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Predicting wellbore stability

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Once a geomechanical model has been developed that quantifies the principal stress magnitudes and orientations, the pore pressure, and the rock properties, it is possible to predict the amount of wellbore instability as a function of mud weight and properties. This makes it possible to reduce drilling costs by keeping lost time low and by designing wells just carefully enough to minimize problems without excessive cost. A further benefit of considering geomechanical risk is that when problems are encountered, their causes can be recognized and plans can be in place to mitigate their effects with minimal disruption of the drilling schedule.


Fig. 1 shows the time-depth plot of an offshore well that was designed and drilled without the use of geomechanical modeling. After setting the first string to isolate a shallow hazard, the remaining casing depth points were selected based on drilling experience in an offset block, supplemented by pore pressures predicted using seismic data. Considerable problems were experienced because of the length of the fourth casing interval. Subsequent geomechanical analysis revealed that the fourth casing interval was too long because the second and third casing strings were set too shallow (the dark dashed line on Fig. 1 representing AFE). A new casing design was subsequently developed based on the geomechanical analysis that mitigated the problem with the fourth casing string and led to a significantly less costly well (the heavy black line on the figure).

Because the geomechanical parameters (stress, pore pressure, and strength) are largely out of our control, there are a limited number of things that can be done to minimize geomechanical stability problems. Options include:

  • One (as illustrated in Fig. 1) is to optimize the locations of casing seats.
  • Another is to optimize mud weight and drilling parameters, minimizing swab and surge while running pipe and maintaining an appropriate pumping rate to keep equivalent circulating density (ECD) low, in situations where it is necessary to maintain a close tolerance.
  • Other options include changing the well trajectory, where that is possible,
  • Or at least identifying those trajectories that are least likely to cause drilling problems. An example in which this is particularly valuable is in drilling moderate-reach wells where there is a choice in the depth, length, and inclination of deviated hole sections.
  • It may also be possible by use of appropriate drilling fluids to increase the pressure required to propagate hydraulic fractures, thereby reducing the leakoff pressure, and recent developments reveal that it may be possible also to increase the leakoff pressure by changing near-wellbore conditions with use of special materials or by heating the well.

To maximize the number of options, geomechanical design constraints should be developed as early as possible in the life of a field, particularly in cases in which development will be carried out from a small number of fixed locations. This way, recovery can be maximized with the smallest number of wells drilled along risky trajectories and the lowest facilities cost.

Predicting failure in wells of any orientation

Fig. 2 shows how wellbore stability in wells of all orientations can be illustrated by a lower hemisphere projection of the likelihood of breakout formation for a single stress state at a single depth.

  • Wells plot on the diagram at locations defined by their orientations.
  • The deviation is represented by radial position.
  • Vertical wells plot in the center of the diagram
  • Horizontal wells plot at the perimeter
  • The well azimuth is indicated by its circumferential location in degrees clockwise from the top of the diagram.
  • Wells deviated to the north (0°) are at the top of the diagram
  • Wells deviated to the east (90°) are on the right side
  • Wells deviated to the south (180°) are at the bottom of the diagram
  • Wells deviated to the west (270°) are on the left side (Fig. 2.a)

Risk of excessive rock failure around a well can be quantified in a variety of ways—for example, using the normalized radius to which the first episode of brittle failure extends (deeper is worse), or, in the case of analyses using elastoplasticity, the volume of rock that is predicted to reach the yield criterion, the depth of the yielded area, or the onset of a critical plastic strain. In the cases presented here, risk is quantified using the width at the wellbore of the failed zone or breakout. The reason breakout width is preferred is that it is easy to measure using logging data and does not change significantly with time. The same criterion should be used both to determine the magnitudes of the in-situ stresses and to calibrate stability models to improve predictions.

Defining the mud window at a single depth

Loosely speaking, the mud window can be defined as the range of equivalent densities or pressures that avoid drilling problems. Fig. 3 shows how the mud window is defined for a single depth. The lower bound is the mud weight required to prevent excessive wellbore failure as a function of orientation (Fig. 3.a). Similar figures can be developed to describe the risk of lost circulation, which defines the upper bound of the mud window (Fig. 3.b). The mud window at a given depth (Fig. 3.c) is the difference between the maximum mud weight before lost circulation occurs and the minimum mud weight to avoid excessive breakout.

