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Challenges, Opportunities Abound for

Joel Parshall, JPT Features Editor

A rtificial lift systems arae among the most widely used

production technologies in global oil and gas operations.
Wells that cannot produce liquids to surface under their own
require artificial lift methods in most cases to pump liquids to
the surface, chiefly water but also oil, so that free gas can flow
through the wellbore without impediment.
pressure require lift technologies to enable production. Some There is no global repository of artificial lift statistics;
liquid wells need lift assistance from the beginning, and almost however, industry observers estimate that 90% to 95% of
all require it sooner or later. Rod pump, electric submersible the world’s producing wells currently use artificial lift, said
pump (ESP), and gas lift technologies are the most common Bill Lane, vice president of artificial lift systems emerging
methods of providing artificial lift to these wells. Gas wells also technologies at Weatherford. “It is trending more toward 95%

A schematic shows the

deployment of an electric
submersible pump system in
a reservoir. Image courtesy of

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than 90%, and probably 100% of producing wells would use
artificial lift at some point in their lives, except for wells shut in
prematurely because of economic factors.”
With the ubiquity of artificial lift, “there are so many
engineering opportunities in this field,” said Shauna Noonan,
wells technology supervisor at ConocoPhillips and SPE technical
director for production and operations.
Those who embrace those opportunities will face abundant
challenges, many of them related to the integration of artificial
lift into unconventional ­ horizontal wellbore designs and
frontier subsea projects in deep water.

Horizontal Well Challenges

“Today, our technologies to sweep liquids through the lateral
sections of ­horizontal wells are very limited,” Lane said. “To
understand the challenge, note that a 5,000-ft lateral with a
cased 4-in. inside diameter has the same slenderness ratio as
a ¼-in. drinking straw as long as a football field. Along that
straw are numerous undulations, each of which results in a
sump in which liquids collect. Wherever this phenomenon
occurs, the pressure beyond each sump must increase until
the collected liquids are blown further toward the heel of the
producing zone. This phenomenon is particularly evident in
gassy liquid wells, less so in primary liquid producers.”
In a perfect world for artificial lift, “the obvious solution
would be toe-up straight lateral sections free from undulations,”
Lane said. “But that is easier said than done.” Making wellbores
straighter would help from a pumping standpoint. However, At C-FER Technologies’ facilities in Edmonton, Canada,
other factors usually take precedence. Bores must target the employees Paul Erickson, foreground, and Doug Langer
reservoir’s “sweet spots” with the most total organic content. operate a flow loop used to determine the qualification
Petrology and geophysics determine where stimulation can be of downhole pumping systems for high-temperature
applications. Photo courtesy of C-FER Technologies.
most effective. Well pad designs and lease boundaries can also
constrain well placement and design.
Mechanical pumps have been deployed into lateral
wellbore sections with limited success, experiencing higher over the life of the well as part of their upfront planning for well
than normal failure rates when operating on their sides location, well construction, and completion design.
and encountering problems in keeping gas separate from “I need to get the pump intake pressure as low as possible,
liquids—a necessity for efficient pump operation. Pumps and for that the pump must be as close as possible to the
with single intakes can only pull liquids from one low spot. horizontal section,” said John Patterson, global production
Thus, locating a pump along a lateral bore with multiple engineering chief at ConocoPhillips. “If the well completion
sumps becomes a matter of compromise. For the most part, forces the pump to be set higher, then the well may start loading
mechanical pumps are landed in the vertical or near vertical up with water and be in danger of dying. In any case, it will have
sections of horizontal wells, and are typically not landed a higher operating cost. So while we achieve the high IP rates,
beyond 60° deviation. we may be sacrificing the ability to produce these wells in year
2, 3, and beyond.”
A Critical Need in Shale Reservoirs Casing diameter can be an issue as well. Excessive gas
It is hard to overstate the importance of artificial lift in the intake impairs pump performance. Production tubing can
development of shale reservoirs, in which so many production serve as a natural separator for gas and liquid, with gas sent to
wells are being drilled. High initial production (IP) rates the tubing casing annulus—through which it flows freely to the
typically fall off rapidly, so artificial lift is required early in the surface—and liquids pumped through the tubing. The annular
lives of these wells. Continued rapid production declines may space is a key variable.
require changing to alternate lift forms in the first few years “We struggle now with the impact of completion decisions
of production. Thus, project teams must consider artificial lift to run 5½-in. casing vs. 7-in. casing,” Patterson said. “The

