Shell Egypt has already discovered substantial quantities of gas in its 31,135 square kilometres NEMED (North East Mediterranean Deepwater) concession but continues to pursue additional significant volumes of gas before declaring commercial success, which will lead to the development of this offshore concession and the delivery of gas to an onshore processing and production facility.

‘Shell in the Middle East’ visits the Transocean ‘Deepwater Expedition’ drilling ship, currently engaged in a four-well drilling campaign, and meets some of the key players involved in the campaign, which will take the record for wells drilled in the deepest water in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East…

Jim Bloomfield, Exploration Manager for Shell Egypt “As I move from my present role in Egypt, back to the USA as Exploration Strategy Manager for the Americas, I am pleased to see that the ‘Deepwater Expedition’ drilling ship has arrived in the Mediterranean and is now drilling the first of four wells in Phase 3 of Shell Egypt’s NEMED concession,” says Jim Bloomfield, Exploration Manager for Shell Egypt.

“After waiting for more than two years this is an exciting time for all of us at Shell Egypt, but especially for all the people involved in the planning and execution of this campaign here in Egypt and in Shell’s Exploration and Production offices in the USA and in The Netherlands.

The ‘Deepwater Expedition’. The drilling rig. Workers on the rig floor. “Everyone is very focused on delivering the wells safely and efficiently and collecting the data we need to move ahead with further exploration activity in this deepwater concession. Ultimately, we are working toward a development decision for the discoveries we currently have in hand and those we expect to make in this campaign.

“The first well, the La-52-2, is currently being drilled and will be an appraisal of the discovered gas volumes we made in Miocene sandstone reservoirs in the La-52 field in 2004. The La-52-2 well is being drilled approximately two kilometres from the La-52-1 discovery well and includes an extensive data gathering programme. We intend to take cores from the reservoir formations to fully quantify the potential of the reservoir, and also conduct production tests to establish flow rates and the reservoir’s connectivity to enable us to estimate the volumes of recoverable gas.

“The rig will then move to a new prospect, Ld-51, and drill well Ld-51-1, located some 30 kilometres to the northwest of the La-52 gas field. Here we will drill in water depths of 2,729 metres, which will be a drilling record for water depth in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the entire Middle East.

“We will again be penetrating a Miocene sandstone reservoir and are quite confident of discovering hydrocarbons in this area. Once we have drilled the main well we intend to drill a side-track, from which we will also be taking core samples and carrying out production tests to determine the potential productivity of the well.

“The next two wells are really exciting wildcats and are true exploration play openers for both NEMED and the Mediterranean. In drilling the third well, Lb-57-1 in a water depth of around 2,434 metres, it will be the first time in offshore Egypt that any operator will drill through thick salt formations into what we expect will be reservoir quality sands associated with the dessication of the Mediterranean some six million years ago, and known to geologists as the ‘the Messinian salinity crisis’.

“Drilling through thick salt is always challenging but in this case the thickness of the salt formation is over 1,000 metres. When drilling thick salt formations, well bore stability – stopping the well bore from collapsing – is a major issue, as is the probability of finding high pressure zones immediately below the salt layers.

“However, salt is an exceptionally good top seal, as it is so impermeable and represents an excellent container for hydrocarbons, so we are all very excited about this well.

“For the fourth and final well in Phase 3 of this campaign we will move to shallower water, around 1,350 metres deep, in the far eastern section of the NEMED concession. Here we will target deep high pressure reservoirs at a total depth [TD] of around 6,000 metres. which will make the well one of the deepest in the whole of the Nile Delta.

“This well will be drilled to test a deeper stratigraphic interval across a very large structure with significant up-side volume potential. This will be a very challenging well to drill because of the very high formation pressures and also the extreme depth.

“To ensure that all goes well, Shell will bring to bear all types of technology and the expertise of well construction specialists from throughout the Shell Group, but especially from Shell’s deepwater heartland in the Gulf of Mexico where this sort of well is not at all unusual.

“This will then signify the end of the current NEMED drilling campaign and I sincerely hope that it will prove to be successful in delivering the wells and the data Shell needs to evaluate them and to move ahead to declare the discoveries to be a commercial success.

“If so, then Shell Egypt will move into a new era which will lead to further exploration campaigns and the development of these gas resources for the benefit of the people of Egypt and for Shell,” concludes Jim.

