The earliest known oil wells were drilled in China in 347 CE. They had depths of up to about and were drilled using bits attached to bamboo poles. The oil was burned to evaporate brine and produce salt. By the 10th century, extensive bamboo pipelines connected oil wells with salt springs. The ancient records of China and Japan are said to contain many allusions to the use of natural gas for lighting and heating. Petroleum was known as burning water in Japan in the 7th century.
The Middle East's petroleum industry was established by the 8th century, when the streets of the newly constructed Baghdad were paved with tar, derived from petroleum that became accessible from natural fields in the region. Petroleum was distilled by the Persian alchemist Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi (Rhazes) in the 9th century, producing chemicals such as kerosene in the alembic (al-ambiq), and which was mainly used for kerosene lamps. Arab and Persian chemists also distilled crude oil in order to produce flammable products for military purposes. Through Islamic Spain, distillation became available in Western Europe by the 12th century.
Some sources claim that from the 9th century, oil fields were exploited in the area around modern Baku, Azerbaijan, to produce naphtha for the petroleum industry. These fields were described by Marco Polo in the 13th century, who described the output of those oil wells as hundreds of shiploads. When Marco Polo in 1264 visited the Azerbaijani city of Baku, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, he saw oil being collected from seeps. He wrote that "on the confines toward Geirgine there is a fountain from which oil springs in great abundance, inasmuch as a hundred shiploads might be taken from it at one time."
Shallow pits were dug at the Baku seeps in ancient times to facilitate collecting oil, and hand-dug holes up to 35 meters (115 ft) deep were in use by 1594. These holes were essentially oil wells. Apparently 116 of these wells in 1830 produced 3,840 metric tons (about 28000 barrels) of oil. In 1849, Russian engineer F.N. Semyenov used a cable tool to drill an oil well on the Apsheron Peninsula, ten years before Colonel Drake's famous well in Pennsylvania. Also, offshore drilling started up at Baku at Bibi-Eibat field near the end of the 19th century, about the same time that the "first" offshore oil well was drilled in 1896 at Summerland field on the California Coast.
The earliest oil wells were drilled percussively by hammering a cable tool into the earth. Soon after, cable tools were replaced with rotary drilling, which could drill boreholes to much greater depths and in less time. The record-depth Kola Borehole used non-rotary mud motor drilling to achieve a depth of over 12 000 meters (38,000 ft). Until the 1970s, most oil wells were vertical (although different lithology and mechanical imperfections cause most wells to deviate at least slightly from true vertical). However, modern directional drilling technologies allow for strongly deviated wells which can, given sufficient depth and with the proper tools, actually become horizontal. This is of great value as the reservoir rocks which contain hydrocarbons are usually horizontal, or sub-horizontal; a horizontal wellbore placed in a production zone has more surface area in the production zone than a vertical well, resulting in a higher production rate. The use of deviated and horizontal drilling has also made it possible to reach reservoirs several kilometers or miles away from the drilling location (extended reach drilling), allowing for the production of hydrocarbons located below locations that are either difficult to place a drilling rig on, environmentally sensitive, or populated.
With these zones safely isolated and the formation protected by the casing, the well can be drilled deeper (into potentially more-unstable and violent formations) with a smaller bit, and also cased with a smaller size casing. Modern wells often have 2-5 sets of subsequently smaller hole sizes drilled inside one another, each cemented with casing.
To drill the well
This process is all facilitated by a drilling rig which contains all necessary equipment to circulate the drilling fluid, hoist and turn the pipe, control downhole pressures, remove cuttings from the drilling fluid, and generate onsite power for these operations.
In a cased-hole completion, small holes called perforations are made in the portion of the casing which passed through the production zone, to provide a path for the oil to flow from the surrounding rock into the production tubing. In open hole completion, often 'sand screens' or a 'gravel pack' is installed in the last drilled, uncased reservoir section. These maintain structural integrity of the wellbore in the absence of casing, while still allowing flow from the reservoir into the wellbore. Screens also control the migration of formation sands into production tubulars and surface equipment, which can cause washouts and other problems, particularly from unconsolidated sand formations in offshore fields.
