Seisma Energy Research, AVV (formerly Seisma Oil Research, LLC) presents this article as part of a series of articles on understanding the energy business. We hope you enjoy this series.


An oil well is a general term for any boring through the earth’s surface that is designed to find and produce petroleum oil hydrocarbons. Usually some natural gas is produced along with the oil. A well designed to produce mainly or only gas may be termed a gas well.


The earliest known oil wells were drilled in China in 347 CE. They had depths of up to about 800 feet (240 m) and were drilled using bits attached to bamboo poles. The oil was burned to evaporate brine and produce salt. By the 10th century, extensive bamboo pipelines connected oil wells with salt springs. The ancient records of China and Japan are said to contain many allusions to the use of natural gas for lighting and heating. Petroleum was known as burning water in Japan in the 7th century.

The Middle East’s petroleum industry was established by the 8th century, when the streets of the newly constructed Baghdad were paved with tar, derived from petroleum that became accessible from natural fields in the region. Petroleum was distilled by the Persian alchemist Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi (Rhazes) in the 9th century, producing chemicals such as kerosene in the alembic (al-ambiq),[and which was mainly used for kerosene lamps. Arab and Persian chemists also distilled crude oil in order to produce flammable products for military purposes. Through Islamic Spain, distillation became available in Western Europe by the 12th century.

Some sources claim that from the 9th century, oil fields were exploited in the area around modern Baku, Azerbaijan, to produce naphtha for the petroleum industry. These fields were described by Marco Polo in the 13th century, who described the output of those oil wells as hundreds of shiploads. When Marco Polo in 1264 visited the Azerbaijani city of Baku, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, he saw oil being collected from seeps. He wrote that “on the confines toward Geirgine there is a fountain from which oil springs in great abundance, inasmuch as a hundred shiploads might be taken from it at one time.”

Shallow pits were dug at the Baku seeps in ancient times to facilitate collecting oil, and hand-dug holes up to 35 meters (115 ft) deep were in use by 1594. These holes were essentially oil wells. Apparently 116 of these wells in 1830 produced 3,840 metric tons (about 28000 barrels) of oil. In 1849, Russian engineer F.N. Semyenov used a cable tool to drill an oil well on the Apsheron Peninsula, ten years before Colonel Drake’s famous well in Pennsylvania. Also, offshore drilling started up at Baku at Bibi-Eibat field near the end of the 19th century, about the same time that the first offshore oil well was drilled in 1896 at Summerland field on the California Coast.

The earliest oil wells in modern times were drilled percussively, by hammering a cable tool into the earth. Soon after, cable tools were replaced with rotary drilling, which could drill boreholes to much greater depths and in less time. The record-depth Kola Borehole used non-rotary mud motor drilling to achieve a depth of over 12 000 meters (38,000 ft). Until the 1970s, most oil wells were vertical, although lithological and mechanical imperfections cause most wells to deviate at least slightly from true vertical.

However, modern directional drilling technologies allow for strongly deviated wells which can, given sufficient depth and with the proper tools, actually become horizontal. This is of great value as the reservoir rocks which contain hydrocarbons are usually horizontal, or sub-horizontal; a horizontal wellbore placed in a production zone has more surface area in the production zone than a vertical well, resulting in a higher production rate. The use of deviated and horizontal drilling has also made it possible to reach reservoirs several kilometers or miles away from the drilling location (extended reach drilling), allowing for the production of hydrocarbons located below locations that are either difficult to place a drilling rig on, environmentally sensitive, or populated.

Life of a Well

The creation and life of a well can be divided up into five segments:
• Planning
• Drilling
• Completion
• Production
• Abandonment

Types of Wells

Oil wells come in many varieties. By produced fluid, there can be wells that produce oil, wells that produce oil and natural gas, or wells that only produce natural gas. Natural gas is almost always a byproduct of producing oil, since the small, light gas carbon chains come out of solution as it undergoes pressure reduction from the reservoir to the surface, similar to uncapping a bottle of soda pop where the carbon dioxide effervesces. Unwanted natural gas can be a disposal problem at the well site. If there is not a market for natural gas near the wellhead it is virtually valueless since it must be piped to the end user. Until recently, such unwanted gas was burned off at the wellsite, but due to environmental concerns this practice is becoming less common. Often, unwanted (or ‘stranded’ gas without a market) gas is pumped back into the reservoir with an ‘injection’ well for disposal or repressurizing the producing formation.

Another solution is to export the natural gas as a liquid. Gas-to-liquid, (GTL) is a developing technology that converts stranded natural gas into synthetic gasoline, diesel or jet fuel through the Fischer-Tropsch process developed in World War II Germany. Such fuels can be transported through conventional pipelines and tankers to users. Proponents claim GTL fuels burn cleaner than comparable petroleum fuels. Most major international oil companies are in advanced development stages of GTL production, with a world-scale (140,000 bbl/day) GTL plant in Qatar scheduled to come online before 2010. In locations such as the United States with a high natural gas demand, pipelines are constructed to take the gas from the wellsite to the end consumer.

Another obvious way to classify oil wells is by land or offshore wells. There is very little difference in the well itself. An offshore well targets a reservoir that happens to be underneath an ocean. Due to logistics, drilling an offshore well is far more costly than an onshore well. By far the most common type is the onshore well. These wells dot the Southern and Central Great Plains, Southwestern United States, and are the most common wells in the Middle East.

Another way to classify oil wells is by their purpose in contributing to the development of a resource. They can be characterized as:

• production wells are drilled primarily for producing oil or gas, once the producing structure and characteristics are determined
• appraisal wells are used to assess characteristics (such as flow rate) of a proven hydrocarbon accumulation
• exploration wells are drilled purely for exploratory (information gathering) purposes in a new area
• wildcat wells are those drilled outside of and not in the vicinity of known oil or gas fields.
At a producing well site, active wells may be further categorised as:
• oil producers producing predominantly liquid hydrocarbons, but mostly with some associated gas.
• gas producers producing almost entirely gaseous hydrocarbons.
• water injectors injecting water into the formation to maintain reservoir pressure or simply to dispose of water produced with the hydrocarbons because even after treatment, it would be too oily and too saline to be considered clean for dumping overboard, let alone into a fresh water source, in the case of onshore wells. Frequently water injection has an element of reservoir management and produced water disposal.
• aquifer producers intentionally producing reservoir water for re-injection to manage pressure. This is in effect moving reservoir water from where it is not as useful to where it is more useful. These wells will generally only be used if produced water from the oil or gas producers is insufficient for reservoir management purposes. Using aquifer produced water rather than sea water is due to the chemistry.
• gas injectors injecting gas into the reservoir often as a means of disposal or sequestering for later production, but also to maintain reservoir pressure.


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