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diameter of difference between the equipment and the casing

means a tremendous change in how much gas you can handle.
The bigger the casing, the more gas that can flow to the surface
without taking it into the pump.”
Casing also affects equipment size. As casing diameter
narrows, pumps must be lengthened to provide the same
amount of horsepower. “That makes them harder to install and
maintain for optimal performance and increases the risk of
pump damage as they are handled in the hole,” Patterson said.
“Wellbore paths also affect this. We can drill fancy wells, big
stepouts, and we can turn the corner from vertical to horizontal
really fast, as with many of the unconventional wells. But if
you turn the corner that fast, it becomes pretty difficult for the
artificial lift equipment to make the turn. This again can risk
pump damage and affect performance.”

Importance of Life Cycle Analysis

“In the projects and facilities world,” Noonan said, “people use
the term ‘management of change.’ If a change is recommended,
the team does a full look back to see what effect it would
have.” A similar life cycle analysis approach in the drilling and
completions community would be helpful, she said. “People
should ask, ‘If we are going to leave the operations staff with
these wellbores, what impact will that have?’ ” Noonan said. Big
offshore development projects such as those in Brazil often have
large multidisciplinary groups that examine questions of this
type. However, that is not necessarily true for much US onshore
activity. “Sometimes, decisions made to save a small amount of
money will result in huge costs later in equipment reliability,”
Noonan said.
Another challenge is to use data more effectively to o­ ptimize
production from artificial lift wells. “There is probably a greater
opportunity in the near term to improve production through
optimizing existing wells than through new installations,
especially in unconventional wells where production conditions
change rapidly,” Lane said. “However, this involves managing
levels of data that are increasing exponentially. One operator
has gone from 20 data sets per well per day 4 years ago to
almost 200,000 data sets per well per day today.”
Efforts such as this require a sophisticated production
management system that can perform well surveillance,
manage the data, alert field personnel on well issues and Foam lift in horizontal wellbores uses surfactants to
opportunities, and provide integrated analysis for optimizing turn liquids into foam, which helps the flowing gas in
the well push the liquids through the lateral section
single or multiple wells. and to the surface. The promising technology needs
“Systems exist that provide all of this and that integrate further development in capillary tubing deployment
reservoir analysis, manage field services, and track key and surfactant concentration levels in laterals with
performance indicators,” Lane said. “The challenge is not multiple production inflow points. Image courtesy
in developing the technology but in transitioning to it. This of Weatherford.
requires a long-term commitment between the producer and the
system provider, in which training and procedures development other production operations. Many wells operate on stand-
are key success factors.” alone internal combustion engines that run on produced gas.
An additional factor of growing importance is the need to Converting to centralized electrical generation can improve
reduce field emissions, which affects artificial lift along with an operation’s carbon footprint by reducing emission points

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Gas injection from the surface into the horizontal section

can also increase gas velocity temporarily, as long as the
injection pressure exceeds the flowing bottomhole pressure.
However, the inflowing production fluids will become restricted
as the injection pressure approaches the static bottomhole
pressure (SBHP). Eventually the SBHP will decline to the point
at which velocity enhancement by velocity strings and gas
injection is no longer effective.
Foam lift in horizontal sections holds some promise.
Surfactants can be used to turn liquids into foam so that gas
flow in the well can more easily push liquids through the
lateral section and to the surface. Foam lift has yet to see wide
use because of difficulties in deploying capillary tubing and
achieving optimum surfactant concentrations in laterals that
have multiple production inflow points. Weatherford has been
successful in using foam to dewater 4,000-ft-long laterals in the
Barnett shale, so the technology could begin to have a broader
application in shale plays, Lane said. There also is potential to
combine foam lift with velocity enhancement, he said.
In new pump technology, the geared centrifugal pump
(GCP) is similar to an ESP, but is rod driven from the surface
by hydraulic, electric, or internal combustion power. The GCP
removes the operating risk of a downhole electric motor and
power cable while pumping at rates comparable to an ESP and
in some cases with greater efficiency, particularly in narrower
casing. In liquid production, the GCP is more tolerant of gas
inflow than an ESP.
“We are also doing things like through-tubing installations
of ESPs in areas where rig and downtime costs are high if you
have a heavy failure,” Patterson said.
However, the latest pump-related innovations are largely
niche applications, and not all of them are new technology,
Patterson said. “Some of these things were tried 30 years ago,
A full-scale laboratory test that assesses damage to but what has made them new is improved materials—new
electric submersible pump equipment when pushed elastomers, new steels that allow us to take things to higher
through high doglegs is set up at C-FER Technologies’
facilities in Edmonton, Canada. Photo courtesy of C-FER
loads. Those types of things have taken equipment that would
Technologies. not work for very long and made it fairly reliable.”