In Fig. 3.a, the variation in required mud weight to prevent excessive breakout is less than 0.9 lbm/gal. However, the lost circulation pressure (Fig. 3.b) varies significantly. This is because to generate a lost circulation event, the wellbore pressure must be large enough to do three things:

  1. Create a fracture at the borehole wall
  2. Propagate that fracture through the near-wellbore stress concentration
  3. Extend the fracture against the least principal far-field stress

The far-field stress, of course, is constant, and so the fracture propagation pressure is essentially independent of wellbore orientation. However, the initiation and link-up pressures are strong functions of wellbore orientation. Thus, it can be helpful to choose a wellbore orientation on the basis of maximizing the lost circulation pressure to reach a drilling objective in a low-mud window environment. Notice in this case that the mud window varies from zero for near-horizontal wells drilled to the NW or SE, to 2 lbm/gal for vertical wells, to more than 6 lbm/gal for wells drilled to the NE or SW. In this environment, wells that must be drilled to the NW or SE at this depth should have as small a deviation from vertical as possible.

Establishing a minimum safe mud weight

What is the criterion used to establish the minimum safe mud weight? Clearly, it is one that will minimize the risk of complete hole collapse. But additional factors can influence this value, including:

  • The volume of cuttings
  • The inclination of the well
  • The position around the well of the breakouts.

The cuttings volume and well inclination are important because of hole-cleaning issues. The larger the cuttings volume per unit hole length, the better hole cleaning needs to be. And, because hole cleaning is easier in vertical wells than in deviated wells, vertical wells can accommodate larger amounts of failure.

Increases in pumping rate and carrying capacity, or reduced penetration rates, can mitigate the risk associated with excessive cuttings volumes. Because in deviated wells there is considerable pipe contact with the top and bottom of the well, breakouts in these locations are likely to be more problematic than breakouts on the sides of the hole. However, if the well needs to be steered, breakouts on its sides may adversely affect directional control. Because breakout width is a relatively easy measurement that is directly related to cuttings volume, and because breakout depth increases with time, we ordinarily choose the breakout width as the criterion to establish the appropriate minimum mud weight.

Because breakouts have been observed that extend more than 100° on each side of a well in vertical wells drilled into some shales, this is an appropriate limit for such wells. Narrower breakouts will become problematic in more brittle rock, so in practice it is best to use a breakout width limit of 90° for breakouts on each side of a vertical well. This limit means that at least half of the wellbore circumference must be intact, a condition that has been referred to as “sufficient to maintain arch support” in sanding analyses. Because hole cleaning is more difficult in deviated wells, the maximum safe breakout width should be reduced as deviation increases. It is important to remember that it is not necessary to completely avoid breakout formation to drill wells safely. Using such an overly restrictive criterion is not only unnecessary but will inevitably lead to recommendations for excessively high mud weights in situations in which these are not warranted.

Casing seat selection

Analyses illustrated in Figs. 2 and 3 were carried out at a single depth. However, it is necessary while drilling to maintain stability over the entire openhole section between casing points. Therefore, analyses of stability must be carried out over that entire depth range. Using the results, the positions of casings can be adjusted to maximize wellbore stability while staying within engineering constraints. While the analysis requires knowing rock properties in detail, it is not necessary to do the calculations using every depth point. This is because although there is considerable variation in rock properties, narrow zones of severely weak rock do not, in practice, cause excessive problems. Furthermore, stresses and pore pressures generally vary slowly with depth and horizontal location. Where wells cross faults, changes in age or lithology, or fluid pressure barriers, abrupt changes in stress and pore pressure are possible. In addition, systematic changes in stress orientation and magnitude often occur adjacent to faults and salt bodies. Provided that the geomechanical model incorporates these effects, it is sufficient to use smoothly varying rock properties. The natural geological variability can be taken into account using statistical methods, as discussed next.

Fig. 4[1] is an illustration of the impact of geomechanics on casing selection for an offshore well. It shows plots of the equivalent densities of the pore pressure and the leakoff pressure as a function of true vertical depth for a vertical well (for deviated wells, it can be drawn as a function of measured depth).

