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Twenty years before its merger with Total, Elf Aquitaine undertook an R&D program called FORHOR (for Forage Horizontal or Horizontal Drilling) in partnership with the French Petroleum Institute (now known as Institut Français du Pétrole - Energies Nouvelles, IFPEN). The program’s stated goal was to develop horizontal drilling technology that would facilitate oil and gas recovery and enhance well productivity. By the 1980s, these efforts had been crowned with success, triggering a revolution in the oil and gas drilling industry. Daniel Plathey, Vice President of Research and Development for Total’s E&P branch, takes a look back on this disruptive innovation.

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Daniel Plathey

R&D

Please remind us of the aims of the FORHOR program.

FORHOR came about in response to the discovery of the Rospo Mare field in the mid-1970s. The field had extraordinary resources but tapping them required an innovative solution to say the least: the rock was compact and highly fractured, the oil was viscous and there was extensive water influx. In that configuration, vertical and deviated wells were out of the question!

In other words, the R&D program had its work cut out as it faced the compound challenges of confirming the technical feasibility of horizontal drilling and extracting value from reserves considered off limits until the early 1980s. The program involved five years of R&D on four broad topics: reservoir methodology, drilling, electric logging, and well equipment and production start-up.

And those efforts quickly paid off!

That’s right. Just a year into the program, in May 1980, drilling began on the LACQ 90 well, the very first horizontal well in Western Europe. At a depth of 670 meters, the borehole crossed through the reservoir over a length of 270 meters, which included a 100-meter section drilled horizontally!  This initial success was followed by many industrial-scale trials, namely, the LACQ 91 well in 1981, the first offshore well drilled horizontally on Rospo Mare in 1982, and finally, the horizontal well on Castéra-Lou, CLU 110, drilled to a depth of almost 3000 meters.

But the success of the FORHOR program is about more than these wells. The R&D effort gave rise to an array of new tools – such as MWD (Measurement While Drilling), LWD (Logging While Drilling) and SIMPHOR (the French acronym for System for Instrumentation and Measurement in Horizontal Wells) – that have allowed us to enhance the performance of horizontal drilling.

Looking back over the past forty years, what do you think this innovation has meant for the industry?

Horizontal drilling completely revolutionized oil drilling. We are talking about a disruptive innovation, one with a major impact on the oil and gas industry, similar to the advent of rotary drilling in its time. The operational uptake was very quick: within less than a decade, horizontal drilling became a standard in the global industry.

Horizontal drilling opened up a whole new realm of possibility with the ability to produce resources once deemed non-recoverable in terms of both economics and technology. Today, it continues to open up new opportunities: horizontal drilling is what has made it possible to exploit the hydrocarbon resources of shale plays.

It is also an innovation that consolidated Total’s reputation for technical expertise.

Absolutely. It is a magnificent success story that has played a major role in shaping Total’s image as a technological force.

It conveys a strong message to anyone who believes that R&D is reserved for oilfield services companies, and that operators must be satisfied with commercially-available, off-the-shelf technologies. On the contrary, the FORHOR program showed just how strategic a role a major like Total can play in driving the development of tomorrow’s technologies, assembling the building blocks,  and ensuring the uptake of innovation. Of course, the oil services companies jumped on the bandwagon, because there were huge market opportunities to tap, but the original idea was born thanks to the operations and R&D teams.

Is there still room for innovation in the odyssey of horizontal drilling?

More than ever! We have to find ways to increase the offset even more and to expand the drilling window to bring more new horizons within reach. To date, we have managed to leverage the technological breakthrough of horizontal drilling to maintain our leading edge, thanks to a number of major achievements in every region of the globe.

We are also taking part in several research programs jointly with oilfield services companies and start-ups specializing in Extended Reach Drilling (ERD). These aim to validate technologies that will allow us, in the near future, to drill wells with offsets of up to 20,000 meters. Clearly, the impact would be huge: those 8,000 additional meters would make it possible to tap marginal reserves from existing drilling hubs, without having to build new ones.

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