Features - October 2015

Stripper Well Consortium Looks Back on Fifteen Years of Innovative Technology and Partnership

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Photo courtesy of Teakwood


For 15 years, NETL has helped reduce dependence on foreign oil and facilitated domestic oil and gas production by funding an industry-driven organization that focuses on the development, demonstration, and deployment of new technologies for improving the production performance of natural gas and petroleum stripper wells—wells producing less than 60,000 cubic feet of gas or ten barrels of oil per day.

The organization, known as the Stripper Well Consortium (SWC), consists of natural gas and petroleum producers, service companies, industry consultants, universities, technology developers, and industrial trade organizations. SWC was established on September 30, 2000 through a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Department of Energy and The Pennsylvania State University to conduct research in three broad areas: reservoir remediation, wellbore clean-up, and surface system optimization.

What is a Stripper Well?

The world’s oldest continually producing oil well is a prime example of a stripper well. In a rural, wooded area 70 miles north of Pittsburgh, a small wooden shack houses an important part of the history of oil production. Inside, the McClintock No. 1 has been pumping out oil for over 150 years. Now, the well only yields about a tenth of a barrel in 24 hours, but in its prime, 175 barrels flowed daily. Eventually, the natural pressure in the reservoir began to decline, making it more difficult to extract the oil. This same fate plagues all oil and gas wells, eventually causing larger companies to sell off the wells when it is no longer economically feasible to continue operations.

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photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The McClintock No. 1 has been continually pumping out oil for over 150 years—longer than any other in the world.

This initial stage of production doesn’t have to be the end, though. After primary production, more than two thirds of a well’s original reserves remains, and these wells can be found across the country. In fact, it is estimated that more than 2 billion barrels of oil remain underground in these existing wells. Independent oil producers buy these marginally producing wells—stripper wells—and set up their own operations. The 60,000 cubic feet of gas and 10 barrels of oil a day produced by a stripper well may not sound like a huge contribution to the national supply, but when multiplied by the hundreds of thousands of wells in existence, the oil and gas produced by stripper wells accounts for around 20 percent of oil and gas production in the lower 48 states.

Making a Profit

Oil producers rely on new technologies to increase productivity and increase the functional life of a well’s mechanical parts, which play a crucial role in the profitability of the low-volume stripper wells. These marginal wells are maintained by independent operators—families and individuals rather than large corporations. As oil and gas prices fluctuate, these small independent producers struggle to push operational costs below the value of their product. If expenses surpass their product’s worth, the producer can’t economically maintain the well.

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Once a well is plugged and abandoned, the reserves left behind are "lost forever" since it is typically uneconomical to drill another well to recover abandoned reserves. Every dollar of stripper oil and natural gas production creates roughly two dollars of economic activity. Nearly 10 jobs result from every million dollars of stripper well oil and natural gas produced.

Alone, the oil producers lacked the economic leverage required to develop advanced technologies capable of preventing premature well abandonment, but after partnering with NETL to form SWC, they gained greater funding capabilities. As a consortium, the producers could work with experts in industry and academia to develop those technologies critical to ensuring the economic viability of this valuable source of domestic oil and gas.

The Technologies

Since its inception, SWC funded nearly 100 projects, resulting in 53 patents. Each proposal is required to provide a minimum of 30 percent cost-share that is to be provided by the project participants. Some of the technologies that reached commercialization include:

  • The Gas Operated Automatic Lift (GOAL) PetroPump developed by Brandywine Energy & Development Company removes fluid from the wellbore more consistently than current plunger lift systems. Test results on wells in New York showed a 1.5 to 2.3-time increase in gas yield using the GOAL PetroPump rather than other casing plunger-type tools. The tool is inexpensive, requires no external energy source, and requires limited manpower.
  • The Vortex Flow Tools LLC vortex flow unit works like a tornado, using produced natural gas to accelerate water velocity, reduce friction, and assist in lifting and removing fluids. The flow unit increases production while reducing the amount of down-time due to water in gas-gathering and flow lines. Over 200 Vortex surface tools have been installed in gas-gathering and production lines across the United States.
  • Pumping Solutions, Inc. has developed a new hydraulic diaphragm submersible pump to continuously clean stripper wells. The pump has been proven to tolerate coal and sand fines at higher concentrations than traditional systems. Among other features, it can pump gas/liquid mixtures, be pumped dry without damage (within motor limits), maintain a constant output with depth, and has been shown to be highly efficient with reduced electric costs.   This tool is commercially available from Schlumberger.
  • Tubel Technologies, Inc. developed three technologies for stripper wells.
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    • A low-cost, real-time, down-hole wireless gauge that measures temperature, pressure and other parameters. The wireless feature of the system eliminates the need for cables, clamps, and splices within the wellbore, significantly lowering cost and time for system deployment.
    • A plunger lift optimization process, which provides the operator with information related to the performance of the plunger and identifies wells where the plunger is not operating optimally.
    • An upgrade of the plunger lift process allowing information captured at the wellhead to be transmitted wirelessly to a control room at a remote location, allowing the operator to monitor hundreds of wells from a single location and identify potential well and plunger lift problems quickly so corrective actions can be taken with minimal production loses.
  • Pre-Pump-Off Controls, a set of technologies developed by Oil Well Sentry, Inc., eliminates fluid level issues in beam-pumped wells. The system monitors the amount of fluid in the barrel pump at the bottom of the well and shuts off the beam pump motor or engine when the well is "pumped off." Use of the system has significantly increased production while decreasing motor and engine energy consumption by 30 percent.

Other Impacts

Many of the technologies developed through SWC have proved valuable for stripper wells, as well as for unconventional oil and gas resources such as enhanced oil recovery and coal bed methane extraction. So, the benefits of the consortium will continue be realized even as industry focus may shift to different types of hydrocarbon reservoirs.

The SWC held its final Technology Transfer Meeting July 9 in conjunction with the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York’s Summer Meeting at Findley Lake, NY. A study conducted by ADI Analytics will be released this year that assesses the overall impact of the consortium during the last 15 years of partnership with NETL.