Leon Robinson enjoyed a thirty-nine year career at Exxon and made contributions in many technology areas such as: mud cleaners, explosive drilling, drilling data telemetry, subsurface rock mechanics, and drilling and hydraulic optimization techniques, tertiary oil recovery, on-site drilling workshops, world-wide drilling fluid seminars and rig site consultation. He has received thirty-four US patents and twenty-three international patents pertaining to these areas. Currently, he is a consultant, Chairman of the IADC Technical Publications Committee writing the encyclopedia of drilling, Chairman of an API task group involved with API RP 13C, member of API task groups addressing issues with drilling fluids and hydraulics, and on the AADE Conference planning committee.
About the Interview
Leon Robinson: An interview conducted by Fritz Kerr for the Society of Petroleum Engineers, October 1, 2013.
Interview SPEOH000109 at the Society of Petroleum Engineers History Archive.
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INTERVIEWEE: Leon Robinson
INTERVIEWER: Fritz Kerr
OTHERS PRESENT: Amy Esdorn, Mark Flick
DATE: October 1, 2013
PLACE: New Orleans, Louisiana
Why did you decided to get involved in the petroleum engineering industry and how did you get involved?
I got into the petroleum industry by accident. I was working on my PhD at North Carolina State in engineering physics, and about a year or six months before I was ready to get my degree, I started interviewing companies. I interviewed a company in Newport News shipyard designing large diameter impellers. And then I interviewed another company, Radiations, Incorporated in Florida, at Cape Canaveral. They were getting ready to sell some research to the government for some type of government research project, or big project that was going to—and I didn’t think much of that one; I didn’t think it was going to grow.
Henry Ratchford--Dr. Henry Ratchford--from Humble came by the campus and I interviewed him—or he interviewed me, and was discussing something about the drilling research—or the production research for Humble. It sounded intriguing, so I visited the other two, and then came to Houston and visited with them. The planes then were propeller planes—I met him in Atlanta, and we flew to New Orleans, and back on to Houston. All the way, he was quizzing me about basic science, fundamental stuff in physics and chemistry and engineering, and stuff. It was almost like an oral exam.
And then I went by the laboratory, which was in downtown Houston, in the old Humble building. He took me around to various labs, and I thought I had blown that at the end of the day because they were talking about such strange phenomena that didn’t fit with my background, which was science, and so, I’d argue with most of the people in the room. And then I got back home—back to the hotel that night, and I thought, ‘Gee, I blew this one,’ but apparently, that’s what they wanted. They wanted someone to question the science and develop new stuff. And it was just so interesting that I didn’t bother to go interview other oil companies or operating companies or anything else. I just…”Wow! This is going to be fun!” So, I signed up.
I had never been west of the Mississippi, seen an oil well. I had no idea what the petroleum industry was, what engineering was. All I knew was the science was fantastic, and here’s an opportunity to not only apply stuff, but to develop new things. It was exciting. So, I joined Humble in ’53, and then in ’54 we moved out to our new research center on Buffalo Speedway, and I’ve stayed there ever since.
What discipline within the industry did you work in, and what drew you to that particular discipline? My discipline in engineering physics covered a lot of background of material, like quantum mechanics and tensor calculus and everything. And material—research—going on at Humble fit, generally, into that discipline and that category, but it was an extension; a totally different set of technology. And so, from that, then, to select what I wanted to work on was kind of like a smorgasbord of just about anything I wanted to do.
So my career just kind of tumbled along. It took a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and so forth. I started off in well log interpretation. That was back when we were running micro logs and had to have resistivity of filter cakes. So, I developed a method of measuring the resistivity of filter cakes. These were things that didn’t exist, but fit with the electrical background I had from physics. My degree was in engineering physics. I took engineering courses as electives. I didn’t take any of the philosophy and the music, art, and this type of stuff. I took civil engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and civil engineering; all the different engineering courses I could take as electives. So it gave me something of a good background to start.
I ended up, as a discipline, basically in drilling. It was the thing that excited me the most because there’s so much technology involved with it, and I spent a lot of time—well, I spent five years working on a method of drilling with explosives. I worked on optimization of weight on bit, the rotary speed type of thing. I did make one of my supervisors angry with me with explosive drilling, so I got banished from drilling for five years and got put in oil recovery. I learned a lot there, but after five years, I went up and begged, “Please get me back into drilling,” and so I stayed in drilling, then, the rest of my career and developed a lot of technology and hydraulics, bit optimization, worked in well control type of situations.
So basically, my love was drilling. It came from contacts with people in the field. [I] worked for five years with telemetry. [I] got involved with the IADC [International Association of Drilling Contractors]. It formed a committee on MWD [Measurement While Drilling], and it became the International MWD Society. I got involved with that, too, so. I had somewhat of a wide background, but still, my basic love was drilling, drilling optimization.
Discuss your work in drilling and completions.
My work in drilling was like, joy. As you spend a lot of time drilling, you find out that there are a lot of old wives tales, that there are—people have developed rules that really don’t apply. Sometimes, they even invent new science to make it fit. For example, not only—when I was working with research, it soon became clear that we couldn’t go to a rig and just live in our car, so I had a trailer built so that when we went to…the field, I’d take my trailer out there, and take lab equipment. So we could not only work on the project that we were assigned, but we could work on peripheral stuff, too.
And we did a lot of science to try to prove or disprove—for example, there’s still this theory that annular velocity erodes wellbores. That if you float too fast, the wellbore falls in, and that didn’t make sense to us, so we started looking at other variables. When you slow the pumps down, the wellbore comes back to gauge, pump fast, and it opens—it enlarges. Therefore, the natural tendency was to, “OK, the annular velocity is washing out.” Well, the annular velocity, you change it by ten percent, you change the fluid rate through the nozzles by forty percent, and we’re blaming the ten percent on what the major changes are, but they didn’t think at it that way.
So, I had an engineer from [an] Exxon affiliate from Canada come down, and he spent about five years with me. And when he went back, he was put in charge of drilling in the field in Canada. They wanted to drill five wells; two with oil, and three with water base, and he said, “This is a perfect chance to develop this.” By this time, we had pretty well decided the nozzle velocity is above a hundred thousand reciprocal seconds. It was washing the hole out. But we had no data, no comparison with the—so. He then set up these five wells with all the same rigs--same rig fluids, same—water based, same drilling fluid; oil based, same drilling fluid. We were drilling them with insert 537 bit, which was a medium hard rock. So, the rock was not soft. You couldn’t wash it out. The jets would not make a hole, in other words. It was not hard rock. And we did prove that if the nozzle velocity exceeded, I mean, the nozzle hydraulic impact exceeded 2,000 Newtons or hydraulic power of over two hundred kilowatts or the reciprocal seconds of one hundred thousand, either one of those, it would wash the hole out. And we validated that with data from the field.
We kept the annular velocity about twice as high as you would normally have in the field. It would wash the hole out, if it was one [inaudible]. But, the hole diameter varied according to what was happening with the nozzle. So these were some of the peripheral things that we were dealing with, in addition to working with the assigned projects— [that] needed to be done with research. It was great to have my own laboratory in the field.
When we developed the mud cleaner, we invented it in Spring of one year, and by keeping it in the field, and working with it in the field, it went commercial within a year, from the time we filed a patent, which is pretty extensive, but we lived with that thing for two months. Well, I lived with it for two months. My current team lived with it four months, taking measurements every two hours, and developing technology to make the things operate correctly. But that’s because we had our own laboratory out there, and we could do all kinds of experiments with the drilling fluid, and it’s just an exciting place—there’s so much technology involved with drilling. It’s basic, fundamental science—it’s interesting.
What are some of your most memorable projects that you worked on?
