Historically, relief well planning skills and knowledge were guarded in secrecy by a few industry specialists, however, it is a vital last line of defense in the case of a blowout. Add Energy’s course aims to provide a comprehensive introduction to relief well planning and what should be included in a plan so operators can drill more safely and react swiftly in the case of a blowout.
In this blog post, we speak to the creator of the course and Add Energy’s Senior Vice President of Well Control and Blowout Support, Ray Tommy Oskarsen. We ask him to share his valuable insights on what relief well planning is, what it requires, and why it is fundamental to any drilling and wells operation…
How would you describe your role at Add Energy? What does a typical day look like?
“80 - 90% of my time is spent evaluating wells which operators plan to drill, addressing hypothetical blowout scenarios and the processes needed to stop it and regain control of the well. At Add Energy, we write up reports which form part of our clients’ blowout contingency plans and their risk assessment, which is typically a requirement by the governing regulatory agency. They want to see evidence that operators have identified and planned for what it would take to stop an oil or gas leak, should it occur, and demonstrate that they have everything in place to stop it.
“The other 10 - 20% of my time is spent on the response side of well control, if operators have had an incident and need our expertise to get the well under control again. What we specialize in at Add Energy is primarily flow simulations, calculations and diagnostics to figure out what’s happening in the well bore and what the best approach is to stop it or to kill the blowout safely.”
What is relief well planning?
“There isn’t actually any formal process when it comes to relief well planning because all blowouts are different and a fit-for-all approach simply doesn’t work.
“First of all, a relief well is generally defined as a well that is drilled from a safe location away from a blowout, in order to control or stop the blowout from happening. It’s important to note that a relief well is just one of the solutions when it comes to stopping a blowout, and one which should be seen as a last resort or a final line of defense. It can take a long time to plan for a relief well but it has a very high, near 100% success rate, so you rely on this if everything else fails.
“A relief well plan unlocks your ability to successfully drill the relief well in a way that will effectively stop the blowout, through rigorous preparation. What you need to include in this plan would be factors such as; surface location, where you’re going to put the relief well, some kind of downhole detection method so you can identify where the target well is located and where you’re going to intersect the target well. Then you have the kill operation; once you’ve established communication with the target well, what kind of mud are you going to pump, and at what flow rate, pressure and so on.
“A lot of companies want a relief well plan in place so they can demonstrate to their regulatory agency, insurance company, partners and so on, that they have done all the proper planning. They want to be able to show they are compliant with particular drilling and safety standards in order to get their permit to drill in the first place. However, some regions of the world don’t have this as a strict requirement and that can prove extremely detrimental in the long run.”
What are the consequences of not having a relief well plan in place?
“If a blowout does occur and you don’t have a relief well plan in place already, although there’s a high probability that you will be able to drill a relief well and regain control of the well, it’s also a small but unacceptable possibility that you won’t. Perhaps you won’t be able to locate or intersect the well, or maybe the required kill rate or pressures are just too high for a relief well to get the blowout under control. In this case, the only thing you can do is perhaps sit and watch the oil spill happen until it naturally depletes and/or stops itself, and that could take years and years.
“The industry doesn’t like to talk about the risks and occurrence of blowouts but there are major disasters that have taken place, such as Deepwater Horizon/Macondo and Piper Alpha. However, many blowouts go relatively unnoticed in media, such as a water well in Indonesia that began flowing uncontrollably in 2006, where toxic water flooded a city and nearby rivers. As far as I know, it is still flowing to this day and it is perhaps one of the worst man-made disasters. So the consequences really are unimaginable.
“Every time there is an oil spill or a gas leak, it is usually followed by litigation. That is, the company may need to defend their work in court and in a worst-case scenario you could be fined with gross negligence or even be held personally accountable.
“Rather than scrambling around at the last minute under duress, you should know ahead of time whether or not it’s possible to drill a relief well and be able to react immediately and efficiently if a blowout occurs. You don’t want to waste time, money and cause an insurmountable amount of damage later on by not being prepared; you need the plan in place from the start.”
What are the key challenges around relief wells at the moment?
There are a lot of challenges facing the industry at the moment when it comes to drilling wells and relief well planning, however, the key challenges can be split into 3 core areas:
Increasingly complicated wells being drilled
“Drilling projects nowadays carry greater risk and present more difficulties if a blowout does happen. Operators are drilling more complicated wells, in more hostile environments and remote locations, where the equipment available may be limited. They’re also drilling wells that should be able to produce more, so the potential discharge rate could be greater and cause more damage."
