New drilling labs deal with fluid situation

Drilling fluids may not sound glamorous, but like hammers and nails at a construction site, it’s hard to get anything done at the wellhead without them.

So when Newpark Drilling Fluids moved into its $33 million headquarters and technology center in Katy a few weeks ago, employees were excited about more than the company cafeteria and parking garage.

The building, just north of Interstate 10, consolidates the company’s 140 employees, who had been scattered among three Katy-area locations. It features natural light, a soothing water wall studded with living plants and other amenities.

But Lindsay Fraser, the company’s director of technology, says the heart of the building is the labs that will let his team develop new drilling fluids, as well as focusing on training for both customers and staff.

Burst of business

Newpark Drilling Fluids, created in 1997, is a subsidiary of The Woodlands-based Newpark Resources.

Marketing Director John Beltz said the company always has offered fluids for onshore and offshore drilling. But the shale boom — as horizontal drilling technology unlocked oil and natural gas from shale rock formations — brought a burst of onshore business. Newpark developed its water-based Evolution fluid for horizontal drilling about 3½ years ago.

Fraser said Evolution now is used in vertical wells, too. Company spokeswoman Jené Rockwood said it had been used in 1,757 wells as of April.

Global push

The fluids — also known as drilling muds since oil field workers used mud from a nearby field to lubricate the drill at Spindletop, according to legend — are added to the wellbore to make drilling easier. Based on water, oil or synthetic materials, the fluid cools and lubricates the drill bit cool, provides buoyancy and stabilizes exposed rock.

Its U.S. shale success notwithstanding, Beltz said, Newpark is continuing a global push.

The company announced two deep-water contracts this spring, one in Brazil and the second in the Black Sea. It also said in May that it had entered into a five-year contract worth up to $75 million with the Kuwait Oil Co. to provide drilling fluids and related services.

Each well different

While the Kuwait contract is for onshore work, the deep-water drilling requires different fluids, depending on the type of well being drilled.

“There isn’t a go-everywhere fluid,” Fraser said. “We have to tailor for the well.”

Offshore wells don’t use diesel or other oil-based drilling fluids, he said; they are considered too toxic for the ocean environment.

While interest has grown in water-based and other more environmentally friendly drilling fluids, Beltz said the industry can be slow to change.

Search for innovation

That’s where the new facility comes in: With an auditorium and training labs designed to offer weeklong classes, Beltz said, the company will be better able to help customers — drilling engineers, reservoir engineers and other representatives from companies that work with Newpark — decide which drilling fluids best fit their needs.

The training labs, and other labs on the first and second floors of the new building, are filled with equipment used ?at rigs in the field, including rheometers to measure viscosity; high temperature-high pressure filtration cells; and blenders to mix drilling muds.

Once it is installed, engineers will be able to run a downhole drilling simulator to test new formulations, and a reservoir lab is just down the hall.

The search for innovation in fluids continues.

“You always design them to accommodate the details,” Fraser said. “There are a whole host of variants, based on what you’re trying to do.”