More Knowledge of Current Technology Needed

to a single location at which to install improved control While new technology is welcome, it may not be the most
technologies, Lane said. More efficient power sources such as pressing need. “We don’t need new widgets for the most part,
fuel cells may also play a future role, as their use in industry even though some in the industry may be calling for that,”
expands and costs decline, he said. Noonan said. The biggest advancement may lie in improving
the industry’s knowledge of currently available technology:
Innovations Expand the Technology its capabilities and the proper selection, installation, and
As operators seek additional ways to meet specific field operation of the equipment.
production needs, a number of innovations are expanding the “A lot of the equipment is the type of thing that has
artificial lift technology envelope. been around for ages—ESPs, gas lift—and we still need to
In gassy wells, one promising technique for removing understand how it operates,” Patterson said. “We need to
produced liquids is velocity enhancement. Inserting tubing understand the boundaries of how we can use it with these new
called a velocity string or dead string into a horizontal wellbore well geometries. We don’t really know that.
can increase gas velocity by reducing the flow cross-sectional “How much can I push a piece of equipment through certain
area to help the gas flow sweep liquids to the heel. doglegs? We have some calculation methods; unfortunately,

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they are extremely conservative. They tell us, ‘You can’t do that,’ operation. There are also cases associated with equipment
but we’ve already done it. How do we handle gas separation in manufacturing, including quality control, but these are not
these wells? How do we handle slugging wells by type of lift— the majority.”
rod pump, jet pump, gas lift, and ESP? How can we push this Equipment standards have not been as broad in artificial
equipment to maximize our production and handle some of lift as in some other industry sectors. “Until recently, the only
these wellbore environments?” standards that existed were for beam pumps and gas lift,”
Changes in reservoir conditions also have an important Noonan said. “For other types of artificial lift, there were just
influence. “When you start an ESP or rod pump at high fluid recommended practices until the past few years. Now some
levels, it operates differently than when you get down to very of those standards are being developed and published.” The
low levels of fluid, very low intake pressures—and we need to establishment of these standards should have a positive effect
understand that,” Patterson said. on manufacturers and operators.
Experience within the artificial lift discipline is another
Understanding Failures important issue for the future. Many within the industry,
C-FER Technologies, a nonprofit engineering, testing, and including veterans such as Noonan and Patterson, consider
applied research organization in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, the sector’s experience level low. As with the rest of the
maintains an extensive failure database for ESPs and progressing industry, a sizable portion of the experienced workforce is
cavity pumps (PCPs) as part of two joint industry projects. (PCPs close to retirement. Thus, knowledge transfer is critical.
are rod pumps commonly used in artificial lift.) At the same time, the artificial lift community is probably
Francisco Alhanati, managing director of C-FER, said, busier than ever. With so many wells being drilled and the
“Certain conditions can be harsher on the equipment, like high steep early decline rates of unconventional wells, the need for
temperatures. In very few instances, however, is there evidence artificial lift will remain high and likely increase. Those who
of the equipment wearing out. In most cases, the circumstances develop the necessary experience will be in great demand.
leading to the failure are associated with issues involving the Said Noonan, “Graduating engineers choosing artificial lift as
equipment design/selection or use, including installation and a specialty could make it a really rewarding career.” JPT

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