By Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D. and Jonathan Strickland
(Compiled by Ejaz Ahmed ; email@example.com)
Inside this Article
1. Introduction to How Oil Drilling Works
2. Forming Oil
3. Locating Oil
4. Oil Drilling Preparation
5. Oil Rig Systems
6. The Oil Drilling Process
7. Testing for Oil
8. Extracting Oil
9. Offshore Oil Drilling
Introduction to Oil Drilling
Oil Field Image Gallery
Photo courtesy ConocoPhillips Offshore oil rig. See more oil field pictures.
In 2008 alone, the United States produced an estimated 4.9 million barrels of
crude oil per day and imported 9.8 million barrels per day from other countries
[source: U.S. Energy Information Administration]. This oil gets refined into
gasoline, kerosene, heating oil and other products. To keep up with our
consumption, oil companies must constantly look for new sources of petroleum,
as well as improve the production of existing wells.
How does a company go about finding oil and pumping it from the ground? You
may have seen images of black crude oil gushing out of the ground, or seen an
oil well in movies and television shows like "Giant," "Oklahoma Crude,"
"Armageddon" and "Beverly Hillbillies." But modern oil production is quite
different from the way it's portrayed in the movies.
In this article, we'll examine how modern oil exploration and drilling works.
We'll discuss how oil is formed, found and extracted from the ground.
Oil comes from the remains of tiny plants and animals (plankton) that died in
ancient seas between 10 million and 600 million years ago. After the organisms
died, they sank into the sand and mud at the bottom of the sea.
Over the years, the organisms decayed in the sedimentary layers. In these
layers, there was little or no oxygen present. So microorganisms broke the
remains into carbon-rich compounds that formed organic layers. The organic
material mixed with the sediments, forming fine-grained shale, or source rock. As
new sedimentary layers were deposited, they exerted intense pressure and heat
on the source rock. The heat and pressure distilled the organic material into
crude oil and natural gas. The oil flowed from the source rock and accumulated
in thicker, more porous limestone or sandstone, called reservoir rock.
Movements in the Earth trapped the oil and natural gas in the reservoir rocks
between layers of impermeable rock, or cap rock, such as granite or marble.
These movements of the Earth include:
Folding - Horizontal movements press inward and move the rock layers
upward into a fold or anticline.
Faulting - The layers of rock crack, and one side shifts upward or
Pinching out - A layer of impermeable rock is squeezed upward into the
Photo courtesy the Energy Institute
Searching for oil over water using seismology
Whether employed directly by an oil company or under contract from a private
firm, geologists are the ones responsible for finding oil. Their task is to find the
right conditions for an oil trap -- the right source rock, reservoir rock and
entrapment. Many years ago, geologists interpreted surface features, surface
rock and soil types, and perhaps some small core samples obtained by shallow
drilling. Modern oil geologists also examine surface rocks and terrain, with the
additional help of satellite images. However, they also use a variety of other
methods to find oil. They can use sensitive gravity meters to measure tiny
changes in the Earth's gravitational field that could indicate flowing oil, as well as
sensitive magnetometers to measure tiny changes in the Earth's magnetic field
caused by flowing oil. They can detect the smell of hydrocarbons using sensitive
electronic noses called sniffers. Finally, and most commonly, they
use seismology, creating shock waves that pass through hidden rock layers and
interpreting the waves that are reflected back to the surface.
In seismic surveys, a shock wave is created by the following:
Compressed-air gun - shoots pulses of air into the water (for
exploration over water)
Thumper truck - slams heavy plates into the ground (for exploration
Explosives - detonated after being drilled into the ground (for
exploration over land) or thrown overboard (for exploration over water)
The shock waves travel beneath the surface of the Earth and are reflected back
by the various rock layers. The reflections travel at different speeds depending
upon the type or density of rock layers through which they must pass. Sensitive
microphones or vibration detectors detect the reflections of the shock waves
-- hydrophones over water, seismometers over land. Seismologists interpret the
readings for signs of oil and gas traps.
Once geologists find a prospective oil strike, they mark the location
using GPS coordinates on land or by marker buoys on water.
Oil Drilling Preparation
Once the site has been selected, scientists survey the area to determine its
boundaries, and conduct environmental impact studies if necessary. The oil
company may need lease agreements, titles and right-of way accesses before
drilling the land. For off-shore sites, legal jurisdiction must be determined.
