Alberta Oil Magazine – Drilling mud has always been a critical part of drilling a well – but never more than today, amidst a technological revolution that is sending drill bits farther and farther underground in search of oil and gas reserves once considered impossible to extract.
Mud, once a boring necessity, has become an increasingly prominent part of oil and gas extraction operations, enabling the drilling of holes that grow more complex by the year. Mud research has become a key driver for the companies that make it – several of them Canadian, and growing fast – as drillers seek products that enable underground feats.
In the oily depths several kilometers beneath the surface, it’s easy for things to go seriously wrong. Drill bits can get stuck. Friction can build up, halting progress. Trapped hydrocarbons can surge to surface in a blowout. Holes can cave in, trapping millions of dollars of equipment. One product can help manage all of those problems. It is drilling fluid or, as it’s known across an industry dependent on chemical cocktails to smooth progress underground, mud.
Traditionally, drillers used water-based muds. They had all sorts of virtues. Made as powders, they could be mixed on location with water from a nearby stream or pond, saving trucking costs. Disposal was easy: used product could either be poured into a pit on a drill rig site, or even spread over a farmer’s field.
Plus, it was cheap. It might cost $200 a cubic meter for a water-based mud. The other option: an oil-based mud, which arrives by tanker truck, needs to be handled with care and, once used, sent to a specialized landfill. It might run $1,000 a cubic meter, five times more. For those reasons, even a half-decade ago water-based mud made up roughly 70 per cent of the mud used in Western Canada.
Today, that number has flipped, and more than two-thirds of the mud flowing down drill holes is oil-based. The reason comes down to the extremes of modern-day drilling. When it comes time to plumbing modern depths and distances, an oil-based mud can do things a water-based mud simply can’t.
“As the industry has moved toward way more horizontal wells, industry in general has said, ‘We’re not going to mess around with cheap systems. We want to make sure we have Cadillac mud systems in the hole,” says George Wadsworth, president of Marquis Alliance, one of the top three mud-makers in Canada.
the fracking business – or “pressure pumping,” as industry calls it – used to be two-thirds dominated by U.S. majors. Today, “They’re down to less than 25 per cent market share in Canada,” Fetterly says, and Canadian players like Calfrac Well Services Ltd. and Trican Well Service Ltd. have established growing U.S. beachheads.
As CES, Marquis Alliance and Tervita are showing, it’s happening in drilling fluids, too. More importantly, their growth is coming at a time when the broader market is expanding. A recent study by IHS Chemical pegged the global market for oilfield chemicals – which include both drilling mud and chemicals used in well fracturing – at US$16 billion in 2010, with over half that in North America. By 2015, IHS forecast the market will hit $19 billion, an annual growth rate of 3.5 per cent.
Fetterly calls drilling fluids “one of the most attractive segments of the oilfield services sector” and points out Canadian companies have another advantage: they’re next-door neighbors to the oil sands, whose tarry deposits have posed major issues for drilling rigs.