In his seminal 2002 book The Tipping Point—How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell explained the moment when ideas and trends cross a threshold and usher in a new way of doing things—the tipping point. Well integrity has reached that tipping point.

There’s no doubt that the past few years have seen a renewed focus on well integrity, with Macondo continuing to be a salutary reminder of what can happen when well integrity goes wrong. Losing integrity threatens lives, pollutes the environment and destroys reputations.

The growth in aging brownfield wells, new complex wells in increasingly remote environments and pressures to extend asset life and increase production also mean that well integrity continues to remain a high priority in the CEO in-tray. Yet, despite its prevalence, the industry has failed to put in place a coherent response to well integrity threats, meaning the focus on well integrity tends to be predominantly reactive, waiting for a known integrity issue to occur (e.g., a barrier failure or leak) and then deploying specific tools to address it.

Well integrity should be much more than just tools, shiny pipes and barrier conditions. Rather, it should be based on a complete understanding of the long-term behavior of the well and of integrity dynamics. While a well with perfect integrity behaves according to its design, with fluid flowing only where intended and pressures at the correct levels, if integrity barriers fail or leaks occur, the whole integrity dynamics of the well can fail.

And the response to this requires much more than an ad hoc reactive approach and the opening of a toolbox. It’s only through an understanding of the dynamics and long-term behavior of the well that the precise locating of leaks and flow paths can be targeted and well integrity failures addressed.

So how can this integrity dynamics-based and proactive approach to well integrity be achieved?

Such an approach requires a change in the industry’s mindset and a reevaluation of the methodologies, protocols and philosophies that surround well integrity management.

For example, it requires a complete integration of surface and downhole measurements. Whereas traditional integrity logging is focused downhole, a complete integrity management system should include both downhole and surface measurements. The benefits of surface measurements are that they also don’t expose the operator to the disruptions, cost and risk associated with logging interventions.

A successful and comprehensive integrity management program requires technology competencies to reveal the symptoms of failing integrity. Although relevant and accurate data allow efficient and correct decision- making, incomplete or incorrect data can lead to the opposite.

With this in mind, any such well integrity program must evaluate barrier condition and sealing performance in addition to locating barrier leaks and defining leak paths. There is a need to build on the most commonly used annular diagnostic methods downhole that not only evaluate physical barrier conditions but also focus on barrier sealing and performance. Combining both provides the most secure and comprehensive approach to integrity management.

Finally, there is a need to locate all leaks and types of barrier failures throughout the well system with minimal disruption. Any proactive well management system based on integrity dynamics must work through existing tubing and provide comprehensive integrity evaluation while minimizing interruptions to operations and avoiding pulling the completion.

It’s time for a new approach to well integrity management where well integrity is elevated to the same level in field development as reservoir and production dynamics. Whereas conventional techniques provide only clues to the full integrity of the well, powerful integrity diagnostics can provide reliable and unambiguous answers that enable critical decisions to be made.

With well integrity not going away, it’s time for the visionaries to encourage the pragmatists to follow and to finally reach that tipping point.