Overpressure prediction using acoustic logging
Abnormal pressure (overpressure) conditions in the subsurface can pose significant drilling hazards if not detected. This article discusses how acoustic logs can help to identify overpressure situations.
Importance of identifying overpressure
Abnormal pressure is defined as any departure from normal hydrostatic pressure at a given depth. Abnormal subsurface pressures, either overpressure (geopressure) or underpressure, are encountered in hydrocarbon basins throughout the world in all lithologies, from all geologic ages, and at all depths.
Early and reliable detection of geopressure is vital to avoid or mitigate potential drilling and safety hazards, e.g.:
- Shallow water flow
- Shale instability
During drilling, advanced warning of approaching geopressuring enables the mud weight to be adjusted to avoid well and reservoir damage and to determine casing points. This is a particular concern in deepwater wells in which the pressure difference; i.e., the operating window, between the hydrostatic gradient and the fracture gradient can be very narrow.
Causes of overpressure
Geopressuring in hydrocarbon reservoirs may result from a variety of geologic and tectonic processes. Borehole-acoustic detection methods using compressional and shear slowness can identify abnormally pressured zones before they are drilled and can quantify pressure gradients. These methods are used in:
- Conventional borehole logging (wireline and logging while drilling [LWD])
- New seismic-while-drilling techniques
- More recently, surface seismic data
Undercompaction is the primary mechanism for creating overpressure, particularly in deltaic basins in which high rates of deposition commonly prevent the escape of pore water trapped in shales. Undercompacted shales have higher acoustic transit times (i.e., higher apparent porosity) than normally pressured shales at the same depth.
Detecting overpressure with acoustic methods
With the onset of overpressuring, a semi-logarithmic plot of acoustic slowness with depth will diverge from a normal (hydrostatic) straight-line trend of decreasing slowness (increasing velocity) with depth (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1 – Semi-log plot illustrating acoustic detection of geopressure by use of shale slowness (courtesy of SPE).
The "normal," or hydrostatic, trend for the well, which may vary with different geologic provinces, is defined by plotting slowness values for shale beds (> 10-ft thickness) in the well. A constant overburden gradient of 1.0 psi/ft is generally assumed. The difference in acoustic slowness between the normal and abnormal trends can be converted to an equivalent fluid-pressure gradient and formation pressure for a given depth (Fig. 2). This method may not be applicable or effective in all areas or where undercompaction is not the mechanism for overpressuring. More-general approaches to determination of pore pressure and fracture gradient use an effective-stress, rock-mechanics approach.
Fig. 2 – Relationship between fluid-pressure gradient (FPG) and the acoustic slowness difference for U.S. Gulf Coast (courtesy of SPE).
Recent investigations into the effects of pressure on shale porosity suggest that the relationship is more complex than previously thought. While additional study is necessary, the results to-date suggest that it may be necessary to reconsider or revise the well-log methods currently used in pore pressure and exhumation analysis (see Geological applications of acoustic logging).
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