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Arctic well completions

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Surface formations in the Arctic, called permafrost, may be frozen to depths in excess of 2,000 ft. In addition to addressing concerns about the freezing of water-based fluids and cement, the engineer must also design surface casing for the unique loads generated by the thawing and refreezing of the permafrost. There are also road and foundation design problems, associated with ice-rich surface permafrost, that are not addressed here.

Loading of permafrost

The following is a qualitative description of the loading mechanism in permafrost. If we consider a block of permafrost before thaw, the overburden and lateral earth pressures surrounding this block are balanced by the intergranular stresses between the soil panicles and the pore pressure in the ice. Upon thaw, the ice changes to water, the volume of the pore fluid decreases by about 9%, and the pore pressure decreases. The soil compacts to maintain equilibrium, and increases intergranular forces until a new stress state is reached that balances the surrounding earth pressures.

The loading of the permafrost is the pore-pressure change caused by the phase change of the pore ice, illustrated in Fig. 1. The pore pressure is discontinuous at the thaw boundary, and equal to Δp. Associated with the thaw is a body force or “gravity like” loading caused by the gradient of the pore-pressure change. This loading is equivalent to the loss of the buoyant pressure of the ice on the soil particles.

The mechanical response of the permafrost to the pore-pressure loads determines the casing loads. Experiments on simulated deep-frozen permafrost show that it can be characterized as a linear, isotropic elastic material with coefficients corresponding to the compressibility, C, and shear modulus, G. These moduli are functions of:

  • The mean normal effective stress
  • The soil type
  • The degree of consolidation of the soil

Determining the pore-pressure loading requires knowledge of the pore pressure before and after thaw. Thaw subsidence and freeze-back field tests at Prudhoe Bay suggest that the initial pore pressure is hydrostatic. The following mechanisms influence the final pore pressure:

  • Water may flow into the thawed zone from the surface, the base of the permafrost, or horizontally through the permafrost.
  • Water may flow from one part of the thaw zone to another.
  • Dissolved or trapped gases within the frozen ice may evolve and maintain some pressure upon thaw.
  • The soil may compact so that the pore spaces are no longer undersaturated.

If the compaction is sufficient to remove voidage and recompress the pore water, then the pressure within the pore space will rise. This limiting compaction is particularly important near the base of the permafrost, where the permafrost contains initially unfrozen water. Unfrozen water leads to a smaller amount of voidage upon thaw, hence, compaction and repressurization occur at lower soil strains. Unfrozen water may occur as a result of the effects of salinity and of adsorption in fine-grained materials. These effects not only depress the initial freezing point, but also cause freezing to occur over a range of several degrees.

Internal freeze-back

Most of the discovery wells in the Prudhoe Bay field were lost because of the freezing of annular fluids. This failure mode is called internal freeze-back, to distinguish it from the refreezing of the permafrost, called external freeze-back. The solution to internal freeze-back is to replace freezeable fluids in the annuli with nonfreezeable fluids, such as oil-based fluids or alcohol-based fluids, such as glycol. Complete displacement of water-based fluids is essential for successful mitigation of internal freeze-back.

Permafrost cementing

Experience has shown that a cement system used for permafrost cementing must meet a minimum set of requirements:

  • Provide an ample thickening time.
  • Ability to set at bottomhole temperatures without requiring external heat.
  • Ability to set with a low heat of hydration.
  • Provide an acceptable weighing on cement (WOC) time.
  • Ability to set without freezing.
  • Ability to attain adequate compressive strength for the well conditions.
  • Provide stability to freeze/thaw cycling.
  • Other desirable qualities of a permafrost cement system include:
  • Ability to be bulk blended and easily handled by field equipment and personnel.
  • Provide controlled rheology.
  • Provide the ability to be easily mixed in a continuous process at Arctic temperatures.
  • Have no free water

As with any cementing system, once the slurry is in place, the major consideration of system design becomes long-term performance of the cement. In permafrost cementing, considerations are compressive strength development and stability to freeze/thaw cycling.

Cement selection

Experience with permafrost cementing has shown the value of using high-alumina cements for this application. A high-alumina cement marketed under the name of Ciment Fondu has been used extensively in Arctic/North Slope operations.

Through the use of chemical extenders and freeze depressants, a high-alumina cement can be used to make a permafrost cement system. The system exhibits heat of hydration high enough to enhance the setting process. However, the large quantity of water in an extended system absorbs heat generated during hydration, eliminating the need for fly ash.

A high-alumina cement cannot be blended with Portland cement, because blending the two causes extreme acceleration of the high-alumina cement, resulting in severe gelation or “flash” setting. Operators must use extreme caution to prevent contamination of a high-alumina cement system with Portland cement. The chance of contamination can be minimized with astringent cleaning of field bins, bulk trucks, and storage facilities before and after each job using a high-alumina cement system. However, under normal operations, it becomes almost impossible to eliminate the chance of alumina cement and Portland cement contacting each other.

A permafrost cementing system using Portland cement and appropriate cement additives eliminates the chance of this problem occurring. An extended Class G permafrost cement may offer the same performance as the high-alumina cement, except that it is compatible with conventional permafrost tail-in cement systems, whereas the high-alumina cement is not. Another feature of extended Class G permafrost cement is superior compressive strength after freeze/thaw cycling. The extended Class G system eliminates the storage and handling problems previously associated with a high-alumina cement system. These attributes make an extended system using Class G Portland cement more cost effective than a high-alumina cement system.

