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Oilfield innovator Ted Stagg.

It was a very good year for Ted Stagg, inventor and drilling master for Alaska's largest oil producer. As 1991 concludes, he holds the distinction of being the first BP Exploration (Alaska) staffer to capture in one year two prestigious international awards given by parent company BP America.

"I was always real interested in building things," Stagg recalls. "I built model airplanes and I flew a lot of them. I built motorized cars using Briggs & Stratton engines. I've built a few boats."

But Stagg was well into his college career at Louisiana State University when the oil patch bug grabbed him. With a degree in electrical engineering in hand, Stagg went to work for Schlumberger Offshore Services in the Gulf of Mexico and later joined competitor Gearhart-Owen in Peru, Saudia Arabia, Iran and Egypt. As a field worker for two large oilfield service companies, Stagg learned the drilling business the old-fashioned way.

Explains Stagg, "I really enjoyed my time at Schlumberger and Gearhart, particularly with Gearhart because they allowed you to do a lot of tool modifications and to improvise in building new tools that would fit a need. I just found the oil business to be fascinating. Running logs on wells with Schlumberger was an awful good introduction to the oilfield."

Years after joining British Petroleum in Alaska in the 1970s, Stagg began to put his innovative talents to work. In the mid-1980s, he and a team of BP engineers began experimenting with horizontal wells in Texas. The wells employed new drilling technology used successfully by the French to boost oil production in fields offshore from Italy.

Unlike a conventional well that cuts through the oil column vertically, a horizontal well is bent to run through the column laterally. With more of the well bore exposed to the oil-bearing rock, production rates can be increased substantially -- from 30 percent to 50 percent higher than from conventional methods, depending on the type of formation.

BP drilled its first horizontal well at Prudhoe Bay in 1985, followed by three more in 1986. "We learned how to drill them and to do the mechanics and we saw very encouraging production results," says Stagg. "But we continued to be plagued with one of the biggest problems at Prudhoe Bay, and that is (natural) gas, producing unwanted gas."

As the oil column thins, gas that lies above the oil begins to creep into the well bore, inhibiting the production of oil. Cement is then put into the well casing and squeezed into the holes, forming a plug. The operation is expensive.

Says Stagg, "It was a problem we hoped to solve in our horizontal wells. We found some success but we still had the problem. So we began to look at other ways to avoid this unwanted gas."

Stagg came up with an idea, one that eventually would win him one of his two international awards. Dubbed by Stagg "the inverted well," it is drilled through the reservoir at an angle and then turned up toward the gas cap. As gas begins to cone into the far end of the well, holes can be plugged and abandoned in succession.

Explains Stagg, "We can march right down the well bore. And each time we go in ... it's a reasonably safe and inexpensive operation compared to cement squeezing in a conventional well or cement squeezing in a truly horizontal well. This is a refinement of horizontal drilling, and it's applicable where gas is the real concern. It seemed to make sense."

BP Exploration was faced with another problem, and again it was Stagg who came to the rescue. To minimize damage to the fragile arctic environment, production wells are now drilled in clusters at the surface, then angled into the reservoir, creating a maze of steel pipe thousands of feet below the surface. Whenever a new well is being sunk, drillers must be careful to avoid hitting an existing well casing.

Because the operation is largely guesswork, wells must be drained of oil to avert disaster in the event of a collision. But the method is expensive, costing BP the production of more than 4.5 million barrels of oil in 1989 and 1990 alone.

Says Stagg, "If we drill into an existing well, we'll have a well-control situation that can be very serious and get out of hand. We could have a blow-out and oil all over the tundra."

So Stagg came up with another invention, which won him a second international award in 1991. The device, called "watchdog," is placed atop a well that drillers are concerned about hitting. It senses vibrations from the approaching drill bit, warning drillers to change direction. Because the existing well can continue producing oil uninterrupted, time and money are saved.

Says Stagg, "There had been about six patents from people who tried to develop a similar tool. But they did it either by trying to install an electronic device down hole in the existing well to listen for the bit, or they installed sensing equipment in the bit to detect the presence of metal casing. Either way it intruded into the operation. The watchdog concept doesn't intrude into either."

Stagg first came to Alaska with Schlumberger in 1967 to work on Atlantic Richfield's discovery well at Prudhoe Bay. In 1969, he joined Gearhart-Owen in South America but decided later he wanted to return to Alaska.

When Stagg came back to Alaska in 1976, a year before Prudhoe Bay oil began flowing down the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline, he had to stand in line to get a job at BP. In fact, he was turned down twice as an engineer before he was hired as a production operator, monitoring and logging wells at the Prudhoe Bay field.

"It was a pretty simple job," Stagg recalls. "I worked six months there until I finally caught the attention of those around me."

Stagg was promoted to lead petroleum engineer in 1977 and in 1980 was transferred to Anchorage headquarters where he works today as a drilling supervisor and head of special projects for BP.

For competitive reasons, Stagg, 50, cannot discuss many of his latest inventions until they are tested and patented. But he will talk about his efforts to develop drilling applications for coil tubing, which has been used for years as a conduit to flush debris from well casings.

Says Stagg, "Our dream today is that we can actually drill with continuous coil tubing. We're trying to develop tools that will allow us to go into an existing well casing and right out into the formation for short distances. By pumping abrasive fluid under very high pressure through this coil tubing, we can create a jet that has tremendous cutting action. I think we've been very fortunate here that we've not only been encouraged but supported by management in all of these innovations."
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Title Annotation:BP Exploration Alaska Inc.'s inventor and drilling master
Author:Tyson, Ray
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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