduce partial penetration effects, and eliminate proppant or solid flowback due to the presence of
mechanical screens. F&P treatment is implemented in vertical wells where the entire reservoir is usually perforated. This
provides a communication path between the entire reservoir and wellbore, even if the induced fracture does not cover all pay

At the early times of SA-1 field development, F&P technology was used. Consequently, F&P encountered many difficulties
during deployment and stimulation operation leading to damaging of the screen and/or reservoir, and consequently lowering
long-term well productivity and compromising sand influx.

Even with successful operations during well completion, some wells showed declining performance and produced at a lower
than expected production rate after some years of production period. For well SA-B completed with F&P, Figs. 5 and 6 show
the productivity at the beginning and after five years of production period, respectively. A substantial decline in production
rate of around 70% is noticed. The analysis of pressure transient data indicated high-pressure loss due to damage in the
formation, Fig. 7 that led to significant reduction in well performance.



Fig. 4. Typical F&P completion showing sand screen and Fig. 5. Six months after F&P treatment (Well SA-B)
induced fracture
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SKIN = 9.8
kh = 4,600  md‐ft


Pressure Function
ModelPressure Derivative


Actual Pressure Derivative

0.001 0.01 0.1 1 10 100

Time Function
Fig. 6. Five years after F&P treatment (Well SA-B) Fig. 7. SA-B well pressure transient test showing high positive
skin indicating damage

Expandable Sand Screens (ESS)

With the advancement both in drilling and completion technology, the strategy of field development was shifted to drilling
horizontal and highly deviated wells. This proved higher well performance due to increased reservoir contact and eliminated
the risks associated with the deployment of the F&P completion system. Saudi Aramco has been implementing ESS in open
hole completions in unconsolidated Unayzah sand reservoirs since 2005. Horizontal and highly slanted development wells as
well as sidetracked low performance wells were completed with ESS.
The primary objective of the application of ESS was to address sand control problems while reducing well costs and
simplifying operations by eliminating the other option, F&P gravel packing. Unlike F&P, ESS can also be deployed in slanted
and horizontal wellbores, thereby maximizing reservoir contact. A second objective was to maximize productivity by
eliminating or reducing skin damage inherently associated with gravel pack completions. Significant features of applying ESS
in unconsolidated Unayzah sand reservoirs are listed as follows1-3.
• Easy-to-use application (e.g., no mud system change is needed to run the completion).
• Ability to selectively complete and produce from multiple intervals.
• Ability to isolate intervals whenever needed to avoid water production and therefore delay the water coning effect.
• Substantial reduction in the inefficiency and risks associated with F&P completions, which require careful
consideration of pumping and proppant-handling issues.
• Considerable reduction of turbulent flow effect in near wellbore region.
• Elimination of the gravel-pack region around the screen in the annulus, which offers a large inflow area with low
flowing friction pressure.
• Ability to maintain well integrity, stabilize and support borehole in addition to effectively control the sand.
• Sand grain support and borehole stabilization, which minimizes near wellbore damage, keeps sand in place, and limits
the production of fines.

ESS is a sand screen specifically designed to be expanded in the wellbore and is constructed of three interbedded layers; the
expandable base pipe, the filter media, and the expandable outer protective shroud, Fig. 8. The base pipe and outer shroud slots
open during expansion to fit the wellbore diameter, while over-lapped layers of filter media slide across each other to maintain
reservoir integrity. The entire length of the ESS joint is expanded, including the connectors. This allows flow along the entire
ESS completion without any blank sections.

Compared to F&P, ESS completion was installed in more than 45% of Unayzah reservoir wells and resulted in more than 50%
reduction in well completion costs per well3. This is mainly due to elimination of many costly operations, such as tubing
casing perforating and F&P sand control treatment. Figure 9 shows pressure response from well SA-C initially completed
with F&P. The signature of hydraulic fracture by the presence of half slope in the derivative is noted in Fig. 10; however, the
well rate declined subsequently and it was sidetracked and completed with the ESS system.
Figure 11 illustrates well performance after ESS completion showing distinct improvement in pressure response over F&P.
Several examples of wells completed with ESS and flowed back at high production rates show successful sand control.
Currently, those wells are flowing at high rates and with a very stable performance. Sufficient well test/production data from
the wells prove the effectiveness of the ESS in terms of improvement of well productivity.
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Fig. 8. Schematic of unexpanded and expanded ESS. Fig. 9. SA-C post F&P performance.


