Mud Serves as Multipurpose Tool in $100B Shale Industry

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By Katelyn Ferral

Mud makes it all possible.

The $100 billion industry arising from the so-called shale boom — gas drilling that some consider a revolution and others lament as an environmental tragedy — hinges on the lubricating, cooling, cleaning, balancing and communicative powers of drilling mud.

“Every component on that rig has something to do with that mud,” said Andrew Zeni, rig supervisor for Consol Energy Inc. “You couldn’t drill a Marcellus or Utica well without mud.”

This rather unsophisticated-looking brown sludge is a multipurpose tool carefully concocted, mixed and managed to clear a path for gas to surface from 7,500 feet below.

Drilling mud, sometimes called drilling fluid, costs as much as $300 a barrel, about a quarter of total drilling costs for one well, according to Cecil-based Consol. Mud expenses alone could be as much as $150,000 per well, which requires about 500 barrels of mud on average but varies depending on the how the shale formation reacts, Zeni said.

The mud’s journey starts in large mixing containers on a well pad, where a mud engineer might add berite clay, calcium chloride and other chemicals to a mineral oil base. Recipes vary by company, shale and location.

The mud is mixed, piped to the rig and pumped into the hole through openings in the drill bit. It lubricates and cools the hot bit as it turns 170 to 200 revolutions a minute into the ground, cleaning the hole by clearing out pieces of the freshly cut earth.

“When you drill, Mother Earth isn’t sitting there; she’s pushing back with her natural force, so in order to constrain that pressure that’s coming back, this is where the art of drilling mud comes in,” said Gianni Clemons, chief technical officer of Unique Drilling Inc., based in Dallas.

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