External freeze-back

Drilling and production in the Arctic thaws the permafrost. If thawed permafrost is allowed to freeze back, significant collapse loads near the bottom of the permafrost will be generated and must be considered in casing design. The loading mechanism is associated with the phase-change expansion of pore water in the thawed permafrost. The magnitude of the pressure buildup depends on the mechanical response of the frozen permafrost.

The following analytic model was effective in predicting freeze-back pressures. The permafrost is initially thawed to radius rb and then allowed to freeze back to radius ra. These two radii serve to determine the amount of phase-change expansion at each instant in time. At the beginning of freeze-back, the thawed permafrost is nearly saturated because of:

  • Vertical drainage
  • Water influx from drilling fluids
  • Compaction of the soil structure

The freeze-back process occurs in three stages(see Fig. 2):

  • Relief of effective stress
  • Elastic behavior
  • Elastic-yield behavior

In the first stage, as the pore water freezes, the ice:

  • Expands into the fluid-filled pores
  • Increases the porosity
  • Compresses the pore water

The grain size and permeability of the solids and the pressure conditions on the solids and fluids determine which of the two situations will occur. In either case, however, the pressure in the thawed zone will increase until the effective stress between grains is relieved and the material is fluidized (can no longer support shear). The freeze-back radius at which this occurs is denoted by re. Further freezing generates a zone of excess ice between re and ra together with higher pressures within this zone. The second stage of the freeze-back process then occurs, as the frozen permafrost outside re is loaded and responds elastically. Elastic behavior continues until the third stage, when the stress in the permafrost reaches the yield point. A yielded region between rp and re is created, as shown in Fig. 2 and grows as freeze-back proceeds. In the model, each of the three stages of freeze-back is treated as a separate boundary-value problem. The model predicts pressures along the entire length of casing through the permafrost at any instant in time during the freeze-back process.

This analytical freeze-back model and its correlation with freeze-back field-test data from Prudhoe Bay yielded the conclusions that are listed next.

  • The 13-in., 72-lbm/ft N-80 casing used in the field test and commonly used at Prudhoe Bay can safely withstand the maximum freeze-back pressures.
  • For freeze-back from large thaw radii (50 ft of production thaw), the maximum pressure is not significantly greater than that for freeze-back from small radii (3 ft of drilling thaw).
  • The maximum freeze-back pressure depends on the elastic and yield properties of permafrost but is most sensitive to the Young’

s modulus of frozen permafrost.

  • Based on laboratory studies and supported by field-test data, the creep or viscoelastic behavior of permafrost subject to freeze-back is negligible compared with the purely elastic and yield behavior.
  • To limit the freeze-back pressure, the model is useful in the design of methods to limit the amount of initial thaw or to limit the extent of freeze-back.

Thaw subsidence

Thaw subsidence is the soil compaction resulting from the thawing of permafrost by a producing oil well. Thaw subsidence should be considered in well design because of the strains induced on well casing by this compaction. Thaw-subsidence effects are influenced considerably by the geometry of the thawed zone. A typical thaw zone is roughly cylindrical and, even after 20 years of production, the radius of this cylinder is less than 2% of the length. The consequences of this geometry are that one-dimensional, vertical compaction is not applicable and that the full 3D geometry must be considered in the analysis. Further, the permafrost loading illustrated in Fig. 1 shows radial inward loading applied to the surface of the thawed zone. Thus, any resulting compaction of the permafrost should be predominantly in the radial direction with the gravity like loads carried by the arching support of the surrounding permafrost.

The lateral loading produced some very interesting effects in the thaw-subsidence field test. From 400 to 1,300 ft, the measured strains along the casing alternated between compression and tension. In Fig. 3, the alternating strain behavior is explained in terms of layering in the permafrost. A sand layer is bounded above and below by a fine silt layer. As the pore pressure decreases in the thawed zone, the thawed/frozen interface moves inward and the sand layer, which is relatively incompressible compared with the silt layers, elongates along the casing, at the expense of the compressible silts, which contract. The casing experiences tension adjacent to the elongating sands and compression opposite the contracting silts.

Another interesting effect occurs at the base of the permafrost. Below the base, the casing experiences tension, while above the base, the casing experiences compression; this indicates uplifting of the permafrost base. The decrease in pore pressure (as shown in Fig. 1) not only causes the thawed/frozen interface to move inward but also causes the permafrost base to move upward.

Thaw-subsidence strain is the most difficult arctic well design quantity to evaluate. The problem is complex and very dependent on lithology and permafrost mechanical properties. On the basis of numerous sensitivity studies, Prudhoe Bay operators developed "bounding curves" for tensile and compressive thaw-subsidence strains. At Prudhoe Bay, for single wells assuming no thaw interference from adjacent wells, calculations give upper-bound tensile strains of 0.5% and upper-bound compressive strains of 0.7 to 0.9%, depending on production variables.

Calculated maximum strains are much higher than those measured in the ARCO/Exxon field test. Maximum field-test strains are 0.08% tension and 0.13% compression. The principal reason for this difference is that the field test did not have a worst-case lithology near the permafrost base where loading mechanisms are greatest. Recall that sand/silt layering is required for maximum strain generation, which was not present at depth in the field test. These values are considerably less than 13 3/8-in. L-80 buttress-casing strain limits. Safety factors are 2.3 in compression and 8.8 in tension.


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See also

Casing design

Cementing operations

Offshore arctic operations