After the legal issues are settled, the crew goes about preparing the land:
1. The land must be cleared and leveled, and access roads may be built.
2. Because water is used in drilling, there must be a source of water nearby.
If there is no natural source, the crew drills a water well.
3. The crew digs a reserve pit, which is used to dispose of rock cuttings and
drilling mud during the drilling process, and lines it with plastic to protect
the environment. If the site is an ecologically sensitive area, such as a
marsh or wilderness, then the cuttings and mud must be disposed of
offsite -- trucked away instead of placed in a pit.
Once the land has been prepared, the crew digs several holes to make way
for the rig and the main hole. A rectangular pit called a cellar is dug around the
location of the actual drilling hole. The cellar provides a work space around the
hole for the workers and drilling accessories. The crew then begins drilling the
main hole, often with a small drill truck rather than the main rig. The first part of
the hole is larger and shallower than the main portion, and is lined with a large-
diameter conductor pipe. The crew digs additional holes off to the side to
temporarily store equipment -- when these holes are finished, the rig equipment
can be brought in and set up.
Depending upon the remoteness of the drill site and its access, it may be
necessary to bring in equipment by truck, helicopter or barge (raft). Some rigs
are built on ships or barges for work on inland water where there is no foundation
to support a rig (as in marshes or lakes).
Oil Rig Systems
Anatomy of an oil rig
Once the equipment is at the site, the crew sets the rig up. Here are the major
systems of a land oil rig:
• Power system
o large diesel engines - burn diesel-fuel oil to provide the main
source of power
o electrical generators - powered by the diesel engines to provide
• Mechanical system - driven by electric motors
o hoisting system - used for lifting heavy loads; consists of a
mechanical winch (drawworks) with a large steel cable spool,
a block-and-tackle pulley and a receiving storage reel for the cable
o turntable - part of the drilling apparatus
• Rotating equipment - used for rotary drilling
o swivel - large handle that holds the weight of the drill string; allows
the string to rotate and makes a pressure-tight seal on the hole
o kelly - four- or six-sided pipe that transfers rotary motion to the
turntable and drill string
o turntable or rotary table - drives the rotating motion using power
from electric motors
o drill string - consists of drill pipe (connected sections of about 30
feet (10 meters) and drill collars (larger diameter, heavier pipe that
fits around the drill pipe and places weight on the drill bit)
o drill bit(s) - end of the drill that actually cuts up the rock; comes in
many shapes and materials (tungsten carbide steel, diamond) that
are specialized for various drilling tasks and rock formations
• Casing - large-diameter concrete pipe that lines the drill hole, prevents the
hole from collapsing, and allows drilling mud to circulate
Photo courtesy the Energy Institute
Mud circulation in the hole
Circulation system - pumps drilling mud (mixture of water, clay,
weighting material and chemicals, used to lift rock cuttings from the drill bit
to the surface) under pressure through the kelly, rotary table, drill pipes
and drill collars
o pump - sucks mud from the mud pits and pumps it to the drilling
o pipes and hoses - connects pump to drilling apparatus
o mud-return line - returns mud from the hole
o shale shaker - shaker/sieve that separates rock cuttings from the
o shale slide - conveys cuttings to the reserve pit
o reserve pit - collects rock cuttings separated from the mud
o mud pits - where drilling mud is mixed and recycled
o mud-mixing hopper - where new mud is mixed and then sent to
the mud pits
• Derrick - support structure that holds the drilling apparatus; tall enough to
allow new sections of drill pipe to be added to the drilling apparatus as
• Blowout preventer - high-pressure valves (located under the land rig or
on the sea floor) that seal the high-pressure drill lines and relieve pressure
when necessary to prevent a blowout (uncontrolled gush of gas or oil to
the surface, often associated with fire)
The Oil Drilling Process
Photo courtesy ConocoPhillips
Rotary workers trip drill pipe.
The crew sets up the rig and starts the drilling operations. First, from the starter
hole, the team drills a surface hole down to a pre-set depth, which is somewhere
above where they think the oil trap is located. There are five basic steps to
drilling the surface hole:
1. Place the drill bit, collar and drill pipe in the hole.
2. Attach the kelly and turntable, and begin drilling.
3. As drilling progresses, circulate mud through the pipe and out of the bit to
float the rock cuttings out of the hole.
