Well Drilling

First Wells

It is believed the first wells ever “drilled” were water wells. These were crude and shallow dugouts that gave access to the watershed that hid just beneath the dry surface. Wells as we understand them truly began when these excavations were bolstered by rock, wooden, or stone walls to protect the dig from collapsing and allowing for deeper and wider excavations. Today, the oil and gas industry has made well drilling literally a science. Well drilling now occurs in the arctic ice, thousands of feet beneath the ocean surface, and virtually anywhere on land that is accessible.

Oil Drilling Process

Measured Depth (MD) and Total Vertical Depth (TVD): Before drilling, these data points must be determined.

(a)Total Vertical Depth is the absolute depth in a straight line from the surface to the “payzone” and does not include the changes in the borehole direction.

(b)Measured Depth is the length of the borehole and pipe required to reach the “payzone”. This is closely calculated by geologists and engineers since most drill operations are not strictly vertical, careful measurements need to be made about the deviations in the drill path.

Well Drilling


The initial process begins with a rotating drill string with a drill bit on the end which bores into the ground. The diameter of the borehole can range anywhere from 10 centimeters to one meter. Steel pipes above the bit, called collars help the drill bit by adding extra weight during the excavation. Drilling mud is pumped through a pipe and into the end of the drill bit. This helps keep temperatures down on the bit during drilling and also helps to circulate the fragments of broken rock away from the point of excavation and back up the borehole where the fragments are sifted and leftover fluid is recycled.

Once an initial depth is reached, steel pipe is placed inside the borehole for stabilization, also known as casing. It is common practice to also pour cement between the space left between the casing and the borehole. This adds another degree of stabilization. Once this is finished, the drilling can continue deeper into more uncertain formations.

As the drilling continues deeper, the borehole is reduced in diameter in sections. This requires new casing at appropriate intervals to accommodate the changing size of the borehole.

Types of Bits

Rolling Cutter Bit – these consist of two or more elements with “teeth” that pummel and grind the rock away with a spinning action. The teeth are comprised of steel and are often tipped with tungsten carbide for extra durability. The first patent for a rolling cutter bit was granted in 1910, to Howard Hughes Sr. Well drilling


Fixed-Cutter Bit – have blades that rotate to chip away or cut the rock. Natural and man-made diamonds are used for the cutting elements. Fixed-cutter bits were developed first. The blades do not spin independently from the end of the bit and thus require no extra lubrication. Well Drilling


Types of Drilling

Deviated Drilling

By definition, anything that isn’t considered vertical drilling is deviated drilling. There can be some confusion when coming across other terms such as directional or horizontal drilling. Any wellbore that purposely changes direction to avoid an obstruction, formation, or to access a payzone is a type of deviated drilling. If the deviation in the wellbore is not significant or approaching 90 degrees it is generally described as being directional.

Horizontal Drilling

Horizontal drilling has become common practice in the industry despite the fact that the first idea and patent to develop horizontal oil drilling was given to Robert Lee in 1891. The drill did not make a 90 degree turn, but instead 2 holes were drilled, one vertically and one horizontally until they met. The advance in horizontal drilling was forced as they needed ways of accessing harder-to-reach pockets of oil in order to meet the rise in demand. That is the basis for why horizontal oil drilling was developed.

This type of well is most common when drilling into sedimentary rock, which is the most common kind of formation in oil and gas operations. Sandstone, coal, slate and limestone are examples of sedimentary rock. Carbonate rocks (sedimentary) are believed to hold more than half of the remaining global oil reserves. These formations, and indeed most oil and gas reserves, are found as wide and irregular “strata”. Horizontal drilling is the most effective way of accessing these formations.

Well drilling

The advantages of this method are numerous. Production rate is increased because the well bore has greater exposure to the “pay zone”. Reserves are recovered more efficiently because the drainage area is bigger. Because more is extracted from a single site, there is less infrastructure required at the surface as well as below the surface. This reduction in the number of wells needed is of course a huge benefit both environmentally and financially.

Issues that are more prevalent in vertical drilling and which are alleviated in horizontal drilling are pressures around the well bore and high fluid velocities. “Coning” is also mitigated to a degree by less draw-down in the reservoir.

Vertical drilling

As you might guess, vertical drilling is when the boring direction does not deviate from a mostly vertical axis. It is less expensive to develop a vertical well but is not nearly as efficient or lucrative because it cannot access reserves that are beneath obstructions and is limited in the amount of “pay zone” it can penetrate. This was the drilling method for nearly 100 years and is still very much used today when applicable.

Well Completion

Once the payzone is reached and drilling and casing is completed, it is time for well completion. This is the process of making a well ready to extract the oil or gas from the ground.

Cased-hole completion – perforations are made in the casing which passes through the payzone. This allows the oil or gas to flow into the production tube.

Open-hole completions – the borehole is dug to the top of the payzone and a final casing is installed. The production tube is left open and a sand screen or a gravel pack is installed for filtering purposes.

Well Locations

Onshore vs Offshore

Onshore wells are by far the most common type. There are tens of thousands of wells through the south and the Great Plains in the United States alone.

Offshore drilling is far more expensive even though the basic process and drilling principles are the same.