Projects that I had that were fascinating were, well, I guess the explosive drilling was the most fascinating. It started off with the idea—and since I was demolition sergeant with the 288th Engineer Combat Battalion, I was familiar with explosives. In about 1957-8, somewhere along in there, [it was] decided that we could take some drill pipe and just pump some shape charge down, and perhaps drill a hole with just explosives.
To prove that, then, [we] took some shape charges that were commercially available for perforating, down to our research lab at Pierce Junction, where we were testing perforators, and fired these jets into a Berea sandstone core with no steel. Normally, we would shoot through the steel, through the cement, and into the rock to get perforations. Well, I turned it around, simply hit the shape charge into the core. And fascinatingly enough, we found that the pressure in the chamber increased the volume in the hole that we got by a factor of three, and so, downhole, it would be wonderful.
This was a puzzle to us because just before that, I had finished project on rock mechanics. And since we’re drilling rocks under pressure, we looked to see how they failed, and we found that shales and limestones both fail brittley on the surface, but downhole, they will fail malleably or plastically. But you have to have a pressure differential, but when we found this enlargement with a jet perforator, under pressure, it didn’t make sense.
So we took it to Stanford Research in California, and they set up some tests. They said that reason we were getting such a big hole was because the shock wave was moving out, hitting the outside chamber of the steel, reflecting back in as a tensile wave, and collapsing the wellbore. And they would prove to us that that is what was happening, so we went to them, and they set up some four by four by four foot cubes of rock, put some sheath around them that had the same acoustical impedance in the sheath as the rock. So the shock wave would move through, then when it [would] bounce back, that sheath of cement would separate off, so there would be no reflection pulse back in. And they validated what we [had] found, which was not necessarily the reflection of pulse, but it was strictly because of the pressure impulse and the crushing of the grains in there. They wanted to immediately start the project, and we didn’t want them to do it, so we got into another problem.
So, you decided not to have Stanford continue this project?
We decided we needed to do our own research. The trouble was, at that time, my supervisor had been changed from a driller to someone who was from reservoir engineering, and of course, reservoir engineers want to model everything. So, he said, “We don’t need to do it full scale; we’re going to model,” and I said, “No, we’re not.” And so, we got in a big, big problem—that’s when I got banned from drilling because to do model work, 1. You’ve got to be able to write the equations for the situation. We had no idea why pressure made such a big hole. Two (which is even scarier), is that if you are going to model explosives, you’re going to use primary explosives, like mercury fulminate or lead azide, which is the sensitive part of the blasting cap, which is a very sensitive thing, because a little bit of too much impact, and [makes a noise], it blows up. And I was not going to eliminate my fingers simply to model [or] study, when we didn’t understand the phenomena in the first place. And so, he said, “Well, if you’re not going to do that, then we don’t need you here.”
So they shipped me over to oil recovery where I started working with—it was a fascinating project—it was a—if you inject a caustic saline solution into an acid oil, it forms a micro-emulsion, which gives you a good sweep efficiency, and so [I] spent some time doing that. Packing sand models, and doing some water flooding, and learned a lot about surface chemistry that I never knew before. I only had one course in chemistry, and that was many, many years before that, so I learned a lot of organic chemistry, a lot of physical chemistry, a lot of surface chemistry. It was more of an educational process. I spent five years doing that.
Finally, we noticed that after you flood these cores like that, most of the oil drains to the top. So the question became one of, well, these reservoirs we have been producing like big sandstones, we normally think of 35% of residual oil. That’s what we were getting with the cores that had been cleaned up. And what we ultimately found out was that most of the cores had dual wettability. There was wettability for water and there was wettability for oil. Flood out all the oil you could and put it in oil and it would imbibe oil. Flood out all the water you could, put it in water and it imbibe water. And so we set up some, built some ovens and bailed some sand in from South Bowling, brought it in, set up five foot columns, flooded residual through it and left it for a month and came back and at the bottom was some nice, beautiful, clean, white sand and oil, it migrated up.
So that was also kind of intriguing but still wasn’t drilling so I went back to my drilling manager and pleaded, (it changed managers by the end and supervisors) “Please take me back. I’ll work on anything except explosive drilling.” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “Well, I’m not going to do primary explosives.” And he said, “Well, what would you do?” And I said, “Well, I want to test in a well and pump some explosives full-scale and get a company to build these cylinders to pump the things.” He said, “Ok, why don’t you do that?” I said, “Well, you don’t want me to…” “No, do… what...” So for five years I tried to pump explosives and drill.
Our test well finally got to where I could drill a foot per charge. And so to test it then, I went to East Texas looking—there was a formation called Travis Peak. It was taking 80 bits to drill and my economics--the reason I’m doing it full-scale is I could get a good economic fixer of how much it cost to make the carrier, the full-size chargers. I had good economics and I needed 2 ½ inches to drill per shot to make it economical of what they were doing then. Missed it that much [indicates with his fingers]. I got 1 ½ inches… the best I could do. We went back and redesigned shape chargers. We built about fifteen new shapes, new type of things that took a lot of advantage of, had part charges that would actually make holes larger in diameter than the cylinder, made some hemispherical shapes with cylinders on it to increase the velocity. Anyway, a lot of design work with shape chargers, but the best we could do was still an inch and a half.
I was so wrapped up with that when I called my kids after that last field test and told them, they all cried because they couldn’t--they knew how much I’d invested of my life into that project. And so they were very unhappy. We had to say now that’s one--another one down the tube. Which kind of brings up another point. We think of drilling as being a very, very crude process, even in those days. And yet it had evolved so much that it’s extremely difficult to compete with. In our research group, we tried arcs and sparks. We tried high-pressure drilling. We tried to jet 15,000 psi against the bottom. We tried pellet impact drilling, shape charges, and it’s just difficult to compete with the rotary drilling process so, but we took a chance… or part of it. The explosives we were using were super safe. To test that, on the test rig I was using, we took our sensitive part of our explosives, set it on a steel plate, moved a piece of casing over and went up and dropped a large diameter chunk of steel down and crushed it to see if it would detonate and if it was safe. So, we were--no electronics in it so we didn’t have to worry about not shooting it in thunderstorms and stuff. We spent a lot of time on safety, to make sure we were handling it safe.
What are some of the most memorable projects that you’ve worked on?
Probably one of the more memorable projects that I had was a project I set up after I’d had quite a few years’ experience working with people in the field. We developed techniques of optimization for the rig floor. And so we set up a camp at our drilling rig and had a galley [and] hired a cook. We moved in sleeping quarters and [a] trailer for lectures. And we would bring in drilling superintendents that had at least ten years’ experience; bring in engineers out of the office; and then put a team together with a researcher too (that way the researcher stands to get some practical experience). But [it was] primarily focused on the drilling superintendent on the rig.
We’d bring them in on a Friday night about 7 o’clock at night and we would then have a class—orientation--and then from then until the following Friday from 7:30 in the morning ‘til 11 or 10 o’clock at night, we’d give them projects to do. We’d discuss the technology and then they would go do it. Discuss the technology and then they would go do it. And that was probably the most-- not only the most memorable--one of my more memorable ones, but probably the most contribution I made to the company at all.
So we did this several places that we’d set up a camp and we had permission from the division to shut the rig--quit drilling--and let them go do tests. And there’s no better way to teach than to have somebody immediately apply what you just talked about. Or, more significantly, there are a lot of times when they would say, “Oh, we know that subject. Ok, we’ll do this.” Well, then they’d come back after about an hour. “Would you like to have some discussion?” “Yeah, let’s talk about it.” So then we’d go back into the technology and the company men really loved that because it was one of the few schools they had that was really practical, it was on-site, and they thoroughly enjoyed that. That was one of my more memorable ones. The problem is it was not even a research project. It was not assigned to me. It was one I was doing peripherally on the side because we needed it. That was one of the better projects I think we had. Another project I had was running drill-off tests to find the optimum weight-on-bit rotary speed. If you put too much weight on the bit for the hydraulics you have, you leave cuttings on the bottom. Otherwise liquid doesn’t get it off bottom and so the teeth, instead of grinding new rock, grind old rock before they get the new rock. This was something that was found actually by Grant Bingham when he was with Shell as a drilling engineer, and then it was published by Reuben Feenstra and Van Luyven from Shell and The Hague, published a procedure of how to do it.
