Efficiency Then and Now

Working at the CAODC, I have the distinct advantage of
having access to files that predate my birth by almost 30 years.

When combing through the archives you find documents that you just know were written by very proper gentlemen and then keyed in on typewriters by their secretaries and handed back for signature. It’s not a stretch to imagine all of them smoking cigars in their offices; business meetings would most likely have had a scotch and bourbon cart in the boardroom.

Our history as Canadian drillers was heavily influenced by our American counterparts and those practices can still be found in some pockets of activity in the southern United States. While sifting through the archives, a few documents caught my eye… they were statistical in nature and suggested the drilling industry has become progressively more efficient and our environmental impact has lessened at a similar rate.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the most predominant form of drilling was vertical drilled wells using rigs ranging from 200-500 hp. Because of the horsepower required to drill into the earth and remove the cuttings from the hole, this was done with a specific rate of penetration. A carbide-studded tri-cone bit would have been used on a string of mid-grade 4″ drill pipe driven by a square Kelly that was turned by a mechanical rotary table driven off compounds from the two stroke diesel engines. The pumps would have been tail-drives driven with belts off the same floor motors driving a single or possibly two duplex drilling pumps (if you have never seen this it may take some Google help to find an archived picture to explain).

So what has changed? We introduced new technologies into the engines so they generated more power on less fuel – higher compression and direct injection. A typical rig has in excess of 2,500 hp. We introduced
triplex mud pump systems with high pressure and flow rates to carry cuttings away faster. We rotate the polycrystalline diamond compact (PDC) drill bits on the end of a premium drill string using a top drive for precise torque control. And we tie all of the systems together with efficient direct engine drives or state of the art electric motors and control systems that ensure we don’t burn any more fuel than is necessary.

How does this impact the environment? In 1987, a 4,600-metre well took approximately 88 days to drill. This equated to roughly 425,000 litres of diesel fuel consumed to drill a single well. In 2015, we are drilling wells in total measured depth of 4,600 metres in 15 to 17 days, so if we don’t take into account that today’s engines are approximately 50 per cent more efficient and assumed they burned the same amount of fuel per day, this would equate to 82,000 litres – or a 343,000-litre savings. To put this in perspective, the average fuel truck can carry 30,000 litres fuel which means that 11 or more trucks would not need to be dispatched to one drilling rig. People may see a flaw in this methodology because they’ll argue that in 1987 we were drilling vertical for deep gas. But in its purest form, no one can argue that we have used technology to make something 80 per cent more efficient timewise. Fuel efficiency further reduces our environmental impact since we previously did not take new engine efficiencies into account.

Again, what does all this mean? We get more done with less. Why did we do it? Not because we were legislated into it but because our customers demanded that we do our work in the most efficient manner possible. The industry responded with innovation and technology, and drilling contractors and operating companies should get a pat on the back for this. Critics should have a look around and see that their private jets and yachts and luxury vehicles burn more fuel than our industry does – and, more times than not, theirs is for vanity’s sake. Critics need to remember that we are leaders in this innovation. The number speak for themselves when properly absorbed, but who is left to absorb them? I figure anyone reading a copy of The Hitch magazine or blog has the capacity to explain what they have just read and tell their friends and family that old technology in drilling has been placed in museums, not on the western Canadian landscape.


  1. Good comments Steven. Think of all the other savings we have seen as well. We use far less water to drill each well now and by directionally drilling from pads, the amount of land cleared for leases and roads is greatly reduced.

  2. I would like to preface my comment by saying that the oil and gas industry has been my bread and butter for almost all of my adult life. In the 19 years I have been in the industry I have seen all sorts of advances and improvements that have made us far more efficient and productive.

    I do find this article to be somewhat misleading however. It was mentioned that without factoring in increased efficiency, our fuel savings was 343,000 liters. Prior to that, you mentioned that one of the reasons for this vast improvement in speed was due to a five to ten-fold increase in power. If these 2,500 HP were being produced at the same efficiency as the 500 HP in the ’80’s, we would be burning 5 times the fuel per day. Now that 82,000 liters turns into 410,000 liters, which isn’t much a difference at all. It is only when you factor in the 50% increase in efficiency that you see a savings of 205,000 liters.

    • The engine efficiency is only one portion of the equation. The increased rate of penetration is what matters the most in this instance. The changes in technology in Engine Drive Systems, Drill Bits, Drilling Muds, and torque control all play into those efficiencies. The new rigs boast maximums of 2500+ Horsepower but with the average rig the efficiencies were gained in the process of drilling, not just the engines. Our fuel consumption today is a function of being able to run engines at their lowest necessary consumption which is process driven (AC Generators and Drives). Although you make a valid point that we could do a similar job from a horsepower point of view we would require even more Mechanically inefficient systems (Chain Compounds, Belt Drives Etc…) and many more engines to get us to the same end result.

      Thank you for your interest though and if you have suggestions we would love to hear them….

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