Speeding The Search For Oil

An Encana rig site in Howard County, Texas/Permian Basin (Image credit: Greg Hendershot)

Although the Permian Basin has been producing oil since the 1920s, Canada’s Encana didn’t enter it until 2014. Today, it’s the second best operator based on current/projected recovery results, accomplishing in 18 months what it normally took 5 years to do.

“We set out to map the ‘best rocks’ plays in North America, and we really liked what we saw in the Permian,” said Rich Newhart, VP, Exploration-Emerging Plays. “We had enough data to see both what others were exploiting as well as additional zones that weren’t so well known.”

Word went out to the company that an elite team of geoscientists and engineers would be formed to study the play or, as Rich put it, “we raided other teams.” The group was well funded so it could accelerate knowledge and gather as much data in two years as might be yielded during the entire lifetime of an average play.

A key innovation was to integrate the activities of teams that developed the play’s untapped potential, even as others drilled and operated it: The Emerging Plays team fed data to the Operations team, creating a real-time feedback loop.

“Some geophysicists from other companies have never drilled a single well, so it’s important to let Mother Nature marry up our recommendations with truth,” explained Jeff Balmer, VP & GM of Southern Operations.

“We had a complex stack of rock that we needed to understand in reality, not just models.”

This meant that the teams characterizing well opportunities worked in parallel with the operations teams, so data could be shared, and acted upon, far more quickly than in the past.

Combining the rock, fluid, and seismic data with interference effects, pressure data, and other readings from test drilling (activities called logging) let Encana make quicker calls on well spacing, or moves to other areas.

“If we drilled some wells that didn’t meet expectations, we would learn from those wells. On the fly, we would decide to better deploy our assets,” said Balmer. “Some of the curve balls we got were great ones, too; and they have significantly advanced our understanding of the reservoir.”

“In a race with world class athletes, everybody has access to the same technology,” Newhart said.

“The differentiator is how you use technology, and bolt together data to constrain an answer.”

The company also relied on horizontal drilling, which allows it to make directional turns to stay in a reservoir’s sweet spot, or zone. Though not a new technology, its implementation allows an operator to connect to the producing reservoir in a highly efficient manner

“Our systematic approach is to make the next well better than the last,” said Newhart.

The result is uncontested: Encana’s Haynesville play in Louisiana began in 2008 and didn’t drill its best well until 2013. The Permian play got to that point in only 18 months, using the same expertise applied to a faster, more iterative execution.

“It’s no use learning at light speed if you’re going to deploy two years later,” said Newhart.

“We’ll never take five years again,” Balmer added.