Unfortunately most people ignored it, but it turns out, as far as I’m concerned to be one of the most important graphs that a driller could understand. That is, when does the bit flounder, when does it founder? As you put weight on the bit, the rate of penetration goes up as a square of the function of the weight on the bit until it gets to the point where it starts--can’t cut new rock. That’s called a flounder point. Frequently less than about half the weight that the direct bit companies recommend that you put on the bit. And consequently, when you do put their weight on the bit, the drilling rate is diminished to half or a third of what it should be, if you’d back off.
We installed that and, for example, in the Carthage field, we had over 2,000 wells drill in that field. The drillers thought they knew everything about the field. Matter of fact, we would call that Xerox drilling engineering because last drilling program, they’d just go Xerox and send it to the new one and wonder whether they were going to come out within a hundred dollars of the total value. They just repeated the same thing over and over. And we found out that they had to be taught the more weight you put on the bit, the faster you drill. Sounds logical, but the hydraulics they had did not allow them to do that. And consequently, they were wearing the bits out about three times faster than they should’ve been, and they were drilling at half the speed they did, so we backed them off. The bits lasted three times longer, saved two bit trips, bits drilled twice as fast and we saved thirty percent of the AFE (that’s the Approved For Expenditure), that’s the money that they’d asked for the well. We saved thirty percent of that, which is a pretty, well-established number. So this procedure made a big impact then on drilling operations with things. But this was the kind of stuff I enjoyed doing in the later part of my career where I talked to enough company people then and so forth. I knew most of them, so.
But I guess one of the more valuable experiences I had was [I] had an opportunity with the Houston Drilling Division. They promoted a fellow to Drilling Operations Supervisor in charge of the rigs--half the rigs—and [he] had no drilling experience. And he called and asked me--he had been in research--he called and asked me if I’d like to assist, and I said yeah. And so [I] went and talked to the drilling manager out there and I said, “I’d like to help, but I need right now permission to go to the rig without any further authorization if I see a problem.” He said, “You got it.” And so for eighteen months, I’d read the morning reports and I can call the guy, “Hey, Bob. Yeah, we fixed that.” Ok. Another one. “Cliff?” “Yeah this problem such and such.” “Could I help?” “Come on down.” So I’d go to the rig. We went eighteen months without having a stuck pipe in the division by watching the drilling mud properties and by just applying good, sensible engineering to the field. And that was probably one of the more satisfying projects, almost as good as the one where I was teaching in schools. I don’t think I could teach that anymore. You go from 7:30 at night ‘til 10 o’clock at night for a week. That’s a lot of physical activity, but most of the people out there really enjoy it.
Discuss your work as an advisor to the Sandia National Laboratories Diagnostics While Drilling Project.
Wow. I had an opportunity to work with Sandia Corporation--the Sandia National Laboratory--on telemetry. We invented a process of trying to store wire in the drill pipe. And about the same time, Dennis Early over at Shell was doing the same project. He had it mounted on the drill pipe and we were trying to store it in a loop. This was back in the beginning of telemetry. Back when the only way we knew where we were at the bottom of the hole was to drop an instrument, let it measure angle and direction, and fish it back out. And it took forever to drill a directional well.
People were working on MWD (Measurement While Drilling), and we were interested in getting high frequency data from the rig. The Sandia National Laboratory was trying a different method of transmission of data. We had tried circulating and pressure pulses and so forth. We tried sending sound waves up the drill pipe and it didn’t work. And they were trying a different method. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any more success than we had, but they were trying a method.
Right now we send signals up the pulses and you have about a 50 psi pulse that lasts for a short period of time. Send up a binary code so while we’re drilling we can measure the angle--stop the pipe--measure the angle, measure the direction, go back to drilling and then send that up as a pressure pulse. Well, obviously you can’t get high frequency data. So the goal was to get high frequency data. This goes back to one of the earlier projects we had that, matter of fact, the group at Amoco Research found bit whirl, the group at Jersey Production Research, which was a subsidiary of Standard Oil… Jersey by the time we were… they bought Humble too. They did the first magnetic tape recording. Kirt Boatright took a magnetic tape recorder and put it--and had the electronics in a drill collar sub--and they recorded three 16-second intervals: weight on the bit, rotary speed, and vibration. They were looking at lateral, vertical, and so forth. They brought the strips back in. They ran it in for analysis and they found frequencies they couldn’t explain.
They asked us to come up from Humble Research and we went up. And we couldn’t find exactly where those vibrations were coming from. So from a telemetry point of view, we need the high frequency data. We can’t get it with the pressure pulses. So this was the quest we had and National Laboratory was trying to do the same thing. We were trying to do it on our line. They were trying to do it on their drill pipe, but unfortunately, it was not a successful project. They had to drop it.
So during your career, and since your retirement, you’ve dedicated a large portion of your time to teaching onsite drilling workshops and conducting international drilling fluid seminars. Discuss this aspect of your work and why you do it.
One of the things that really makes you feel like you’re contributing to the industry is to be able to pass on knowledge that has been gained frequently by lots of other people, by teaching. And so I had the opportunity at Exxon Research to start teaching at the drilling engineering school. I taught Drilling Fluid, I taught Sluice Control, and I taught courses in Hydraulics and [unintelligible] Circulation, and a variety of things in the drilling engineering school. And then they decided that we probably needed a drilling fluid course to be taught around the world.
We put together then a travelling school that we taught, out of research, through all Exxon affiliates around the world. And we spent a lot of time travelling. We’d get there a weekend before and talk to the people that ran the office, get their reports, and try to make the course practical for them. And so I spent a lot of time travelling the world, teaching classes everywhere. We had a drilling operation in Tokyo one time, and Indonesia and Malaysia, Venezuela, Colombia, Saudi, North Sea, Aberdeen, London, Norway--just all over the world.
We had great response because, again, drilling fluids is a mystical thing. We need to separate it into functions that it needs to do and there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the numbers mean and how they do it. And specifically, it’s a goldmine of a place for a super-salesman to sell stuff because he can--for example, one time, at [unintelligible] in [unintelligible], they had turned their fluid program over completely to the mud company and we taught a school there and brought in half the company men. We taught that week and then they went back to the rig and the other half came in and we were teaching them and by Wednesday of the second week, the ones that had gone back had cut out enough non-essential additives to pay for the whole two-week course that we were giving, in just those three to four days since they’d been on the rig. It did not make the mud company very happy because they were adding additives that had no major purpose. So this was a kind of a nice feeling, to be able to help drilling fluid people.