The main accomodation quarters seen from the rig floor. A helicopter crew transfer. One of the vessel’s lifeboats“The Transocean drilling ship ‘Deepwater Expedition’ has the ability to drill wells in water as deep as 3,000 metres and uses a Dynamic Positioning System [DPS] to maintain an exact position over the sea bed and the well site,” explains Juan Carlos Margiotta, OIM (Offshore Installation Manager) on the ‘Deepwater Expedition’. Juan is responsible for all operations on the vessel and is the senior man in charge when the ‘Expedition’ is stationary and carrying out drilling activities.

“Like any sea-going vessel, the ‘Expedition’ operates as a self-sufficient little world of its own. However, the main difference between the ‘Expedition’ and other vessels is that we do not go from port to port but from offshore deepwater drilling location to offshore deepwater drilling location and, of course, the vessel is a mobile offshore drilling rig.

“I work in close co-operation with the Captain of the vessel who, when we are sailing from one location to another, is in charge of the vessel. When we are drilling, it is the Captain’s job to ensure that the vessel maintains an exact position over the well site. I also work closely with Tim Stockwell, the Shell Company Man, and the Toolpusher.

“Here on board we have every facility that one would expect to find at a shore-based drilling operation. This includes the drilling rig itself, a drilling mud plant, a cement plant, cranes, drill pipe and casing. As we are drilling in water, we also have access to additional technologies such as underwater ROVs [Remotely Operated Vehicles],” says Juan Carlos.

“We are some 185 nautical miles from the coast and we receive all our supplies by boat, including fuel and provisions, as well as all materials and equipment, whilst crew changes are carried out using helicopters.

“Shell’s logistics and supply team are doing a very good job and have two supply boats operating out of Shell’s Abu Qir logistics base, close to Alexandria,” he says.

Juan CarlosJuan Carlos then goes on to explain, “The drilling operation is somewhat different to that of a land-based rig as we are floating, here in the Mediterranean, in some 2,420 metres of water. Once the location of the well is decided by Shell, we position ourselves over the well site and use our DPS to maintain position whilst we drill the well. We are using a fifth generation drilling rig, with the very latest technology, including an automated derrick operation, a dedicated pipe racking system and a remote hands-free cyber-based system for making and unmaking drill pipe connections.

“At 2,420 metres over the sea bed we have to assemble and lower that amount of drill pipe just to reach the sea bed to break the surface of the sea floor before we can drill a single metre. We started drilling operations at this site by jetting-in, using a high pressure water system, a 50-metre section of 30-inch conductor pipe into the sea bed, with a 20-metre section of that above the sea bed.

“To the top section of the 30-inch conductor we attached a well head and on top of this we then positioned a Blow Out Preventor [BOP]. As drilling operations require there to be a pressurised column of mud in the well bore, to maintain the integrity of the well bore we have to run 2,420 metres of 21-inch diameter pipe, which we call a riser, from the drilling ship to the sea bed and the BOP is attached to the bottom end of the riser.

“This then completes the closed system, recreating the well bore of a conventional land drilling rig, and allows us to drill the well into the formations below the sea bed.

The automated drilling system “In deepwater drilling we use a special BOP with a flexible joint and a detachable top section which, in emergencies, allows us to close down the well using remotely controlled valves in the well head, disconnect the BOP and riser, and move the vessel away from the well site, with 2,420 metres of riser and the BOP hanging from below the vessel. We are then able to lift the riser and BOP and bring them into the vessel as needed.

“The ‘Expedition’ is capable of maintaining position over a well site to within a few metres of the exact position and the drilling equipment is designed to allow for some small lateral and vertical movements in the vessel using different hydraulic systems.

“So far, we have also drilled the 17-inch section to a depth of some 850 metres below the sea floor and set and cemented 13.375-inch casing. We are now carrying out some maintenance on the vessel before drilling the final 8-inch section. The cement we use is a special cement which sets in water.”

Juan Carlos concludes, “In any drilling operation safety is a major element, but here at sea, drilling offshore in 2,420 metres of water, safety is of paramount importance. Safety and Environment] standards and a good record so far – and we want to keep it that way.

“As the OIM, I am – along with the Captain – in charge of all safety issues. We insist on regular training sessions and briefings to ensure that all staff are aware of the dangers and know what to do in case of an emergency and what to do to protect themselves and their fellow workers. We also have an emergency vessel on standby at all times. So, our aim is to reach our targets with the highest safety record possible,” says Juan Carlos.

Captain Jarlath Trant “As Captain I work very closely with Juan Carlos Margiotta, the Offshore Installation Manager, and we share the responsibility for the management of this vessel and operations,” says Captain Jarlath Trant of the ‘Deepwater Expedition’.

“Whilst the vessel is stationary and drilling, Juan Carlos has operational control, but in an emergency and whilst under way, as Captain I am in control. There is no competition as we work together seamlessly as a single management team.

