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What Is Horizontal Directional Drilling In Midstream Oil and Gas

Horizontal directional drilling rig. Image by Steve Roop / CC BY-SA 4.0

Utilizing horizontal drilling can be advantageous in both urban and rural situations. In this informative article, we will define horizontal drilling as it applies to midstream oil and gas. You’ll learn about the history of horizontal drilling, who created it, and whether it’s the same as fracking. Keep reading!

What Is Horizontal Drilling in Midstream Oil and Gas?

Horizontal drilling aids midstream pipeline projects in areas that are more challenging to tackle. It goes by names like horizontal directional drilling, HDD, as well as horizontal boring.

When the need to drill beneath sensitive areas arises, midstream horizontal drilling is an adept solution. A drilling team can bypass protected ecology, railroads, rivers, and buildings through this drilling method instead of trenching.

In most cases, horizontal drilling can be costlier than trenching.  However, there are many cases where it is the best choice, both economically and ecologically. There’s less civil impact as buildings and streets don’t necessarily need to be shut down for extended periods until the drilling is over. Environmental impacts are reduced.  Roads and nearby areas aren’t ripped up for the project.

When Did Horizontal Drilling Start?

According to data published in the 13th International Symposium on Process Systems Engineering, horizontal drilling dates back to the 1950s. However, directional drilling may have existed decades before that.

It was toward the end of the 1920s that a series of lawsuits set the frame for what would become horizontal drilling about 30 years later. These lawsuits arose because people were paying for a rig to drill into their property, yet the drill had somehow reached the property next door, tapping into the neighbor’s reservoir.

As more of these lawsuits arose, the belief was cemented that drilling doesn’t have to be exclusively vertical and in fact, wasn’t at the time. Thus, the first instances of horizontal drilling seem to have been discovered incidentally.

Horizontal Drilling Meets the Midstream Sector

With horizontal drilling taking off in the subsequent decades, many landmarks occurred in the 1970s. It was then that the midstream sector’s first horizontal drilling projects were completed. This started with Martin Cherrington, a man you’ll become quite familiar within the next section.

After Cherrington spearheaded that initial progress, Reading & Bates Construction Company, based out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, started using midstream horizontal drilling. The company could add pipes of varying sizes and lengths with their system, which was quite advanced for the time. As the decade came to a close, nearly 40 river crossings were completed through horizontal drilling.

Another technology landmark of the ‘70s was mud motors.  This system sends drilling mud down the pipe string, which spins the drill bit. In doing so, the bit can drill through hard rock that would otherwise be impossible.

By using a bent sub, an angled pipe from the motor’s top to the stationary drill pipe, the bore could switch its direction with no need to change out the whipstock.

In the 1980s, midstream horizontal drilling expanded outside of the US to other parts of the world. Over seven years, Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America completed more than 175 river crossings. Today, river crossings via HDD are the standard for avoiding environmental impact.

Who Invented Horizontal Drilling?

Martin Cherrington was part of a California-based utility installation company in the early 1960s. When he noticed a company was utilizing an air drill to install a gas line, Cherrington was intrigued. He committed himself to learn more about guided drilling and advancing the concept.

In the mid-60s, Cherrington worked with Titan Contractors, Inc. Cherrington and the Titan team performed installations at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. This work was done using his DIY oil rig, which he said had a light spindly framework. Titan Contractors became well-known around Sacramento for the company’s road boring work.

Cherrington Spearheads River Crossings

In the early 70s, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. aimed to cross all 500 feet of the Pajaro River in Watsonville, California. Such a feat had never been done, but Cherrington was up for the challenge. It took him a month, but he found the right approach to drill beneath the Pajaro River to install the four-inch gas line.

blankIn 1979, Cherrington helped Titan Contractors do a similar river crossing in Houston, Texas. The installation was even bigger in this case, a pipeline with a diameter of 40 inches. The project was successful and was the largest in scope for that time.

As technology continued to modernize our society throughout the following decades, horizontal directional drilling advanced right along with it.

Is Horizontal Drilling the Same as Fracking?

Horizontal drilling and fracking are not the same. Fracking refers to pumping pressurized liquid into subterranean rocks to create fissures for collecting oil or gas. Horizontal drilling refers to directional boring to cross or reach otherwise inaccessible areas or minimize the surface impact.

blankJoseph B. Clark and Floyd Farris created the concept of fracking in 1947. Three years later, fracking had its debut in the commercial world. After the success of this venture, fracking took off.  Since 2012, there have been 2.5 million fracking projects completed across the world.

Horizontal drilling is used for improving oil and gas well production, as well as to meet the challenges of underground pipelines and utilities.  In either case, HDD causes less surface impact and is better for the environment.

In the case of the upstream oil and gas sector, horizontal drilling increases access to fossil fuel reserves not directly under the wellhead. It is often employed in conjunction with fracking to maximize a well’s production.

In the case of midstream pipelines and local utilities, it allows pipelines and utilities to bypass challenging surface areas.  These surface obstacles include environmentally sensitive areas as well as transportation infrastructures and urban structures.

Conclusion

Midstream horizontal drilling refers to boring underneath challenging surface areas.  It’s a great solution for tunneling under areas that would otherwise be very costly, time-consuming, or simply impossible due to civil or environmental reasons.  While horizontal drilling got its start in the 1950s and expanded to midstream pipelines and utilities in the 60s, it’s now an essential tool for pipeline construction.

Hanging H is a master at midstream pipeline construction. Along with pipeline fabrication and installation, we also handle horizontal boring and all other elements of pipeline construction.  We invite you to call us for your next pipeline project.

In our next article, we’ll take a deep dive into how horizontal directional drilling works.  We’ll walk through the process steps, including a nice infographic that helps make it clear. We will also see how the HDD operators steer the drill, changing its direction as needed.

See How the horizontal directional drilling process works

April 15, 2020

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