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DrillTech enlists HDD to conquer challenging soil conditions; completes natural gas pipeline project

Alternating and sporadic formations of sand, clay and rock posed numerous challenges


When Gary Davidson, president and co-owner of DrillTech Inc., based in Clarksville, Texas, reviewed the results of soil samples provided him by project owner Regency Energy Partners, he felt confident the mainline natural gas pipeline project his company was hired to complete would be a fairly routine trenchless installation. At first glance, the only thing that Davidson felt may be somewhat of a challenge was the length.

Davidson, who has been involved with drilling and pipeline installing since 1991, founded DrillTech with friend and partner Lance Downs in October 2007. The company has enjoyed steady growth ever since, and currently employs more than 20 people. The installation contractor specializes in trenchless pipeline installations with the capable assistance what Davidson credits as the staple of his fleet, a Vermeer® D500x500 Navigator® horizontal directional drill (HDD).

Based in Dallas, project owner Regency Energy Partners owns more than 5200 miles (8368.6 km) of gathering pipeline, including an ownership interest in the Regency Intrastate Gas System, a 450-mile (724.2 km) intrastate pipeline located in North Louisiana. Regency's assets are located in some of the most prolific gas producing regions of the United States, including the Haynesville, Eagle Ford, Barnett, Fayetteville and Marcellus shales.

Regency operates significant gathering and processing assets in four geographic regions of the United States and contracts with producers to gather raw natural gas from individual wells or central delivery points that likely have multiple wells behind them. The wells are connected via gathering lines through which the raw natural gas flows to a processing plant, treating facility or directly to interstate or intrastate gas transportation pipelines.

The project Regency Energy awarded to DrillTech was located near Logansport, La., in extreme Western Louisiana — just a stone’s throw from the Texas / Arkansas border and was an extension of an existing mainline consisting of 24-inch (61 cm) material, one-half inch (1.3 cm) thick, fed by the output of raw material from several wells.

The drill plan specified the pipeline be installed in two separate bores; the first, a relatively standard shot of 1938 feet (590.7 m), and the second spanning some 4628 feet (1410.6 m). It was the second shot that would present challenges for the DrillTech crew. Davidson explains factors that led to drawing up the drill plan that called for completing two separate bores.

“The installation plan intersected with a highway and continued beneath an environmentally sensitive expanse,” Davidson says. “The route had been pre-planned when we got it, so we walked the route to gauge the physical typography of the area. After completing a physical inspection, we felt two separate bores would be the best approach, especially since the distance of the environmentally sensitive area was so long. What we didn’t anticipate were the challenges we would encounter underneath.”

After a final evaluation of the soil profiles gathered by project owner Regency Energy, and a completion plan timeline firmly established, Davidson’s crew made equipment and tooling selections they felt would be most efficient to complete the job.

“Based on the length of the crossing and the specified pipe size, we felt the Vermeer D500x500 HDD was the best fit for the job,” Davidson explains. “The D500x500 HDD was the model in our fleet that was best suited for both phases of the project, especially the long bore where we knew there would be environmental sensitivities to contend with. The first bore, which was the shorter of the two, went really smooth — no surprises. The soil profile was fairly consistent across the entire length of that bore with mostly varying densities of clay.”

After all the equipment required to tackle the job had been readied, the DrillTech crew departed for the 165-mile (267.8 km) journey from their home base of Clarksville, Texas, to Logansport, La., the project location, anxious to get started.

Within the first bore, a variety of soil conditions were encountered ranging from sand, hard clay and then some rock. These variations continued throughout the duration of the first bore. The core samples showed a 2-inch (5.1 cm) layer of rock but didn't offer any indication of the exact distance, width or depth of the formation. After drilling approximately 300 feet (91.4 m) through the tough stuff, the initial soil profile changed abruptly, requiring Davidson’s crew to pull back and adjust their approach, and installed a 6-3/4-inch (17.2 cm) mud motor with an 8-1/2-inch (21.6 cm) drill tooth bit. The mud motor was selected because of its effectiveness in navigating through harder formations.

"The mud motor is powered by your mud flow and is designed to cut through harder formations," Davidson explained. The mud pressure makes the drill bit work better by allowing it to turn on the end. This proved to be a good decision as it allowed us to complete the project more efficiently and improved our production rate."

Unforeseen challenges lurking ahead
The DrillTech crew completed the first bore in relatively smooth fashion after eight days, realizing production rates that averaged 250 to 300 feet per (76.2 to 91.4 m) hour after making some initial minor adjustments. After reaming the bore in stages using a variety of incremental size reamers — ranging from 18 to 36 inches (45.7 to 91.4 cm) in diameter — the hole was swabbed and the 969 feet (295.4 m) of 40-foot (12.2 m) sections of 24-inch (61 cm) 500 [1/2-inch thick (1.3 cm)] well pipe, already welded together and strung out on stretched rollers, was pulled back through. The equipment was then repositioned for tackling the second, longer 4628-foot (1410.6 m) bore.

The soil samples through the environmentally sensitive area had been taken from the projected entry and exit points and lacked any detailed information about what would be encountered in between. The bore began with some clay, followed by areas of sand; nothing of critical significance or that was particularly challenging at the onset. But suddenly things began to change as the operator sensed a dramatic shift in conditions. Rock.

“Having previously drilled in the area before on different jobs, we were suspicious there could be several changes in the terrain over the course of the 4600-foot (1402.1 m) shot,” Davidson says. “As expected, we did encounter a lot of variation in formations that the soil samples didn’t show, but many of which surprised us.”

"These conditions were something that we didn't anticipate, so we had to go to a rock reamer to cut through the formation," Davidson explains. We didn't realize from the soil samples there would be this much rock and didn't have the appropriate tooling to get through it on site, so we had to order a split bit hole opener. Luckily we discovered this when drilling the pilot bore so we got that rolling and the bit arrived in time. Production was never halted.

With the split bit hole opener now installed, drilling commenced and the D500x500HDD outfitted with the tooling required to tackle the rock was back in business. The pesky rock and unpredictable abrupt changes to alternating ground conditions consisting of sand and varying densities of clay made the second bore tough to navigate, reducing production rates and extending the duration of the second bore to more than five weeks. But all things considered, Davidson was satisfied with the overall results.

"The project certainly wasn't without its challenges," he recalls. "But with good equipment, the right tooling and the experience of our drill operators having previously completed jobs in similar conditions was of tremendous benefit. I've been involved with jobs that didn't go nearly as well as this, despite how complicated it was. I felt like DrillTech did everything properly, the way it should be done. The Vermeer drill performed beautifully and has been a good investment for us."

Varying conditions mediated by operator skill
There's little doubt that the abruptly changing soil conditions encountered by the DrillTech crew on this installation was the greatest challenge, compounded by the lack of detailed sampling data that would have better prepared them for what to expect. That said, Davidson was emphatic about the crucial role that the experience of his drill operator played in successfully overcoming the challenges presented by conditions below the surface.

"Never underestimate the value of a skilled drill operator," Davidson says. "It takes some time to learn and our operators have what it takes to overcome most any challenge the earth can dish out. Sure, it takes some time to learn, but experience is the best teacher. Anyone can learn to drive a car, but not everybody can drive a NASCAR. The same can be said for horizontal directional drilling. Anybody can get up there and pull levers, but you want somebody aboard that drill who knows what he's doing and is also safety conscience. Safety is among the most important attributes an operator can have and is always top of mind with all DrillTech employees."