4. Add new sections (joints) of drill pipes as the hole gets deeper.
5. Remove (trip out) the drill pipe, collar and bit when the pre-set depth
(anywhere from a few hundred to a couple-thousand feet) is reached.
Once they reach the pre-set depth, they must run and cement the casing -- place
casing-pipe sections into the hole to prevent it from collapsing in on itself. The
casing pipe has spacers around the outside to keep it centered in the hole.
The casing crew puts the casing pipe in the hole. The cement crew pumps
cement down the casing pipe using a bottom plug, a cement slurry, a top plug
and drill mud. The pressure from the drill mud causes the cement slurry to move
through the casing and fill the space between the outside of the casing and the
hole. Finally, the cement is allowed to harden and then tested for such properties
as hardness, alignment and a proper seal.
Testing for Oil
Blowouts and Fires
In the movies, you see oil gushing (a blowout), and perhaps even a fire, when drillers
reach the final depth. These are actually dangerous conditions, and are (hopefully)
prevented by the blowout preventer and the pressure of the drilling mud. In most wells,
the oil flow must be started by acidizing or fracturing the well.
Drilling continues in stages: The crew drills, then runs and cements new
casings, then drills again. When the rock cuttings from the mud reveal the oil
sand from the reservoir rock, the crew may have reached the well's final depth.
At this point, crew members remove the drilling apparatus from the hole and
perform several tests to confirm this finding:
• Well logging - lowering electrical and gas sensors into the hole to take
measurements of the rock formations there
• Drill-stem testing - lowering a device into the hole to measure the
pressures, which will reveal whether reservoir rock has been reached
• Core samples - taking samples of rock to look for characteristics of
Once they've reached the final depth, the crew completes the well to allow oil to
flow into the casing in a controlled manner. First, they lower a perforating
gun into the well to the production depth. The gun has explosive charges to
create holes in the casing through which oil can flow. After the casing has been
perforated, they run a small-diameter pipe (tubing) into the hole as a conduit for
oil and gas to flow up through the well. A device called a packer is run down the
outside of the tubing. When the packer is set at the production level, it's
expanded to form a seal around the outside of the tubing. Finally, they connect a
multi-valved structure called a Christmas tree to the top of the tubing and
cement it to the top of the casing. The Christmas tree allows them to control the
flow of oil from the well.
After the well is completed, the crew must start the flow of oil into the well. For
limestone reservoir rock, acid is pumped down the well and out the perforations.
The acid dissolves channels in the limestone that lead oil into the well. For
sandstone reservoir rock, a specially blended fluid containing proppants (sand,
walnut shells, aluminum pellets) is pumped down the well and out the
perforations. The pressure from this fluid makes small fractures in the sandstone
that allow oil to flow into the well, while the proppants hold these fractures open.
Once the oil is flowing, the oil rig is removed from the site and production
equipment is set up to extract the oil from the well.
After the rig is removed, the crew puts a pump on the well head.
In the pump system, an electric motor drives a gear box that moves a lever. The
lever pushes and pulls a polishing rod up and down. The polishing rod is
attached to a sucker rod, which is attached to a pump. This system forces the
pump up and down, creating a suction that draws oil up through the well.
In some cases, the oil may be too heavy to flow. In these cases, the crew drills a
second hole into the reservoir and injects steam under pressure. The heat from
the steam thins the oil in the reservoir, and the pressure helps push it up the well.
This process is called enhanced oil recovery.
Recently, another type of oil drilling has made the news: offshore oil drilling.
Offshore Oil Drilling
Not all oil is accessible on land or in shallow waters. You can find some oil
deposits buried deep under the ocean floor. Reaching these oil deposits is
dangerous, but if done correctly, it can also be rewarding. If things go wrong,
however, the results can be deadly both for oil workers and the surrounding
Using sonic equipment, oil companies determine the drilling sites most likely to
produce oil. Then they use a mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) to dig
the initial well. Some units are converted into production rigs, meaning they
switch from drilling for oil to capturing oil once it's found. Most of the time, the oil
company will replace the MODU with a more permanent oil production rig to
There are four main types of MODUs:
• A submersible MODU usually consists of a barge that rests on the sea
floor at depths of around 30 to 35 feet (9.1 to 10.7 meters). On the barge's
deck are steel posts that extend above the water line. A drilling platform
rests on top of the steel posts. These rigs are typically used in areas with
• A jackup is a rig that sits on top of a floating barge. A ship tows the barge
to the drilling site. Once positioned, the jackup can extend legs down to
the sea floor. The legs are loaded in such a way that they don't penetrate
the floor. Once each leg is secure, the jackup continues to ratchet the legs
so that the platform rises above the water level. This keeps the rig safe
from tidal motions and waves. Jackups can operate in depths of up to 525
feet (160 meters).