“In a deepwater operation such as this we rely enormously on our machinery and equipment so we have a built-in redundancy, which means that we have several identical pieces of machinery to act as back-ups should anything fail. In addition, of course, we have an onboard team of technicians and engineers to carry out routine maintenance and deal with the repair of any equipment.

“The vessel has eight engines to generate electrical power for the whole vessel and for the six electrically- driven thrusters – three forward and three aft – which keep the ship in a static position whilst drilling operations are carried out. However, the vessel can be maintained on location to within two or three metres of an exact position with only four of the thrusters in operation. The ship has been designed in such a way that the six thrusters are also used for the propulsion of the vessel whilst making voyages.

“The ‘Expedition’ is capable of carrying out drilling operations in extreme weather conditions and it has to get pretty bad before we have to break away during drilling operations. For example, yesterday we had Beaufort force ten weather conditions and we were still able to maintain position.

“Our position is maintained using a system of acoustic beacons, which have been placed on the sea bed and transmit signals through the water to the vessel. These signals are then interpreted to enable us to maintain an exact position over the well head.

“In addition, we have a DGPS [Differential Global Positioning System], which uses a number of satellites to fix our position and so by running the signals from the acoustic beacons and the DGPS into our computer system we are able to maintain position to within one or two metres.

“All of this is totally automated and we also have back-up systems, but should everything fail we can take over and maintain position manually.

“We do a great deal of training both onshore and offshore to make sure that the crew is working as one team, and safety is a priority, so HSE [Health, Safety and Environment] issues are at the forefront of our thinking and of our operations on a day-to-day and job-to-job basis.

“At the moment we have 140 people on board the vessel, of 19 different nationalities, including drilling and marine operators. The men work 24 hours a day, operating two 12-hour sifts, 28 days on and 28 days off, so it’s all systems go,” concludes Captain Trant.

Jan Brakel, Well Delivery Manager for Shell Exploration & Production in Rijswijk in The NetherlandsJan Brakel is based in The Netherlands, and is responsible for ‘single string’, or one-off, exploration activities for Shell Exploration & Production. These projects include deepwater operations offshore Pakistan, shallow water in Kazakhstan, onshore wells in the Ukraine and Phase 3 of Shell Egypt’s deepwater drilling campaign in its NEMED concession.

“My involvement with Shell Egypt’s NEMED operation stems from the company’s plans to drill a high pressure shallow water exploration well in the Northwest Damietta block. From there, I worked on the drilling of a second well, J-65, in the Northwest Damietta block, and then took on the role of Well Delivery Manager for NEMED,” says Jan Brakel, Well Delivery Manager for Shell Exploration & Production in Rijswijk in The Netherlands.

“I have been responsible for managing the present drilling campaign, which is for three wells, with one optional well. The first well, La-52-2, is an appraisal well. The second well, Ld-51-1, will be an exploration well. The third well will be an intra-salt exploration well. The fourth well is still under discussion, but will most likely be a high pressure, sub-salt well called Wadi Sura.

“This drilling campaign is being planned and executed using Shell’s revitalised DTL [Drilling the Limit] process and we are striving for best performance in HSE [Health, Safety and Environment] and operations. “Shell staff will be working very closely with all the service companies to achieve the HSE, performance and data quality goals,” says Jan.

“This drilling campaign is technically very challenging and the wells we are drilling will take the record for drilling and production testing in the deepest water in the Mediterranean, North Africa and in the Middle East, at around 2,750 metres of water depth.

“A major feature of this drilling campaign will be the leveraging of the Shell Group’s deepwater global deepwater drilling experience. As part of the team, we are fortunate to have members of Shell’s Houston-based Deepwater Division, a centre of excellence, working here on the ground in Cairo with Shell Egypt’s team. So, we are looking forward to a very successful campaign,” Jan concludes.

Thor Lovoll and Steve McWilliam, Senior Well Engineers for Deepwater Well Delivery, and Paul Sullivan, Drilling Superintendent, all“Paul, Steve and I are all with Shell’s specialist Deepwater Well Delivery Unit in Houston, Texas, in the USA, and we are here in Cairo to assist Shell Egypt with its deepwater drilling operations in its NEMED concession,” says Thor Lovoll, Senior Well Engineer for Deepwater Well Delivery.

“Our role is to provide technical support by applying the best practices of deepwater drilling and well testing from Shell’s Deepwater Unit in Houston. This learning and knowledge has been accumulated over the years through the assistance and support we have given to many Shell operating units around the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Far East and from Brazil to the Middle East, with their deepwater drilling activities.