Getting the right people
“The recent downturn in the market and world’s focus on renewables and the energy transition, has meant that a lot of good people have left and there is a reluctance for young bright students to enter into our industry. As a result, we are seeing a huge skills gap emerging in the industry. Combined with operators still being in cost cutting mode, the probability of things going wrong increases. Major blowouts seem to go in cycles of 5-10 years as these disasters are forgotten about and new people come into the industry."
"Getting the right people will continue to be a challenge across the industry going forward. We’re moving more to renewables and green energy but there is still a heavy reliance on oil and gas. I don’t think it will be possible to transition to completely green energy any time soon, definitely not right away."
Reputational damage within the industry
“Most of the big operators take safety very seriously and have a lot of internal processes in place to make sure they’re operating responsibly. What worries me is the smaller operators who are a lot leaner and often cut back on safety measures and planning as a result. These companies may also have limited funds, insurance and resources to deal with a major disaster. The problem is, it doesn’t matter if whether it's a big operator or a small operator, if a blowout occurs, it will impact the whole industry.”
What are some of the solutions to these challenges?
“New and improved equipment is being produced, the regulations are getting stricter, and I think the industry’s focus on being safer and cleaner is continuously improving. However, we definitely need to do more of this so the next generation will want to work in this sector. I think attracting people to work in our industry has to do with image, so if we can collectively repair that and show that most people in our industry want a clean and healthy environment, and be able to produce oil in a clean and efficient way, that might help.
“I also think the whole industry must work together and continuously refine and improve on standards and procedures that everyone can agree on, which all operators need to then follow. In Add Energy we create blowout contingency plans and, therefore, see more and more complicated wells which operators are planning to drill. Often the focus is on completing the well objectives and staying under budget but there should be equal focus to make sure it’s safe, and that all the necessary equipment and procedures are in place in case a blowout does happen.
“To make sure all operators are held to an equal high standard, regulators need to do more. In my opinion, every country should have a regulatory body as part of the government, who will oversee the operators, make sure everything is in place and not grant permission to oil companies who don’t take safety and contingencies seriously.”
Could you tell us about the relief well planning course in the Add Energy Academy?
“A lot goes into planning a relief well, it takes a lot of time, tools, experience, and usually a lot of people. Add Energy’s Relief Well Planning course is something I’ve made as a starting point for drilling engineers who don’t have any background in relief wells, who want to know why they need a relief well plan, and what would make a good plan.
“The course is also made for regulators too, as they need to ensure operators have everything they need so they can drill safely with as low as possible risk. They need to be able to come in and look at the contingency plans an operator has and ensure it makes sense, so this course is a comprehensive introduction for them to know what to look out for.
What are the key learning outcomes of the course?
“As I’ve said, our Relief Well Planning course is a starting point for those unfamiliar with the process, however, it’s very comprehensive and by the end of the course, attendees will have learned the following:
- Why do you need a relief well plan?
- What are all the different components you need in a relief well plan?
- Why are these components part of the relief well?
“There are a lot of important parts which go into a relief well plan and we often see things are missed. Essentially, by the end of the course I want to make sure you have a plan which demonstrates that you can drill a relief well quickly, efficiently and know that it will work.”
Why did you feel this course needed to be developed?
“In the past, relief wells were something that very few people knew about. Only a handful of specialists have drilled almost all of the relief wells in the world in the last 20 - 30 years, and they seem reluctant to share that knowledge.
“As I’ve also mentioned, there are very few official standards for relief well planning, and most of the standards which do exist are often written by people who doesn’t have an extensive background in drilling relief wells. There also aren’t really any relief well planning courses out there that talk about what actually goes into a relief well plan to make it successful, which is definitely needed in the industry. Most operators know they should have it, but it’s about educating all of them on why they need it and what could happen if they don’t have it.
“We’ve written a lot of papers on the challenges and solutions of relief well planning, but I wanted to put together a training course so operators and regulators can actually come together to talk about some of the industry trends, challenges going forward, how to improve operations and continue to operate in a safe and sustainable manner.”
What advice would you give to companies looking to create a relief well plan?
“My advice would be to start by familiarizing yourself with company policies, industry standards, and regulatory requirements. Taking our course on relief well planning will also be helpful. It is also highly recommended to call a specialist like Add Energy. Most relief well projects are different to one another and present a unique set of challenges and requirements. You could do all your planning correctly, but it is still advisable to let a specialist with practical experience tell you whether that plan is feasible or not.”
To learn more about how Add Energy can help you create a robust plan and drill more safely, discover our Relief Well Planning Course within the Add Energy Academy.