Xf = 120  ft
kh = 1,020  md‐ft

Pressure Function

Model ressure Derivative


Actual Pressure Derivative

0.001 0.01 0.1 1 10 100 1000

Time Function

Fig. 10. SA-C post F&P pressure transient analysis. Fig. 11. SA-C post ESS performance.

Conventional (Stand-alone) Sand Screens (CSS)

A third method tried to complete wells in the unconsolidated Unayzah sand was the CSS assembly. CSS assembly is deployed
and requires no special tool to set it in position. As the screen is not expanded to the formation, there remains a small annulus
between the formation and the screen after deployment. With continuous production and depletion of the reservoir, sand
particles are generated, particularly in high condensate wells. This is because the presence of condensate further reduces rock
strength and some rocks actually disintegrate into debris and particles which eventually accumulate inside the annulus. When
this happen and the well is on production, the rate is no-longer evenly distributed along the screen, rather certain portions of
the screen are exposed to higher rate influx thereby creating weak areas. These weak areas, also known as “hot spots,” can
eventually give up and break causing partial or total failure of the screen.

Conventional Screen

Expandable Screen

Fig. 12. Sand control in CSS and ESS assemblies Fig. 13. SA-A open hole log and wellbore
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The long-term screen integrity depicted in Fig. 12 therefore shows the risk of sanding through the completion when the “hot
spots” are created due formation collapse and preferential gas flow; nevertheless, few wells were still selected to test the
concept of CSS. The SA-A well was the first well completed with the CSS assembly. The open hole logs across Unayzah-A
reservoir showed excellent reservoir development with 16% average porosity. Figure 13 presents the wellbore trajectory and
the open-hole log for this well. After the successful deployment of CSS, the well was put to production when it tested sand
free production rate as illustrated in Fig. 14. Production history with about four months of production is provided in Fig. 15.
Examples of two more wells are given in Figs. 16 and 17 where the initial tests were conducted after CSS deployment.

Fig. 14. SA-A initial flow back results Fig. 15. SA-A production history for SA-A

Fig. 16. Test rate after CSS (Well SA-D) Fig. 17. Test rate after CSS (Well SA-E)

Conclusion and Recommendation

With the evolution of sand control technology, mechanical sand screens have proven the ability and effectiveness to
reduce/eliminate completion damage and sand production, yet maintaining target gas production rate. Saudi Aramco had
undergone three major completion strategies for the unconsolidated Unayzah gas reservoir and now has selected the most
optimal technique that addresses and ensures long-term wellbore integrity and production rate. This paper discussed and
presented the results of numerous field examples completed by F&P, ESS, and CSS technologies. Deployment of the F&P
system and fracturing the reservoir are not risk-free. Due to the nature of gravel-packing, these wells gradually show high
near-well skin due to increased non-Darcy flow effects.
Although CSS has shown short-term success in wells where this system was applied, the long-term well integrity is
questionable with reservoir pressure depletion and increased condensate drop-out in the near well area that generally reduces
rock strength. Reduction in rock strength causes rocks to partially disintegrate and the debris created by such disintegration
can fall and accumulate in the screen/formation annulus thereby creating “hot spots.” These hot spots, where preferential flows
from the formation to the well occur, cause the screen to partially or totally fail. With ESS, “hot spots” are not created and
thereby screen failure risks are greatly reduced. When ESS is deployed and expanded, it provides solid and firm contact with
the wellbore, thereby adding strength to the total completion system. Improvement in production rates have been observed
from wells completed with ESS as compared to other completion systems. Screen performance is of course highly affected by
its construction, distribution of particle size of the reservoir rock, and migrating fines. Therefore, based on reservoir properties
and sand analysis, appropriate selections must be made.
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The authors would like to express their thanks and appreciations of Saudi Aramco management for permission to publish this
paper. Thanks are also due to the crew who struggled hard to implement these strategies in the field to ensure high rates and
optimal reservoir depletion.


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