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Last Word: Setting the Record Straight about HDD Drilling Fluid

Richard Levings


The increase in oil and gas exploration has been a great boom for North America and has helped lead the U.S. to energy independence. New technology has opened gas fields that has brought clean energy to regions that have historically had to utilize fuel oil as a heating source. Power plants are converting to this clean burning fuel to help ensure a sustainable and affordable source of electricity. The petrochemical industry has been revived in North America bringing vital new jobs and reducing our dependence on other countries for the production of consumables used in our everyday lives.

These new energy resources have created the need for new pipeline networks to safely transport and process these sources of energy. In order to effectively develop these new networks in unconventional oil and gas production areas, design engineers are often challenged to find ways to construct these networks in economical and environmentally feasible ways.

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One of the more popular methods of construction on pipeline projects is horizontal directional drilling (HDD). This is a method that was developed in the 1970s and became most popular through the 1990s in the utility industry. Oil and gas pipeline contractors adopted this method early in its development and continue to use it in situations where it is not possible to open trench or disturb the surface in a right of way while installing a pipeline.

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Years later, the oil and gas industry developed a way to drill vertical and then guide the well bore to a horizontal plane and drill long distances through a shale formation. They too named this process “horizontal directional drilling.” Unfortunately, this has led to great general public confusion as both industries use this term for different purposes. Attached to the oil and gas process is a production development process called “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing. This process has provided the ability to produce from formations that previously were not economical to develop.

Many have assumed these two very different technologies are the same. In truth, they are completely different. Both of these technologies use a fluid in their process but for complete opposite purposes.

Utility and pipeline construction HDD fluid is a simple drilling fluid designed to seal the bore hole and transport solids out of the bore hole so the pipeline or utility can be inserted in that hole. Drilling fluid generally has a base of bentonite (a natural clay product used in many consumer products, i.e. cosmetics and chocolate) and water. Other components can be added for differing soil conditions to enhance the fluid. This fluid acts as a lubricant, a conveyor to remove solids and a seal to keep the fluid in the bore hole. This fluid works near the surface in relatively shallow formations.

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Oil and gas fracking fluid is used to build pressure in the shale formation to crack or fracture the formation so oil or gas can flow though the formation to the well bore. This fluid carries and deposits sand into the fractured formation to hold the formation open. Fracking fluid has a complex makeup of components to serve the functions of pressurizing a formation and depositing sand. This fluid works in extremely deep formations at very high temperatures.

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As you can see, there are complete opposite functions of HDD drilling fluids and fracking fluid. Drilling fluids for utility and pipeline construction are simple in their component make up. Fracking fluids for oil and gas production purposes are very complex in their component make up and serve different functions than drilling fluids. HDD fluids and practices are designed to minimize the impact outside of the borehole and fracking fluids and practices are designed to impact areas outside the borehole.

It should be noted that in a HDD drilling fluid field study done several years ago by Oklahoma State University, samples from all over North America of actual utility HDD drilling fluids from jobsites were analyzed and proved to be free of hydrocarbons, heavy metals above what is already present in the natural soils. Additionally, when applied to vegetation in differing amounts, it was extremely beneficial to plant life and plant production. Many farmers and ranchers around North America beg for these drilling fluids to be applied to their fields because of the benefits to the soil and to plant life.

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In summary, utility and pipeline HDD methods were developed to reduce the environmental impact during construction activities. The list of benefits grows each day the technology is employed on a project. Confusion between this technology and fracking technology has led to many pipeline project delays and cancellations. Educating the industry and the public to the differences in these technologies and the fluids used during their processes is important so this environmentally friendly construction method is not by-passed during the construction selection process.

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Richard Levings is director of product development at American Augers.

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