Then after I retired, I was ready to hang up everything because I was enjoying the honey-do’s, getting out--I mean, I’d been travelling so much overseas. Well, one time I had to get a new passport because I‘d not only filled up it, but I’d filled up all the pages, the extensions. I didn’t have any room to even put an extension in the book. I had to get a whole new passport. So I was happy to stay at home. [I’d] been there about a month [or] two months, and got this call from Alan Roberts from Tulsa. Alan and Tommy Allen had been working for Jersey Production Research and they were our nemesis when Standard of Jersey owned both Jersey Production Research and Humble Production Research. We were fighting for the same research dollars and it was an in-house fight--two siblings--I mean, it got really nasty, and so we had a problem. Alan then called me and said, “Would you like to teach for us?” So I made a decision. Yes, I would, but that also had a problem so. Alan and I knocked heads so much that when he called “This is Alan Roberts from Tulsa.” “Well, yeah.” “Would you like to teach for us?” “No! Absolutely not! I mean I’d just retired.” He said, “Well, we need someone to teach drilling.” And I said, “Well, not me”. “Well, would you talk to us about it?” “No.” “If I sent somebody down to talk to you, would you let him in the door?” “Well, I won’t be rude to him.” [chuckles] And so he sent Ford Brett down. He was the vice-president of the company, and Ford came in, sat down, and explained to me how they operated and what they did and hey, that doesn’t sound bad at all.
And so I agreed to teach for PetroSkills then. I’ve been doing that now for twenty-one years and enjoying it every minute, but it was kind of a shock because he said here’s the text and I looked at it and it was totally obsolete so I said, “Well, I got to rewrite this.” So I rewrote it and I called Alan up and said, “Ok, I’ve got it rewritten. Who do I send it to for approval?” He said, “Do what?” I said, “Approval… you know… after working with Exxon you have to go through six levels of supervision and four different lawyers.” He’s saying, “No, no, no. If you wrote it, that’s the way it’s going to be.” “Uh-oh, let me go back and rewrite some of this to make sure…” I thought it’d be edited, but it wasn’t.
But, so then I developed the manual, and he asked then about other courses and I said, “You know, one course that would really be great would be to take that course I was teaching in the field onsite. I can’t teach it onsite, but I can do all the optimization processes, and we can put together a class that covers that. We’ll call it Practical Drilling Skills.” It’s really an optimization process, so you take the readings from the rig and make the rig work to the maximum efficiency it possibly can--any rig, doesn’t matter. You can’t make this rig drill as fast as that one because it doesn’t have the capability, but you can make that one drill to the maximum limit it possibly can. And so we set up a course like that and that’s been very effective for the class.
And also, since I had the patent on mud cleaners and developed that process, I’d gotten involved with sluice controls, so I teach a sluice control class for them also. But this has been fun. Last week I just finished a class--I had about, I don’t know, seven different countries in the class. They fly over from--well, like two came over from France for just that one week course. I had one come in from Indonesia, flew in just for that course so it’s really been fun teaching. And my philosophy of teaching is that if you’re entertained, you’re probably going to learn more. If you’re happy, you’re probably going to learn more. If you’re relaxed, you’re probably going to learn more. And so I try to do things in the class that keep them entertained. I don’t interrupt the lectures with jokes but in between lectures, we have a great, roaring laughter time so. But it’s been a great, great experience teaching for Petroskills. I’ve loved every minute of it.
What were some of the important, technological milestones during your career within your field?
Ooh boy. When I think about my career, in terms of contributions, I guess, the biggest one was the mud cleaner invention, which we developed in the 70s. It was designed to remove drill solids between the size of the shaker openings they had at the time, which were 80 mesh. The smallest we could get: 100 cms of a micron and the top of the barite size, which is the same as 5 microns or 200 mesh. Drill solids in that size range would build up. They would make the filter cake gritty. It would be like pulling pipe on sandpaper. You wouldn’t be able to move the casing for cementing.
And so, to get those drill solids out, we invented a way where we’d put the hydrocyclones above a shaker screen and the first commercial test we had, they were able to reciprocate the production string for the first time in the field because the hole was slick. The first well we drilled with it was through some sands that were drawn down--depleted sands--between 11,000 and 16, 000 feet where a whole series of miocene sands had been produced. Some pore pressures down to 2.3. The top sands, eleven pounds pore pressure had never been produced, so we had to have an eleven pound mud in the hole. And we were in some places two-, three-, and six thousand p.s. overbalanced. We never had a stuck pipe and we never lost circulation because we had the filter cake [that] was thin, slick and compressible. It was clean. That was probably the best contribution I think I’ve had to the industry.
The sequel to that story was that when linear motion shakers came out, they were able to put a 200 mesh or API of 200 or 74 micron screen on the shakers, and so the sales on those things went down to practically nothing. But slowly, they came back up because people started turning them on and finding out all the drilling fluid had not gone through the main shaker. It’d gone round it, behind it, holes in it and so forth. The operational mud cleaner now is just as viable--as important as it was when it was first invented, and that’s making a big difference in the ability [to] one, avoid trouble and stuck pipe, lost circulation and also in cementing because you absolutely must move the casing to get a good cement job. And if you have a very thick filter cake, you can’t move the casing. It’s very hard. And so once the driller gets it on bottom, the driller’s not going to pick it up one inch and lose that hole because it may not go back down to the bottom. And consequently, it’s necessary that he put it on bottom. That way he doesn’t really get a good cement job and we find lots of wells that have been completed on land without any pressure because they got a bad cement job. But by making the filter cake thin so you can get a good seal, a good barrier of cement in the hole, probably makes the major contribution--one of the major contributions to—(from my point of view) to the industry itself.
I think the teaching and probably impacting so many people with the technology is probably secondary--but maybe my second most valuable contribution to the industry--to develop the techniques for hydraulic optimization. We did that. Right now, if you pump through pipe, the pressure drop and the turbulent flow is proportional to velocity squared. The [unintelligible] flow is proportional to the velocity, and at every tool joint in a drill pipe you have a turbulent generator. How far that turbulence goes depends upon the liquid itself. If it’s real thick, it won’t go far. Real thin, like water, it goes a long distance, so therefore the pressure drop in the whole drill string is very difficult, if not impossible, to really predict. We developed a method so you can use the rig data and let it tell you what it is. Use the rig like a rheometer. This is the rig optimization process. That’s probably the second or third on my priority list of things I think I’ve helped with in my career.
So further discussing your contributions, discuss your contributions in the area of drilling and hydraulic optimization techniques.
Well, to continue on a little about the drilling hydraulic optimization procedures. Most computer programs, they go to the rig, predict the nozzle sizes that you need for what would be the maximum hydraulic impact or maximum hydraulic horsepower. Unfortunately, they’re not able to predict the pressure drop in the drill stream, and it makes a tremendous difference in the energy of the fluid hitting the bottom of a hole. We said that the bit floundering depends upon how you remove the cuttings. And so we have two methods of optimizing. We either have the fluid hit the hole with the most force possible, or we can expend the most power at the bottom. Both of them require you predict the pressure drop in the drill string itself. This is kind of what’s confusing to the drilling people on the rig. They think they can get more power by pumping faster, which sounds logical. The more you pump, then the faster it’s going to be, but on the other hand, the more you pump, the more turbulence fluid gets in the drill pipe therefore the more fluid loss pressure you’ve got, and you don’t have any leftover for the bit. So even though you’re pumping faster and faster, you’re using it all up in parasitic pressure loss and nothing across the bit.
So there is an optimum flow rate, one that you need to be able to determine. And so I developed a method, then, for taking the rig data--well, when we get ready to strip the bit out of the hole, you normally will circulate bottoms-up to make sure that Mother Nature doesn’t leave you a surprise in that last six inches of hole. So you will normally pump the bottoms up, get all the mud out of the hole and see what’s in that last six inches and then you strip the bit. Well, during that pump time, if you pump at four different stroke rates, you have four different flow rates. I can read the stand pipe pressure. I can calculate pressure drop through the bit, and so I can subtract it and determine what the pressure drop is through this drill string.
And we can derive equations, then, which tell you what the pressure drop should be to be optimum. You get the flow rate, the optimum flow rate you need, and so all that comes out of the pressure measurements on the rig. You cannot predict that ahead of time with a computer program. You have no idea how much the flow is turbulent and how much is laminar and all that depends on the ingredients in the drilling fluid in the first place.