  • To the right of each figure is shown a casing design diagram.
  • Superimposed on the equivalent mud weight plot are shaded rectangles that represent the limiting mud weights that are both
  • Above the minimum required mud weight (in the left plot, the pore pressure, shown in light gray) and below the maximum required mud weight (in all of these plots, the least principal stress, shown in black) at all depths within each casing interval.

The upper and lower bounds on the mud weight can be selected from among several different limits. For example, in sections of underpressured sands, the upper limit may be dictated by the pressure above which differential sticking may occur. As shown in very dark gray in the center and right figures, the lower limit could be the collapse pressure computed using geomechanical analysis. And, as discussed in the context of Fig. 3.b, the upper bound to prevent lost circulation can be the pressure required to initiate, to propagate, or to extend a hydraulic fracture.

Fig. 4.a shows a predrill design based on offset experience and the assumption that the pore pressure and the fracture gradient are the upper and lower bounds on the mud window. When geomechanical stability is considered (Fig. 4.b), the results indicate that over a significant portion of the well, the minimum safe mud weight required to avoid excessive breakout development (the collapse pressure) is greater than the pore pressure. One consequence is that the fourth casing section has an extremely narrow mud window. In fact, severe drilling problems developed in this section, necessitating two sidetracks and considerable lost time. On the right is shown a new well design utilizing a geomechanical model to establish safe casing points (Fig. 4.c). This model indicates that it is possible to extend the depths of the second and third casing strings, thereby reducing the required length of the fourth. This not only increases the margin for the fourth casing string, it also makes it possible to reach the reservoir with one less casing than required by the original design.

Validating the geomechanical model

It is important when using geomechanical analysis to use prior drilling experience to validate the geomechanical model. This is possible, even when no log data are available for previous wells, by using drilling events such as:

  • Mud losses
  • Tight spots
  • Places necessitating repeated reaming
  • Evidence of excessive or unusually large cuttings

If wellbore stability predictions for existing wells are capable of reproducing previous drilling experience, we can be confident that the geomechanical model is appropriate for use in predicting the stability of planned wells.

Fig. 5 shows an example prediction of the degree of wellbore instability (quantified in terms of breakout width) in a vertical well in deep water. The figure was prepared using the drilling mud program for that well and the geomechanical model developed for the field based on offset experience. The model indicates that while the section above 5,800 ft will be quite stable (no failure is predicted), below that depth, failure will progressively worsen until, at 7,400 ft, it is severe enough to cause considerable drilling problems. Although the model was not able to explain problems encountered in this well above 5,400 ft, it turned out that these problems were not caused by geomechanics because they were mitigated with no change in mud weight, and no evidence of enlargement was found in log data from this interval. In contrast, considerable drilling difficulties were encountered just above 7,800 ft in this well that were detailed in drilling reports, including several packoff and lost-circulation events. These problems required setting casing prematurely at that depth. Single-arm caliper logs subsequently revealed that this section was severely enlarged.

Below the casing point, the mud weight was increased, which reduced hole instability problems in the remaining sections of the well as predicted by the calculations. Nevertheless, there was some evidence for wellbore enlargements in caliper data in the interval below 9,200 ft, even for the higher mud weights used. These sections were those in which the predicted breakout width exceeds 90°, lending support to the validity of the geomechanical model. Subsequently, the model was used to design a number of wells, all of which reached total depth (TD) without incident.


  1. Moos, D., Peska, P., Finkbeiner, T. et al. 2003. Comprehensive wellbore stability analysis utilizing Quantitative Risk Assessment. J. Pet. Sci. Eng. 38 (3–4): 97-109.

See also


Models for wellbore stability

Determining depth to set casing

Building geomechanical models

Noteworthy papers in OnePetro

Shuling L., Jeff G., and Cary P. 2012. Pore-Pressure and Wellbore-Stability Prediction To Increase Drilling Efficiency. 144717-MS.

R.T. Ewy 1999. Wellbore-Stability Predictions by Use of a Modified Lade Criterion, SPE Drilling & Completion Volume 14, Number 2. 56862-PA.

External links

Page champions

Fersheed Mody, Ph.D., P.E.