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Shale Gas Casing and Cementation Will Fail, but When?

By Barry Stevens | Wed, 13 June 2012 21:49 | 5

The other day, I received an email from a representative of an international oil company, which is wholly owned by the government and reports to the Department of Energy. The email contained this statement:

“Recently, Gerrit van Tonder, a professor at the University of the Free State argues that “aid cement and steel casings in the Karoo would inevitably deteriorate and fail over time, resulting in the upward migration of fracking fluids to ground water zones. Is this true?”

This is my reply to the question.

RE: Question – “would the cement and steel casings in the Karoo inevitably deteriorate and fail over time, resulting in the upward migration of fracking fluids to ground water zones?”

The answer to the question depends on what is meant by “over time.”  Nevertheless, the short answer is “Yes,” sometime in the future the casing/cement in the wellbore may undergo mechanical and/or chemical failure. But functional failure from damaged casing and cement is highly unlikely in the near future; where functional failure is the inability of the structure to perform as intended.

Fracking Cementing Casing

It is understood that the purpose of the cemented casing is to:

•    “Prevent contamination of fresh water well zones.
•    Prevent unstable upper formations from caving-in and sticking the drill string or forming large caverns.
•    Provides a strong upper foundation to use high-density drilling fluid to continue drilling deeper.
•    Isolates different zones that may have different pressures or fluids – known as zonal isolation, in the drilled formations from one another.
•    Seals off high pressure zones from the surface, avoiding potential for a blowout.
•    Prevents fluid loss into or contamination of production zones.
•    Provides a smooth internal bore for installing production equipment.”

The well’s susceptibility to functional failure relates to the experience level, standards, regulations and oversight used to design, build, operate and plug the well.  For this discussion, active life and plugging are essential to the wells performance over time. The industry has developed proven casing, cementing, drilling, completion and plugging requirements and regulations.

Active Life: The life expectancy of a well is dependent on the protection that the borehole can receive from primary cementing operations. This provides zonal isolation and preserves structural integrity over the life of the well.

End of Life: When a well reaches the end of its useful life, cement plugs are placed in the borehole to prevent migration of fluids between the different formations.  Dry wells are plugged in such a way as to confine oil, gas, and water in the strata in which they are found and prevent them from escaping into other strata. Cement is required to be circulated through tubing or drill pipe across producing formations. There are highly specific plugging requirements to protect usable quality water from pollution and to isolate each productive horizon.

The caveat to ensuring a long-term, environmentally safe well after abandonment is dependent on the experience level of the contractors, adherence to best management practices, sophistication of the regulatory agencies and degree of oversight. These vary state-by-state.

In particular, the State of Texas has one of the most mature and sophisticated regulatory agencies in the U.S.  Texas’ Railroad Commission (RRC), which has oversight responsibility, was established in 1891 to regulate the rail industry. Over its 118 year, the RRC has expanded to encompass many different industries, particularly the oil, natural gas, and coal mining industries. In its regulatory role, the RRC has environmental and safety responsibilities related to oil and gas production. An overarching agency goal is to encourage the responsible development of natural resources while protecting the environment.

The answer to the question lies in the fact that modern shale gas development is technologically driven and must be treated as such. There is a significant knowledge base to ensure development, production, and abandonment are done right. Sixty plus years of experience tells us, shale gas can be safely managed and controlled. Done right it is a very low risk proposition, now and for the future.

The problem may be due to the regional nature of the business whereby proven methods and regulations are not always used by local contractors and adopted by state agencies.

It is interesting to note that The Pantheon in Rome, Italy was built about 126 AD. Besides its age, the unusual aspect of this structure is its concrete dome. “Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 meters (142 ft).” As import, is the fact that this dome has few cracks.

The Pantheon

My qualifications include serving as a Sr. Vice President – Engineering and Sales at a concrete company for over 10 years and reorganization by the U.S. Federal Court system as expert in concrete and related construction projects.

By. Dr. Barry Stevens

Leave a comment

  • Andrew Mackay on June 15 2012 said:
    I must say that my view on the reply is that it does not actually answer the question but skirts around issues without actually providing any 'meat'.