So this was one of the tremendous impacts we had then on drillability and drilling and hunting for increase, like I talked about, the Carthage field. The problem there was they also weren’t using the hydraulics they had and so we backed off on weight on the bit, but then we increased the hydraulics and allowed them to put more weight on the bit and drill faster and still remove the cuttings and so. This was one of the major points that we do in our schools around the world. It makes a big difference on drilling rates.
Discuss the work that you are doing now, writing the Encyclopedia of Drilling.
One of the interesting things that occurred to us is we had a committee that we formed in 1971, the IADC [International Association of Drilling Contractors]. We wrote the mud equipment manual. Jim Lummus called and said we need a study group on that. We said ok, we have a study group, but we need a product at the end of that because we’ve seen study groups last and they don’t leave anything. So we decided to write a manual. We started out with a committee of eight people and by the time we wrote it, we had it edited in session, it lasted for about eight years before we finally finished that document. When we finished it, the committee said it had grown to about forty people because the editing process was very educational. People that would be on the committee would be editing someone else’s work, something that perhaps they didn’t know themselves. And so everybody that was on it, if they tried to changed companies, they wanted you to stay on it. Well, the company didn’t want to lose their positions, so they put somebody new on it. So the committee just grew.
After we finished that, the committee said “Well, we’re going to stay together,” so we developed six committees with the IADC, and with those six committees, we had one with Witts Development, which was transmission of information from the rig to shore, one on safety, one of rig floor optimization, one on telemetry. And about that time then the IADC decided they wanted to be a lobbying organization and so they withdrew from the MWD group of that then became the IMS, the International MWD Society. The group that was working on solids control was wanting to write another book on shakers because they’d become obsolete. The new linear motion had been introduced and so the book that was there was obsolete.
So we approached the AADE [American Association of Drilling Engineers]. They started supporting the writing of the new shaker book, so got that published, and the committee grew some more. And then they said, “We aren’t going to support this anymore.” So the ASME, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers said, “We’ll support you. You can be one of our committees.” We wrote them the Drilling Fluids Processing Handbook for them, which was great.
About that time, the API was getting ready to change 13C into an ISO document (International Standards document). And so we looked at it and said no, there’s some changes we’ve got to make in that if it ever becomes international standards, we’ll never be able to change it. So then we formed an API [American Petroleum Institute] committee to change 13C, which we did. It took more years than we thought--took about five to do that.
So I gave a dinner at one of the restaurants here in Houston as a book signing so that the authors that were on the ASME book, everybody had a different chapter to write and nobody was taking royalties. But we had a book signing so that everybody on the committee would have a book signed by all the authors. Towards the end of the evening then, some of the wives called me over to side. About six or seven of them surrounded me [and] said, “You will form another committee, won’t you?” And I said, “Well, I hadn’t planned to.” They said, “No. You will form another committee, won’t you?” And I said, “Well, yeah I guess so. Why?” “Well, we want to go back to South Padre Island,” because every year in September we have a two-day session in South Padre. It’s an editing session. They enjoyed that very much and they said, “You’re going to form another committee.” “Well, ok, what kind of committee are we going to form?” So got together and talking to people and what was needed in the industry then.
The thing that’s needed in the industry is an encyclopedia that covers all the subjects of drilling. So we’re writing twenty books on drilling and that came out of the same committee… forty or fifty years ago. And many of those people are still on the committee. These books that we’re writing, they really are fulfilling a need because for example, we published three books already. One’s Casing Design. One’s Underbalanced Drilling and the other is Managed Pressure Drilling. Those three have been published. The Underbalanced Drilling and the Managed Pressure, these were the first two books ever published on that subject. Casing design is an extremely complex subject, requires basically a tensor analysis, but the guy that wrote it, explains how to do it in simple terms and so even though it’s a complex subject, it’s understandable by anyone that’s adept at algebra.
We’re writing another book on oil muds, called Non-Aqueous Drilling Fluid because oil muds are not just oil anymore, it’s synthetic fluids. We have polyalphaolefins, esters and ethers and we have oil muds. Most drilling fluid books are written for water-based muds and currently oil muds or NADF [Non-Aqueous Drilling Fluid] is beginning to become much, much more popular because if you combine an NADF with a PDC bit in a hole, you drill so much faster now. Non-aqueous fluids have gone through several evolutions.
One, when we first started using an oil mud, it was in California. We were using crude oil. You pump it down the well bore and it was one problem with that is it still had a lot of gas in it and when it come out sometimes it would catch on fire on the tanks. And that was not very happy. And so to solve that problem, they started putting in 40% water. And when gas caught on fire, the water would evaporate and put the fire out. They called it a snuffer fluid. Anyway but from that we evolved into a lot more technology involved with how you create the--so there is no book currently being written available for only NADF. We’ve got about twenty people working on that committee, writing various chapters of it.
We’ve got a book on rheology and hydraulics, which will be written by two experts. We’ve had several books proposed to us and the authors did not write well and we rejected them. We’ve got a cement book, which should come out through the IADC this year, written by Ron Sweatman, who was on the new API’s committee. One of the things people have finally begun to realize is that we were teaching that as cement sets, it loses hydrostatic gradient. That is, it’s still permeable, though instead of a nineteen pound per gallon fluid, you have a water base, a water column, which means it’s a possibility that you’ll have an influx because you’ll lose your overbalance pressure. And so they put a team together at API that wrote a rate document, API Standards 65 Part 2, that describes how to make the cement set after the gel structure gets high enough to keep gas from bubbling up through it. Anyway, all that’s incorporated in the new book on cementing so there’s a lot of technology that’s brand new.
This course that I taught onsite, it has a lot of optimization processes in it, so we’ll publish again. The former, world-wide drilling manager for ExxonMobil, Juan Garcia, just retired about three years ago and he’s contributing to the same book. We’re putting in a chapter on well architecture, how you design it, and he goes through the process of predicting where you ought to set the casing, pressures and so forth so you design the casing and you design the well. We’re also talking about load stability analysis for the casing, and then he’s writing one on well control training--not well control by itself, but how you train people on the rig to handle their kick. We recommend you pump a nitrogen bubble in the wellbore, after you cement it and everything’s secured. They get to use their own equipment then to pump the kick out instead of using a simulator.
We’ve collaborated on a chapter on cementing, but all of these other optimization processes are going to be in that book. We only have one on casing drilling. We[‘re going] to have one on drill bits--just about every drill bit company is contributing a component to this. We formed a group under Bob Radtke. And so all of the subjects that relate to drilling operations technology are being brought up-to-date with these books. It’s kind of an exciting project and it’s also extremely educational to go down and listen to the experts like Les Skinner is writing one on coil tubing. He has a wealth of information. He was at the beginning when they first started running coil tube. Matter of fact, fresh coil tubing job was on June the 7th, 1944 when they unreeled coil tubing under the ship channel to power all of the tanks and trucks they had hauled into Normandy, for the invasion of Normandy. That’s the first coil tubing job in the world. He’s got this kind of stuff in the book so it makes a good history plus the technology of how they do it and fatigue life and so forth. All these books, I think, are developing and going to be a good capture of history, as well as the latest, new technology.
What were some of the technological challenges that you faced during your career?
When I considered getting a physics degree, and coming into the petroleum industry, I started thinking about the challenges that I had from a technical point of view and the first that comes to mind is vocabulary. When you start talking about science and physics and so forth. Before I came to the petroleum industry, I’d never been across the Mississippi River. I’d never seen a drilling rig. I had no idea that oil was buried within rocks. I thought it was just a nice, big puddle down there, you struck a straw in. I never even worried about it. I mean, I didn’t even think about it. I came to work, then, they were talking about tortuosity and stuff and it was a whole new vocabulary. So from a technological point of view my quest then was to convert physics that I knew into the realm of petroleum industry.
