Snubbing units have evolved into one of the most capable and efficient well servicing tools in the oil & gas industry. In the 1920's, the need for a rig to work with pressures at surface drove the invention of the snubbing unit. The first snubbing unit was primarily designed to work in well control situations to "snub" drill pipe and or casing into, or out of, a well bore when conventional well killing methods could not be used. The first snubbing unit relied on the draw works of the companion rig to supply its' power. A series of sheaves, cables and counter weights were rigged up so that as the rig's traveling blocks hoisted up, the snubbing unit would snub in the hole. Conversely, when the traveling blocks on the rig were lowered, the snubbing unit would snub out of the hole. As you can imagine, this required close communication with several different contractors in order to perform the work safely and efficiently.
One of the main components of a snubbing unit is the slip. Stationary and travelling slips are operated in sequence to grip the pipe as it is snubbed into the well. Typically, a minimum of four slip bowls are used in snubbing operations. Two slip bowls are designated for "pipe light" operations. Pipe light is when the well bore forces are greater than the tubular weight in the well bore. The other two slip bowls are designated for "pipe heavy" operations. Pipe heavy occurs when either enough pipe has been snubbed into the well bore and fluid weight inside of the pipe is greater than the snub forces acting against the pipe in the well bore.
While snubbing into the hole, there is a transition point the tubular goes through from being pipe light, to pipe heavy. This transition is an equilibrium typically referred to as the "balance point". The balance point occurs when there is enough pipe weight in the wellbore to equal the snub forces generated against the pipe. In certain instances, thousands of feet of pipe can be moved with minimal effort since the pipe weight is at an equal state with the snub forces. Snubbing contractors calculate this snub force and add in a friction factor from the BOP and wall contact on either a casing or tubing string. If done correctly, the snubbing contractor can predict when this balance point will take place and can properly prepare for it.
Modern snubbing units are powered by sophisticated hydraulic systems. These hydraulic units typically supply all power required by the components of a snubbing operation. With a better understanding of hydraulics and modern advances, companies have been able to harness this hydraulic energy to develop precision controlled snubbing units. These units move tubulars into and out of a well bore by use of a "multi cylinder jack"; a snubbing jack comes in many sizes depending on the task at hand. They are usually denoted in size by the snubbing unit description (i.e. 460K, 340K, 200K, etc). The 460K snubbing unit has the ability to lift 460,000 LBS and a snubbing capacity of 230,000 LBS. Most snubbing units can typically snub half of their lift rating. Assume you had a well with 10,000 PSI at surface and wished to snub in a string of 2 3/8" tubing. The snubbing contractor can calculate the snub force, add in their respective friction calculations and project the snub force to overcome will be approximately 51,000 LBS. This would put a 120K snubbing unit to close to its maximum capacity of 60,000 LBS snub loading. The safest bet would be a 150K or 235K snubbing unit.
Well control is taken very seriously by snubbing contractors. The BOP is the only barrier between the well bore and personnel. Depending upon well conditions, pressures and work performed, the BOP stack configuration varies greatly; there can be a minimum of three BOP's and in some cases, up to ten. All of this is determined in the pre-job phase of the operation.
Pipe handling is performed by the snubbing units "gin pole" and "pipe winches". The gin pole is typically telescoped out in excess of 40ft above the snubbing unit. With the use of dual tubing winches, multiple joints of pipe can be handled simultaneously, speeding up the operation.
The snubbing "basket" is the platform where the snubbing personnel work. The basket contains all of the necessary hydraulic controls to operate all the features of the snubbing unit, as well as a large bank of BOP's and hydraulic valve controls.
Today's snubbing units can be employed to provide a wide range of services. In essence, a snubbing unit is a hydraulic rig that can do everything a rig can do, plus it can perform under pressure in an under balanced live well state. This is especially critical to the operators in the Haynesville Shale, which is known for HPHT wells. With the use of the snubbing units' hydraulic rotary, the unit can be employed for fishing, milling, drilling, side tracking or any task needed to remove bridge plugs, cement or deepen wells.
The industry has become more aware of damages caused by heavy kill weight fluids and mud. This has helped make snubbing units more popular in a completion and workover role, versus its' traditional use as a well control response tool. With the advances in drilling technologies in the unconventional shale market, the benefits of snubbing units have become very apparent. These types of completions often have laterals extending out thousands of feet. With costly stimulations used to help extract the gas more efficiently, operators often times do not wish to turn around and load the well with heavy fluids to complete the well dead.
Coiled tubing has its limitations in reach, due to wall to wall mechanical friction in horizontal wells. Often times the coiled tubing units cannot reach TD or supply the needed weight on bit to mill up composite plugs typically used in completions.
Another clear advantage to using a snubbing unit is its' small footprint, which is critical on the tight locations in the unconventional shale's. Moreover, the small size and ease of mobilizing is especially useful and cost effective with offshore wells.
In conclusion, with the snubbing unit's size, ability to handle pressure, rotary capabilities, rigidity of jointed tubing and minimal wall contact, snubbing units have become the chosen resource for these types of completions.