After a flow path is made, acids and fracturing fluids are pumped into the well to fracture, clean, or otherwise prepare and stimulate the reservoir rock to optimally produce hydrocarbons into the wellbore. Finally, the area above the reservoir section of the well is packed off inside the casing, and connected to the surface via a smaller diameter pipe called tubing. This arrangement provides a redundant barrier to leaks of hydrocarbons as well as allowing damaged sections to be replaced. Also, the smaller diameter of the tubing produces hydrocarbons at an increased velocity in order to overcome the hydrostatic effects of heavy fluids such as water.
In many wells, the natural pressure of the subsurface reservoir is high enough for the oil or gas to flow to the surface. However, this is not always the case, especially in depleted fields where the pressures have been lowered by other producing wells, or in low permeability oil reservoirs. Installing a smaller diameter tubing may be enough to help the production, but artificial lift methods may also be needed. Common solutions include downhole pumps, gas lift, or surface pump jacks. Many new systems in the last ten years have been introduced for well completion. Multiple packer systems with frac ports or port collars in an all in one system have cut completion costs and improved production, especially in the case of horizontal wells. These new systems allow casings to run into the lateral zone with proper packer/frac port placement for optimal hydrocarbon recovery.
As long as the pressure in the reservoir remains high enough, the production tree is all that is required to produce the well. If the pressure depletes and it is considered economically viable, an artificial lift method mentioned in the completions section can be employed.
Workovers are often necessary in older wells, which may need smaller diameter tubing, scale or paraffin removal, acid matrix jobs, or completing new zones of interest in a shallower reservoir. Such remedial work can be performed using workover rigs – also known as pulling units to pull and replace tubing, or by the use of a well intervention technique called coiled tubing.
Enhanced recovery methods such as waterflooding, steam flooding, or CO2 flooding may be used to increase reservoir pressure and provide a "sweep" effect to push hydrocarbons out of the reservoir. Such methods require the use of injection wells (often chosen from old production wells in a carefully determined pattern), and are used when facing problems with reservoir pressure depletion, high oil viscosity, or can even be employed early in a field's life. In certain cases – depending on the reservoir's geomechanics – reservoir engineers may determine that ultimate recoverable oil may be increased by applying a waterflooding strategy early in the field's development rather than later. Such enhanced recovery techniques are often called "tertiary recovery".
The production from an oil well declines in production. The point at which the well no longer makes a profit and is plugged and abandoned is called the “economic limit.” The equation to determine the economic limit contains four factors, namely: (1) taxes, (2) operating cost, (3) oil price, and (4) royalty. When oil taxes are raised, the economic limit is raised. When oil price is increased, the economic limit is lowered.
When the economic limit is raised, the life of the well is decreased. Proven oil reserves are lost when the life of an oil well is decreased. Inversely, when the economic limit is lowered, the life of the well is increased. Proven oil reserves are increased when the life of the well is increased.
Another obvious way to classify oil wells is by land or offshore wells. There is very little difference in the well itself. An offshore well targets a reservoir that happens to be underneath an ocean. Due to logistics, drilling an offshore well is far more costly than an onshore well. By far the most common type is the onshore well. These wells dot the Southern and Central Great Plains, Southwestern United States, and are the most common well in the Middle East.
Another way to classify oil wells is by their purpose in contributing to the development of a resource. They can be characterized as:
At a producing well site, active wells may be further categorised as:
|Well location||Typical cost (in millions of £)|
|Northern North Sea||8 – 12|
|West of Shetland||5 – 15|
|Southern North Sea||7 – 12|
|Irish Sea||2 – 3|
The cost of an offshore well depends strongly on the remoteness of the location being drilled. Hence the Irish Sea (shallow water, close to the coast) is cheap in comparison to the West of Shetland (deep water, far from the coast and other facilities). The 2006 cost of a Central North Sea high pressure, high temperature well is about $35-50 million. Deep water wells in the Gulf of Mexico can cost over $100 million.
Onshore wells can be considerably cheaper, particularly if the field is at a shallow depth, where costs range from less than $1 million to $15 million for deep and difficult wells.