“When we talk about deepwater wells we need to refer to two factors of depth. One is the depth of the sea water above the sea bed, which can be thousands of metres deep, in which the well is drilled. The second is the depth of the actual well below the sea bed, which can also be several thousand metres deep.

“Drilling wells in deepwater, developing the discovered oil and gas fields, then bringing the hydrocarbons to production is probably the most difficult challenge in the industry today and it is a practice in which Shell is a world leader.

One of the vessel’s cranes at work“Currently, the drilling side of the deepwater business is ahead of the development side. The world record water depth for a deepwater well is over 3,000 metres, whilst the record water depth for a producing well – a Shell well, by the way – is a little over 2,200 metres,” explains Thor.

“In Phase 3 of the NEMED drilling campaign Shell Egypt will be drilling three wells, with an option for a fourth, between 2,400 and 2,750 metres. So, whilst not quite world record water depths, these wells will certainly hold local records for their water depths in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East.

“Once drilled, it is intended to test up to two of the wells and at these water depths the wells will take the world record for the deepest water depth in which wells have been tested to date.

“In addition, if these wells are successful and commercial quantities of gas are found, as is expected, and the field is developed and goes into production, the field will then take the water depth record for the development of a hydrocarbon field anywhere in the world.”

Taking up the story, Paul Sullivan, Drilling Superintendent, says, “From a drilling aspect, the NEMED campaign is very challenging and one where we face small margins between the pore pressures and rock strengths, leading to two quite different problems.

“The first is that this can lead to total mud losses where the pressure of the drilling fluid in the well bore is higher than that of the formations. The second is that where the pressure of the rock formations is higher than that of the drilling column we face well bore collapse.

“We also face possible shallow water flows and hydrates within the shallow formations through which we will be drilling which, in the worst case, can result in the well being lost. So we will be carefully monitoring the drilling process using LWD [Logging Whilst Drilling] and weighted mud to control these sections.

“The Transocean Drilling Ship ‘Expedition’ has been on site, over the La-52 field, for the last three weeks. So far we have drilled the first two sections of the first well, the La-52-2, in a water depth of 2,420 metres and will move the Expedition’ to drill the first two sections of the second well, the Ld-51-1, shortly.

“The first section was a 30-inch conductor which was jetted-in to a depth of 50 metres, whilst the second section, the 17.5-inch, was drilled to a depth of 850 metres below sea floor and 13.375- inch casing set and cemented.

“The formations we encountered were as expected and consisted of marine sediments and mass transport complexes. We also met with two thick sands which produced water flow into the well bore, but we were able to control this using a heavier mud as planned.

“The third and final intervals of the well will be the 12.25-inch and 8.5-inch sections, which we will drill using PDC [Polycrystalline Diamond Compact] bits. Following that we will then set 9.625-inch casing, carry out the 7-inch completion and begin testing.

“These sections will be drilled using a synthetic-based mud. To avoid any environmental damage to the finely balanced eco-system of the Mediterranean Sea we will be collecting the formation cuttings and shipping them to an approved shore-based disposal facility.

“The well is planned to come in at a TD [Total Depth] of 4,050 metres, with a well depth of 1,630 metres below the sea bed.”

The riser descends to the sea bed through the moon pool in the centre of the drilling shipSteve McWilliam, Senior Well Engineer, continues, “The La-52-2 is an appraisal well and will be used to gather data on the existing discoveries in the La-52 structure. This data will ultimately be used to make the decision, along with the other wells in Phase 3 of the NEMED drilling campaign, to develop the field.

“We are able to monitor drilling operations using real time data transmissions which enables members of the team to make real time decisions in relation to events as they develop. This data can be accessed by the Shell Deepwater Unit in Houston, as well as here in the Cairo offices and in The Hague.

The subsurface field development team, based in Houston, will use the real time data and drilling results straight from the drilling ship to assist them in planning the development of the field. Indeed, yesterday, using real time data transmission from an ROV [Remotely Operated Vehicle] working on the sea bed, we were able to monitor an operation to cut a piece off the conductor pipe running tool which had been damaged during drilling operations.

“The ROV was lowered to the well head with specialised cutting equipment. This was positioned over the conductor pipe then remotely controlled by operators on the surface who could see everything on their screens in the surface control room being relayed to them via video cameras positioned on the ROV.

“Sitting in the Cairo office, using real time data transmission, we were able to watch the whole operation, monitoring its progress and result, as were members of the team in Houston and The Hague.

“Shell has a lot of experience in deepwater drilling and field development,” concludes Steve, “and we are happy to share it and transfer technology and learning whenever we can.”