Underbalanced drilling

Underbalanced drilling, or UBD, is a procedure used to drill oil and gas wells where the pressure in the wellbore is kept lower than the fluid pressure in the formation being drilled. As the well is being drilled, formation fluid flows into the wellbore and up to the surface. This is the opposite of the usual situation, where the wellbore is kept at a pressure above the formation to prevent formation fluid entering the well. In such a conventional "overbalanced" well, the invasion of fluid is considered a kick, and if the well is not shut-in it can lead to a blowout, a dangerous situation. In underbalanced drilling, however, there is a "rotating head" at the surface - essentially a seal that diverts produced fluids to a separator while allowing the drill string to continue rotating.

If the formation pressure is relatively high, using a lower density mud will reduce the well bore pressure below the pore pressure of the formation. Sometimes an inert gas is injected into the drilling mud to reduce its equivalent density and hence its hydrostatic pressure throughout the well depth. This gas is commonly nitrogen, as it is non-combustible and readily available, but air, reduced oxygen air, processed flue gas and natural gas have all been used in this fashion.

Coiled tubing drilling (CTD) allows for continuous drilling and pumping and therefore underbalanced drilling can be utilized which can increase the rate of penetration (ROP).

Kinds of Underbalanced Drilling

There are several kinds of underbalanced drilling. The most common are listed below.


Underbalanced wells have several advantages over conventional drilling including:


Underbalanced drilling is usually more expensive than conventional drilling (when drilling a deviated well which requires directional drilling tools), and has safety issues of its own. Technically the well is always in a blowout condition unless a heavier fluid is displaced into the well. Air drilling requires a faster up hole volume as the cuttings will fall faster down the annulus when the compressors are taken off the hole compared to having a higher viscosity fluid in the hole. Because air is compressible mud pulse telemetry measurement while drilling (MWD) tools which require an incompressible fluid can not work. Common technologies used to eliminate this problem are either electromagnetic MWD tools or wireline MWD tools. Downhole mechanics are usually more violent also because the volume of fluid going through a downhole motor or downhole hammer is greater than an equivalent fluid when drilling balanced or over balanced because of the need of higher up hole velocities. Corrosion is also a problem, but can be largely avoided using a coating oil or rust inhibitors.


Nas, Steve, Chapter 12 Underbalanced Drilling, from Petroleum Engineering Handbook, Volume II, Editor Robert Mitchell, 2007, pages II-519 to 569. Handbook available from Society of Petroleum Engineers.

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