• Drill ships are ships that have a drilling rig on the top deck. The drill
operates through a hole in the hull. Drill ships can pilot to the drill site and
then use a combination of anchors and propellers to correct for drift as the
rig drills for oil. They can operate in deep water conditions.
• Semisubmersibles float on the surface of the ocean on top of huge,
submerged pontoons. Some have propulsion systems, which allow them
to navigate to drilling sites under their own power while others require a
second vessel to tow them to the right location. Most use several anchors
-- up to a dozen -- that help maintain the structure's orientation.
Computers control the tension on each anchor chain to correct for drift.
Some can convert from drilling rigs to production rigs, reducing the need
for a second rig to take its place once oil is found.
The MODU's job is to drill down into the ocean's floor to find oil deposits. The
part of the drill that extends below the deck and through the water is called the
riser. The riser allows for drilling fluids to move between the floor and the rig.
Engineers lower a drill string -- a series of pipes designed to drill down to the oil
deposit -- through the riser.
At the sea floor is the blowout preventer (BOP). The blowout preventer has a
pair of hydraulically-powered clamps that can close off the pipe leading up to the
rig in the case of a blowout. As the rig drills down, engineers must add more pipe
to the drill string. Each section of pipe is about 30 feet long (9.1 meters).
To add stability to the well, the engineers use metal casings, much as they do
with land-based oil rigs. These casings help keep the well from collapsing in on
itself. Each casing is lined with cement walls. Casings get narrower as the well
gets deeper. Oil companies use progressively smaller drill bits as the well's depth
increases. At each annulus -- the spot where a narrower casing joins with a
wider one -- engineers use a liner hanger O-ring to seal the two sections
When the MODU hits oil, engineers must seal the well to prepare it for a
production rig. The engineers will use a pair of plugs to seal off the well bore. The
bottom plug sits near the oil deposit. Drilling mud or seawater provides the
pressure to hold the plug in place while the engineers place a top plug to cap the
oil well. Then the well is ready for a production rig to take over. Offshore
production rigs work in a similar way to land-based oil rigs.
General Categories of Human Capital at work
Following are the general categories of Human Capital at work on any Oil Rig
Not all of the following personnel are present on every platform. On smaller
platforms, one worker can perform a number of different jobs. The following also
are not names officially recognized in the industry:
OIM (offshore installation manager) who is the ultimate authority
during his/her shift and makes the essential decisions regarding the
operation of the platform;
Operations team leader (OTL);
Offshore operations engineer (OOE) who is the senior technical
authority on the platform;
PSTL or operations coordinator for managing crew changes;
Dynamic positioning operator, navigation, ship or vessel maneuvering
(MODU), station keeping, fire and gas systems operations in the
event of incident;
Second mate to meet manning requirements of flag state, operates
fast rescue craft, cargo operations, fire team leader;
Third mate to meet manning requirements of flag state, operate fast
rescue craft, cargo operations, fire team leader;
Ballast control operator to operate fire and gas systems;
Crane operators to operate the cranes for lifting cargo around the
platform and between boats;
Scaffolders to rig up scaffolding for when it is required for workers to
work at height;
Coxswains to maintain the lifeboats and manning them if necessary;
Control room operators, especially FPSO or production platforms;
Catering crew, including people tasked with performing essential
functions such as Cooking, laundry and cleaning the accommodation;
Production techs to run the production plant;
Helicopter pilot(s) living on some platforms that have a helicopter
based offshore and transporting workers to other platforms or to
shore on crew changes;
Maintenance technicians (instrument, electrical or mechanic)
Drill crew will be on board if the installation is performing drilling operations. A
drill crew will normally comprise:
Well services crew will be on board for well work. The crew will normally
Well services supervisor
Wire line or coiled tubing operators
The Terminal Thought
With all of this oil-drilling technology in use, and new methods in development,
the question remains: Will we have enough oil to meet our needs? Current
estimates suggest that we have enough oil for about 63 to 95 years to come,
based on current and future finds and present demands.