The Challenges of Deep-Water

Published Dec 12, 2003
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Risk Register

The challenges posed by deep-water operations mirror many of those seen in other “high tech” domains of drilling and completion. Increasingly, operations are characterised by narrow margins where the slightest slip brings with it severe penalties. While the basic equipment in use is well proven, being the result of continuous evolution and improvement over the last 30 years, it is the different subsurface phenomena that provide the major challenges. These range from extreme environmental conditions, through shallow water flows to conditions of zero effective stress in the formations.

Planning for perfection, working out what it takes to meet the trouble-free depth-time target curve can, if effectively connected with the knowledge held by the rig team produce outstanding performance results, so long as nothing goes wrong. The important feature of this approach is that it keeps the team’s focus firmly on striving for what it takes to drill the perfect well. Sometimes the trouble-free curve is so much faster than any of the offset wells that it requires a lot of persuasion to get the team to own the plan. Critically, the expectations of the team and management have to be managed very carefully since being “behind the curve” is demoralising, there can be an implied expectation that the team must play catch-up. Yet, unless there is hidden fat in the target curve, by definition, this is impossible.

A risk register is usually an integral part of this approach to planning, since it provides a focus for the team for what might go wrong and therefore why specific measures are required at particular points in a well.

One drawback is that risk registers can get so large that those risks with significant downside may be obscured by the sheer number of risks.

This can lead to only superficial coverage of mitigation measures with insufficient thought being given to the actual reality of a particular problem occurring and the behaviours of the team under those conditions. Alternatively, the probability of occurrence of a serious problem might be downgraded so that the team avoids working out a contingency plan on the grounds that its likelihood is so remote that the benefit is not worth the effort of planning. It is risks like this that can cause the major upsets because of the sheer surprise of the event when it happens.

Not only are we drilling in more extreme geological conditions, but our need for productivity has pushed us to drill wells with very complicated trajectories and to bring them onto production with completion designs that feature not just a single “Serial No 1” item, but multiple “Serial number 1” components. In the recent past there have been sufficient high profile problems caused by newly developed components being run and going wrong to give teams very real aversion to using anything other than already field proven parts. However, this approach simply does not work for some of the new generation of HPHT deep-water completions. These wells require an altogether higher order of design engineering, specification and procurement combined with a level of QA and QC during manufacture that we are only now learning how to handle. The risks associated with this type of operation are normally mitigated through extraordinarily close attention to detail. It is rare to find a team that displays the collective motivation to carry out the painstaking work with minute attention to detail that the task requires. However, when that happens, the results are usually outstanding.

As engineers, we tend to home in on and feel most comfortable when identifying technical risks. These are amenable to logical analysis and deterministic mitigation strategies. We identify the probability of occurrence and perform extensive Monte Carlo analysis to estimate the possible range of outcomes. These provide comfort when compiling requests for funds but do little to ameliorate the disappointment felt when a risk materialises.

Every well poses its own unique challenges. While technical risks abound, it is not necessarily the case that these will prove to be the most costly. Seemingly innocuous problems can lurk in the depths of the supply chain or lie dormant within the organisation itself, just waiting for the right combination of events and personalities to manifest themselves.

While it is now accepted almost as a commonplace that almost all safety incidents are likely to have a deeply rooted human behavioural cause, it is curious that the lens through which we inspect drilling lost time problems is very narrow in its field of view and the range of “root causes” we chose to admit are all technically focused; perhaps as few as 2 percent of problems are ascribed to “human error”. Looking at the results of high performing teams operating in deep water indicates that their success is due not only to the perfection of their technical planning, but in part to an unquantifiable attribute of the team dynamics.

The new challenge for deep water and other applications sitting right on the edge of the performance envelope is the ability to define the attributes of a high performing team in a way that they can be designed for the particular needs of a project, trained and prepared to make a successful transition from planning to operations.

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