My background is not engineering, in terms of a degree. I’ve taken many engineering courses but I still think basic physics has a great place within, so--even when I’m teaching the basic classes now, I go back and talk about the basic fundamentals of physics. What I’m finding is that even the engineers, you ask them, “What is the entity, energy per unit volume?” And they have all kinds of wild guesses. The answer is it’s pressure. It’s the fundamental definition of pressure. It’s the pressure from which we derive how we measure the pressure at the bottom of a wellbore: 0.052 times mud weight times depth. That derives from the equation to put potential energy. So from a basic drilling classes, I can go back to the basic fundamentals. You start off, if you’ve never had an engineering class or even if you have had a physics class. But it’s such basic, fundamental understanding once you do that, then things become very clear to people. So my quest, basically, has been to make the translation from various vocabularies into simple English, using Physics as a mode of translation or the language of translation.
With the mud cleaner, we had a stainless steel drum out there with the sweet color provider. And we had a lot of trouble with the solids building up and so we wanted to change the design of it. For example, I drive in to New Orleans here, down at Bayou Sale in Louisiana. I met the representative from Sweco about ten o’clock went Saturday night one time and we spent about three [or] four hours redesigning the system we had. He flew back on the red eye express, back to Los Angeles and I drove back to the rig for the next morning then and so this is the way we solved a lot of the problems.
The pressure measurement of mud weight under pressure is kind of a crucial thing because NADF (non-aqueous fluid), the density depends on pressure and temperature. A water-base[d] mud doesn’t change with pressure. NADF does. And so your problem is, we want to measure the hydrostatic head in the sandpipe, that is the pressure in a vertical piece of pipe but it’s going to have to have drilling fluid flowing through it so we don’t know how to calculate the pressure loss accurately of pipe—the drilling fluids flowing through the pipe. But currently we’re working on a design of a new rig, which means we’re going to take the two pieces of pipe that are identical, put one vertically in the sandpipe then we’re going to lay the other one down horizontally. We’re going to measure the pressure drop in the horizontal pipe, measure the pressure drop in the vertical pipe, subtract the horizontal from the vertical and you’ve got the pressure drop from the hydrostatic head of drilling fluid.
So finally got that problem solved after thirty years, but sometimes it’s just a matter of working a variety of different scenarios. One of the interesting things, I guess, from a solution of problems is when we had our telemetry system with a wire line, we were measuring a lot of things at the bottom of the hole. We never measured a number that agreed with our calculation when we first started measuring it. A hundred percent of the time was we’d always leave out a variable or we don’t know what number or we’re guessing a number or we have an observation that’s worked its way in to the design of the rig, the wells. But until we get better instrumentation at the bottom of the hole, we don’t know. For example, the pressure dropped through the nozzles. The coefficient that we were using was 0.97 was for old, old nozzles, not the new ones. And so when we measured the pressure in the annulus and down hole, we found the annular pressure was 300 psi higher than we thought it was but the pressure dropped through the nozzles was 300 psi less than we thought it was. So, if you just go by the sandpipe pressure, it came out right, but both of them were off by about the same amount, one way or the other. So making readings in one place and making the assumption that you have the sum doesn’t work.
Most of the time, the problems on drilling rigs originate--drilling problems, in particular, originate from drill solids. This is, I guess, the lesson learned that impresses me the most in operations. That is when I’m working with the Houston Drilling Division, I read the plastic viscosity which tells you the size, shape and number of particles in liquid phase viscosity. It’s the indicator and most mud engineers don’t worry about it. They worry about the yield point, not the PV but PV’s just a number. But from a driller’s point of view, PV tells him about the solids in the mud. You want it to be as low as possible. The lower it is, the higher the velocity of fluid hitting the bottom of the hole and the better you can clean the bottom, the better--the higher--the flounder point. So you improve your drilling efficiencies. I guess the biggest change I can see that needs to be made in the field is the understanding of the devastation that drill solids can have on your drilling fluid. Matter of fact, in my drilling classes, I try to teach with simple concepts. Drill solids are evil. Now that transmits the concept pretty well into almost all language, except Chinese. They don’t have an equivalent word for evil. But just about everybody else understands that you don’t want drill solids in your drilling fluid. That’s a simple translation of concepts.
What do you consider the most significant changes that have occurred in the industry over the course of your career?
Oh the changes in the industry have been magnificent, startling and surprising. When I first entered drilling, we were drilling only with milled tooth bits. That Travis Peak I was talking about was doing drill with a W7R, which was a bit that had little, short teeth about this big, no seals in the bearings, sand in the mud would make the bearings fail quickly. We were happy if we got thirty feet an hour, twenty feet an hour. The bits didn’t last very long. Right now we’re drilling wells that would’ve been impossible even twenty years ago.
It’s amazing that the evolution of drilling over the years-- well, to get a perspective, in 1122 B.C., the Chinese were drilling wells for salt water, so we’ve been drilling a long time. At that time, they were drilling with chisels. They were dropping--cable tool drilling--dropping chisels, breaking the rock. They were drilling for water--salt water-- so they could store their meat and stuff. Even in about 600 B.C. in France they were drilling with chisels, again for salt water for preservation of meat. I guess we started drilling with, in this country, with chisels back in the late 1800’s. We’d take a big, heavy weight, put a sharp edge on it, pick it up and drop it and it would break the rock. Then you pull that out on a wire line and go in with a baler. A baler has teeth in it so the cuttings can come in but not fall back out. You bounce it up and down, dump it, go back in and chisel it. It takes a long time to drill, and obviously we can’t change the drilling fluid, so you can’t drill in an area where you have pressure. Because you have to have pressure in the wellbore to keep from having a blow-out.
So when I first got in the industry, we were still very confused about how you control the pressure. There were lots of old wives’ tales, which still had not captured that, so the image that people had in those days was that when you hit oil, you know it because you have a gusher. That image has probably been more damage to this industry than just about anything else. It should be banned completely because we don’t see that very often anymore. Right now we have probably 1700 rigs, 1760 rigs running in the United States and probably 100 of them already have a kick, not a blow-out, but a kick. They’ve had an influx. They’re pumping it out. Nobody in the area knows about it. It’s all handled internally. There’s no blowout anymore. We seldom even have blowouts in what we’re drilling. Most of the well bores that blow out these days are things that happen either before or after you’ve finished drilling or when you’re in work over still. But our drill has been well-trained. But that’s been a great transition that occurred from the time I entered the industry until then.
I guess the next one is the drill bits, learning how to put seals in the bits, making tungsten carbide bits, and then in the 80s the PDC bits came out. Before, we were drilling with—scraping by drilling with diamonds. They were very expensive. They drove very slowly, but they stay on bottom and drill a long, long time. So the time that you would normally spend, pulling bits in and out of the hole, you didn’t have to do it with a diamond bit. So you could afford to spend a lot of money on the bit and not have to trip it very often. The PDC bits entered the market and we had no idea really of how to orient those cutters so we could drill the best with them. So the evolution of PDC bits has been spectacular. Matter of fact, there’s been so much change in it that when they first came out the IADC had a bit code that we put together for milled tooth bits or for roller cone bits. But one they did for PDC bits is so obsolete nobody uses it because they’ve changed so much. They need to go back and redo that.
But going back to the chisel bit, before we had roller cones, first thing we decided to do was ok, let’s rotate that chisel on the bottom and have it scrape the bottom and circulate drilling fluid down and bring the cuttings out. But the problem with that was it would drill shales very, very fast and then it would hit the sandstone and take the edge off of the chisel and you’d have to pull it out and sharpen the chisel and go back in. It’s great so, the next step was then can we put some teeth down there that will roll on the bottom? So this was done in 1901 or so, 1902. Probably the first well was--one of the first wells was Spindle Top, over here, near Beaumont in Texas--which kind of brings up the evolution in drilling fluid that’s happened. We’ve had a gigantic change in drilling fluids. We were pumping water.