    Stating that the short answer is 'Yes' will leave many non-technical people, and many technical ones, astounded at the fact that this is allowed in the first place if contamination has any chance of being an issue. It implies that at some time in the future fracturing fluids will contaminate the ground water zones or local aquifers. This is just not true.

    Fundamentally the design and construction of any well, of whatever type, is the Operator's responsibility - Operator being the licence or concession holder as defined by local legislation. The life expectancy of a well is not just founded on the veracity of the cement design, as in the reply above, but requires a life-of-well approach which deals with a whole host of issues of which cementing is just one. The diagram provided is also incredibly confusing as it shows an offshore exploration well (the Karoo wells would be onshore I believe) with all annuli fully cemented and many abandonment plugs including retainers. It is not representative of the question posed or of many of the 8000 wells I've been involved in assessing.

    End of life requirements, as described in the above text, should actually be considered during the initial well design and should consider what the well will be used for. There are many types of well each requiring differing approaches. I also disagree that when considering end-of-life in producing environments, presumably production wells, that cement must be placed across producing formations. Sometimes this is impossible to achieve and, additionally, may not even be required by the legislation in place.

    The reality of the situation is that the Operator should design any well using a life-of-well philosophy which extends to 'in perpetuity' plus legislation should be worded to allow the Operator to manage their risks not provide prescription. This is how the North Sea works.

    Where these principles exist the culture is such that the short answer provided should be modified to 'No or very low risk' to the chance of contamination.

    And, by the way, what has the Pantheon got to do with anything??
  • chuck in st paul on June 15 2012 said:
    Andrew, you would do well to do some research on current well technology. We have deep wells all over the place and for practical purposes a frac well is not really different from some of the many non-frac wells as far as casings and protection of the various strata and the well itself.

    It is unnecessary for the author to repeat all that information in his article. Additionally, his "yes" answer is correct. It just depends on how worried you are about something that might happen in the next 50 years or so.
  • AlmostEven on June 17 2012 said:
    And will this nearly perfect technology withstand every minor earthquake caused by the fracking? Just like the Fukushima floodwall prevented disaster from hitting that nuclear facility? Heck, people probably won't need potable water in 50 years, anyway. Let 'em drink RedBull!
  • Iris Marie Bloom on December 04 2012 said:
    This answer is completely inadequate and poorly researched. In reality, in Pennsylvania right now, 7.2 percent of all new Marcellus Shale gas wells fail immediately. In 2010 and 2011 the failure rate was 5.2 percent. All wells will fail eventually, usually because the cement cannot and does not bond with the rock strata, or human error. The fact is that well casing fails, sometimes immediately, sometimes without human error. That's because shale gas drilling is INHERENTLY contaminating. Too many people in Pennsylvania right now have so much methane in their water from gas drilling that they must leave windows open all winter so their home doesn't blow up (see Sherry Vargason's story in this month's National Geographic for one, but serious methane migration is plaguing PA, especially in Bradford County but in many others, as well.) Unfortunately methane is not the only thing that leaks.

    We have a moral obligation to protect present and future generations, aquatic life, and climate. We need to protect our economy from the shale gas bubble bursting. Shale gas is neither as abundant as they say, nor will it remain cheap, as shale gas is destined for export at least at 45 to 50 percent rates. Its extraction, processing and distribution is certainly not clean, and people's health is impacted not just from drilling fluids and fracking flowback entering their water, but from smog and hazardous air pollution from compressor stations. Methane is 105 times more potent a greenhous gas than CO2 in the 20 year time frame, according to Drew Shindell of NASA. Let's phase out fracking and invest full bore in renewables and in energy conservation and lifestyle changes (our meals don't need to travel thousands of miles to get to our plate; our homes can be many times more efficient). Climate change is here now, and shale gas drilling escalates climate change.

    For information about well casing failures, watch a talk by Anthony Ingraffee, a world-class fracturing expert and engineer; a researcher on horizontal hydrofracturing with a resume a mile long.
  • Matthew Scala on November 10 2013 said:
    1 in 20 new well casings fail the moment they are installed.

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