Well obviously, water has two problems. One, you can’t get a lot of pressure at the bottom of the hole to keep from having a blow-out. Two, water doesn’t have a very high viscosity to bring the cuttings out. Well, over at Beaumont, they ran into that problem, they looked, and there was nothing coming out of the well. It was circulating, but they weren’t getting the cuttings out. So, one of the guys, a guy named Hammel, saw a mud puddle that the cattle had run through, so he rode the cattle back and forth through it some more, picked up that fluid that had mud in it, put in the tank, circulated it around—oh! He threw some hay in it, too, to give it some more viscosity. He circulated that down, and it just brought up tons of cuttings, and that’s the reason we call the drilling fluid mud because that’s where it started from. It was mud. And now, it seems like almost a sacrilege to call drilling fluid mud because our drilling fluid sometimes costs us almost six, eight hundred dollars a barrel; twenty dollars a gallon. It’s much more expensive than milk, and maybe like wine. It’s expensive! And it seems like a bad thing to call that stuff mud anymore, but we do.
But the evolution in drilling fluid has made a huge change in our drilling process: the ability to get the cuttings at the bottom; we want the drilling fluid to hit the bottom of the hole with a very low viscosity; we want it to have a high viscosity coming to the surface. So that’s the technology we’re doing. We can transform the drilling fluid after it comes out of the bit, from a low viscosity to a high viscosity. But the seals in the bits, the way the bits drill, our assemblies changes to get bigger and bigger. We found that the drill collars have to be tapered by so much, and technology was developed there.
But I guess the biggest transition was probably the—that allows us to drill right now was probably MWD, Measurement While Drilling, or the telemetry systems, so that we can tell where we are without running—dropping a tool down and changing it every thirty feet. We could measure it as we drilled. And these tools now—so that we can make all kinds of measurements at the bottom of the hole—have allowed us to drill wells that were totally impossible. If you look at the record well that was drilled at Sakhalin—ExxonMobil, Parker Rig on the island--drilled 6,000 feet vertically, and a total length of the well of 43,700 feet--which is, most of it, horizontally. Like laying the drill pipe on the road out here and drilling into a house eight miles down the road. That’s spectacular in my mind.
But these are the transitions—the evolutions that we’ve had. One of the things that I also might mention is the fact that most of the changes are coming by evolution, not revolution. That is, we don’t make gigantic steps, radically change everything. We basically improve what we’re working on. It’s an evolutionary process, and it’s been very, very effective in improving our ability—where we were happy to drill thirty feet an hour, now we’re drilling three hundred, six hundred feet an hour.
What do you consider to be some of the greatest challenges facing the industry, looking into the future?
Continuing along the lines of what we’ve evolved, let’s look at what’s coming down the pipe. One of the biggest changes we need to make is the industry—by the industry—is the public’s perception of what we do. We still—you go to a computer, you call up an icon, and what do you see from the oil patch? Oil gushing over the top of a crown block. We don’t do that anymore. We need some public relations that people talk—the only public relations that I see most of the major oil companies doing is talking to the people already in the industry. We need to go to places where nobody has any idea what a drilling rig looks like and explain to them what is going on.
I went back to my college where I got my bachelor’s degree, at Clemson. They have absolutely no concept of what the drilling industry is about. They were fascinated by some of the technology, but it was way over their heads. They still think we drill into this gigantic pool of oil down there and suck out whatever we want. The idea that oil was in bricks like around their building? No, they didn’t believe that. We don’t do a good job at all, and we’re suffering the consequences of it because people that are making decisions about our industry are not necessarily the people who are in the industry.
And I guess that’s my biggest concern about our industry. We’ve done fantastic engineering developments, technology developments [and] advanced in unbelievable ways, and yet, we’ve failed to transmit these concepts [of] the great engineering we have and the use of science into languages so that the general public can understand what we’re doing. I’ve often thought that the major oil companies should hire a fiction writer. If you look at the past history, there were a lot of books written—fiction books—that made a gigantic impact on the awareness of the general public, and we need to have that type of awareness because the general public—the separation of fact from fiction is very difficult. And they’ll read fiction, and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s fiction, but there’s still a lot of facts in it.” So, it makes a big impact.
What thrills me right now is attending this Petrobowl up here that Petroskills puts on. Watching the young engineers answer these complicated questions, and cheer on the members of their team. Here is a bunch of young people that are really interested in knowledge and the transmission [of knowledge], and they’re absorbing it like sponges, and it makes a lot of fun to see that type of activity.
But we still need to worry about the people outside of our industry because we’re getting unbearable rules and regulations applied. So, I did see a gigantic change in safety in my career. When I first got here, in my career, they were using spinning chains on rigs, people were getting hurt, but as a research [unintelligible], getting out on the rig, and having the rig crew watch out for me, indicated to me that they are getting through to the people on the rig about safety. They’re taking it seriously now. It’s not just words. I was walking down this thing, and I was reaching for something, and I heard this voice from the back yell, “Don’t touch that!” And there was a steam line I was getting ready to put my hand on, and they were watching for me, they were watching out for me. That’s a big change in culture. And now, that’s embedded in almost all the rig crews that I meet. They’re interested in safety. A lot of people seem to think that we deliberately pollute oil on the beaches. I don’t like oil on the beaches any more than a hippie does, but still, I’m still concerned about how it gets there, and it’s a big effort, and I don’t think that we’re transmitting that concept of effort and safety to the general public like we should. And I think that’s our biggest challenge right now.
Do you see other challenges forthcoming that—you know, in the future of the industry?
That was the biggest challenge. Right now, I’m lucky, I tell people I’ve got dessert on my career coming up because ExxonMobil called me and wanted to know if I would help them design the next rig for Sakhalin Island. The reservoir is 48,000 feet away. We’re going to drill, horizontally, that far, and then the other part of the reservoir is 60,000 feet, so we’re basically designing a rig to drill a world record well 48,000 feet on this side, and potentially go 60,000 feet on the other side. I don’t see any limit to drilling.
The technology—the evolving—one of the things that we need to do is instrumentation and measurements. Right now, we’re measuring a lot of things, but we’re not digesting it for the driller. You can’t give him a chart of sixteen screens or twenty screens to look at and have him make decisions. You need to take all that data and blend it into something that the driller can use, and blend it in. And this is, I think, the next biggest challenge, in terms of taking all of the things that we can measure—and this is wonderful to be able to measure it, but just the numbers, themselves will be overwhelming to a driller that’s trying to watch so many dials and everything else. We need an artificial driller, so to speak, to take that data and tell the driller, “Ok, this, this, or this may be happening.” Now the driller can make the decision about which it is and what it is, but it will digest the information to him and transmit it.
So, I see this as a wonderful, marvelous opportunity for transmission of data. We’re now getting transmission of data using the new reamer that was just shown here at this show. A bypass on this new technology that these tollbooths have (as you drive by, it reads your number, and takes money out of your [account]). Well, they can use that to open and close things at the bottom of the hole. We’re sitting on the verge of some really good stuff. It all hasn’t been done yet. It’s still an exciting industry that’s—and we’re far from limited right now in operations.
What has made working in the petroleum industry meaningful to you?
Continuing along the lines of future stuff, if I go back, and look at what was meaningful to me, and the thing that fascinated me was the application of almost all kinds of technology into the new developments. When I was banished from drilling, and [was] in oil recovery, looking at micro-emulsions—I’d never heard of that. Looking at surface tensions, I didn’t have any idea about that—a whole new era. But there was so much application of different technologies from the basic science point of view. And that’s what’s been meaningful to me: to apply fundamental technology—fundamental science. The pressure drop through a nozzle—how do you calculate that? Well, (inaudible) energy per unit of volume, energy per unit of volume. ½ mp squared, divided by volume, then you can derive the equation. So, we’re applying in a very complex situation—we’re still applying basic, fundamental, simple science to it. The chemistry involved with drilling is getting very complex. The drilling fluids that we have now are not simple solutions. They’re non-Newtonian.
We’re looking at the next evolvement, I think, in drilling fluids is going to be the viscoelastic proponent of the [fluid]. The elastic G prime and the viscous proponent, modulous G double prime, which we don’t measure currently. We’re measuring the viscosity of the fluid at several different shear rates. About 5 to 1,022 reciprocal seconds, but we need to measure, for horizontal drilling, we need to be able to measure an elastic [inaudible] modulous so that we can transport these solids along without them settling. Because even in like a 12 ¼ hole, solids don’t have to settle but about two inches to give us a problem. And right now, on some of these older wells we are drilling, the total rig time used to back-ream out of the hole is as much as five drilling days. If the rig costs $500,000 a day, we’re spending $2.5 million dollars because we can’t transport those cuttings. We need the viscoelastic component. We have, currently, an instrument company that’s built a device which is about the same size as the viscometer we normally use, to measure the viscoelastic component. That’s being implemented now. It’s beginning to get into the industry. We need a good additive to put in our non-aqueous fluid to make the elastic constant. So, these are the things that are coming down the pike that are going to be revolutionary.
As I said, most of the time, it’s these small steps that we take. We don’t make revolutionary steps. We don’t take—totally change the system. We improve it, improve it, improve it, and it’s still a long way to go, and I have no doubt that a lot of this stuff—and it’s application of basic, fundamental science that rheologically speaking, we treat our drilling fluid with the simplest model. We use the Bingham plastic model, a two parameter model, which, for a rheologist is the simplest of the simple. But it does a great job for us to treat drilling fluid. We can keep—separate the plastic viscosity, which are the solids or the electrochemical behavior, which is the carrying capacity for the U point. So we know what to treat when we get chemical contamination or we get solids, or the screen breaks—we know what to look for. That doesn’t do a good job of calculating pressure drops because it doesn’t represent the total rheology of the system. But as I said, we need also to change the concept of what we need for drilling fluid, and make it a viscoelastic material. There’s a lot of activity in that field now, and so I would expect to see something very shortly. A change in the way that we look at drilling fluid for horizontal drilling. The bit changes that we’ve had have been spectacular. We’ve got downhole motors now. When we first started drilling horizontally, [to] change direction, they wouldn’t last one bit run. Now we can do them through three bit runs. So the lastimers that we’re putting in there last a lot longer. So there’s been, over the years, lots of changes, but we still have a lot more to go, and lot more application of basic, fundamental science.
How has being an SPE member affected your career and your work?
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed with the Society of Petroleum Engineers is the fact that they try to stay on the leading edge of technology. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed the most with SPE were the Forum Series. They frequently have a forum on a subject for a week in Colorado. Those were the most wonderful training experience you could have because the only people were accepted who were knowledgeable in the field, they would give papers. You couldn’t record stuff that was said, and so it was off the record. So, you could discuss problems from one company to another company (of the technical aspects—not the politics and all that). You could actually get down and discuss the science and engineering involved in a particular subject. You stay there for a week in a very pleasant atmosphere. I loved those forums. They were wonderful. One: to get new ideas. Two: to solve old problems and to discuss where we were in certain subjects. So SPE took a leading role in that.
I’ve always enjoyed presenting papers at SPE; although I’ve seen a gigantic change in the society’s—most of the questions I see asked from the floor these days are very benign. Years ago, they used to be rather vicious. I mentioned the merger between Jersey Production Research and Humble Production Research. We were fighting for the same dollars. When Leon Rappaport with Jersey or Dr. Henry Ratchford with Humble gave a paper at SPE, the room filled up at the beginning of the session, and by the time either one of them spoke, there was not even standing room left; you could not even get into the room. Nobody came to hear the paper, but everybody came to hear the questions that were asked afterwards. It became vicious. I think that’s why the merged the two companies together because those questions were vicious, and they were quite in-depth. It was an interesting transition at the time, but people are a little more respectful [now].
I remember the first time I gave a paper. I’d done some work in rock mechanics, looking at the transition of rock from plastic—brittle to plastic. At that time, Ken Hubbard was known for his expertise in that field. I had just graduated from college, and it was my first paper—professional thing. I finished it, and asked if there were any questions, and he stands up, and I think my knees were shaking and he said, “That was a great paper.” I almost collapsed.
But SPE has been a marvelous place to present new ideas and new technology, but the Forum Series they have are really well-planned and spectacular. The depth of discussion of technology in the field—you have time to do that. One of these meetings on a paper, you don’t have time to get into the details, but there, where you’re going to be there for a week, usually there’s a five minute presentation, and then a discussion for two hours. Another thing I’ve noticed about drillers, though, and discussions: I go into an API [American Petroleum Institute] meeting or another meeting, [and] I go into a restaurant and the reservoir people are sitting there talking about politics and movies. You go to any group of drillers, and they’re talking about drilling; anywhere around the world. It’s amazing that they concentrate on drilling because it’s a fascinating subject. I do, too.
What are some of your most favorite memories about working in the industry?
Those Forum Series that we had were one of the most fascinating things that I ran into, working in the industry, as far as some of the favorite things that I had. Those, I guess, I would list at the top. Of course, the South Padre Island sessions that we have are excellent. It’s amazing, when you get into—and it’s the same concept, I guess, with the Forum. If you get into a relaxing atmosphere, the amount of work that you turn out is amazing. It seems like it should be the reverse: that as you’re relaxed, then you quit working, but that’s not true. It provides an impetus to the people who are working, and it’s relaxed. We get a lot of work done.
I guess, my favorite –one of the best memories I have of working was actually visiting the rigs. I guess I miss that the most now that I’m retired because, as I said, after finally twenty, twenty-five years in the industry, and working on the rigs, I think I’m fairly competent in the drilling operations from a practical point of view. And so, I enjoy visiting the company—the rigs—the company men from Exxon. We worked together. If they had a problem, we’d solve it together. They’re extremely intelligent people. They’re knowledgeable. They generally have their own solutions. Sometimes they invent new science to explain it, but still—the technical words they use, or the scientific words may not be right, but the concept, the approach and stuff [are].
For example, I had an opportunity a lot of times to select the rig I wanted to do a project on. There was one drilling superintendent named A.B. Lewis working for Exxon (or Humble--Exxon). He’d dropped out of high school at fourteen and work as a hall boy. He worked his way up to Senior Drilling Superintendent. As far as I was concerned, he had six PhDs in drilling. I mean, he didn’t have a [high school] diploma, but he understood drilling. I loved to take my projects to his rig and sit at his feet and absorb knowledge. He understood drilling, he transmitted concepts and stuff that was extremely valuable to me. I don’t know how to transmit that to the next generation.
This is the thing I like to tell my classes I teach: drilling is about 70-75% science and engineering and 25-30% art and experience. We still don’t understand everything that is going on at the bottom of the hole. We have a mountain to climb here. It’s going to be an exciting next twenty to thirty years to measure these things because we can’t measure right now and to implement them into our technology, to get them into the equations that we are using, the calculations to get the coefficients that we need, but this is going to be an exciting period. The general industry is a marvelous place because they accept new ideas, implement them, exchange them, and improve them. And that’s been a joy to work with [in] my career.