The Risky Hunt for the Last Oil Reserves: Does Deep Sea Drilling Have a Future?

By Philip Bethge, Alexander Jung, Nils Klawitter and Renate Nimtz-Koester

The oil catastrophe afflicting the Gulf of Mexico underscores just how dangerous offshore oil exploration can be. Oil companies are seeking to extract the planet's last remaining barrels by drilling from ever-deeper sites on the ocean floor that wouldn't even have been considered not too many years ago.

The burning Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico Zoom
AP

The burning Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico

The oil now coating the Gulf of Mexico in reddish brown streaks has a long journey behind it. Tracing that journey would require diving 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) into the ocean, passing through a massive layer of mud and finally pounding through hard salt.

The oil originated more than four kilometers (two and a half miles) below the ocean floor, in rock layers that formed millions of years ago, during the Tertiary period. It's scalding hot down there, a veritable journey into hell, but companies such as BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron are daring to make the trip more and more often these days. Flying over the site where the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon sank in late April reveals dozens more oil platforms projecting out of the water on the horizon, like toys bobbing in a bathtub.

The United States government currently estimates that there are around 60 billion barrels of oil beneath the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico. This enormous reservoir would be enough to keep the US economy -- with its trucks, Chevrolets, Learjets and Boeings, its chemical and materials industries -- running for nearly another decade. The question, though, is how dangerous this deep sea oil extraction really is. Deepwater Horizon's catastrophic explosion, which claimed the lives of 11 crewmembers, has turned the spotlight on the challenges of offshore drilling.

The Frontiers of Geology, Geography and Technology

The attempt to plug the oil leaks on the ocean floor calls to mind the rescue of the Apollo 13 spacecraft, damaged on its journey to the moon in 1970, admits BP CEO Tony Hayward. "The energy industry is clearly working at the frontiers of geology, geography and technology," he told SPIEGEL in an interview.

US Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, appointed by US President Barack Obama to coordinate oil spill response efforts, also deplored "the tyranny of distance and the tyranny of depth." Containment work using remotely operated vehicles on a wellhead at a depth of 1,500 meters is "unprecedented," Allen added.

Efforts failed this week to lower a 100-ton steel containment dome onto the leakage site, because quickly accumulated methane hydrates blocked the device. Now BP is attempting the procedure with a much smaller dome. Still, even if this rescue mission succeeds, the disaster's effects will be felt for years. The sea area covered in oil is already twice as big as Luxembourg.

First traces of oil washed up on the beaches of the Chandeleur Islands, an uninhabited island chain off the coast of Louisiana, on Friday. Around 10,000 people worked feverishly to keep the oil from reaching any more of the coast. Lockheed C-130 planes sprayed tons of a chemical mixture called Corexit, which is used to break down and disperse spilled oil -- but which is also suspected of causing harm to marine ecosystems itself. The fishing and tourism industries anticipate billions in losses.

'Not for the Faint of Heart'

An unprecedented deluge of complaints has hit BP and Transocean, the company that operated the Deepwater Horizon. "What has occurred in the Gulf of Mexico is precisely what we have always warned of," criticized geologist Klaus Bitzer at the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas. "They interfered with things that are better left alone."

If oil companies continue to drill in deeper and deeper waters, predicts the professor at Bayreuth University in southern Germany, we can expect disasters like this one off the coast of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to become more frequent. At the moment it's unclear to what degree BP is at fault in the disaster, Bitzer says, "but there is one accusation we must make of the industry now: a staunch refusal to acknowledge reality in evaluating future possibilities in oil production."

The oil barons' daring seems limitless even in the face of the crisis. "The deepwater arena is not for the faint of heart or the underfinanced," writes Mark Riding, an expert at the oil exploration company Schlumberger, in the May edition of Offshore, a magazine dedicated to the offshore oil industry, but "with success comes enthusiasm."

Deep sea floors rich in oil span the globe. Riding offers a simplistic assessment of the waters off the coasts of Madagascar, the Horn of Africa, Greenland, south of the Arabian Peninsula and along the continental shelves around the Atlantic: all "ripe targets for the drill bit."

The deep sea has become a playground for engineers and energy market strategists. This enthusiasm, though, is born of necessity. Multinational companies would hardly venture voluntarily to tap difficult undersea reservoirs. Rather, it's the last option they have left. For about five years, global oil production has remained steady at around 85 million barrels a day. "Even though the industry returned to making massive investments between 2003 and 2008, it could not match the tide of rising oil demand," Sadad al Husseini, former vice president of the oil company Saudi Aramco, told the journal Petroleum Technology. "Ultimately, it was unable to exceed a production (that) production plateau."

A large portion of the world's petroleum is pumped from oilfields that were first discovered more than 60 years ago without a great deal of complex technology. Today, prospectors must use costly methods to search for new oilfields that are located in some of the world's most inaccessible locations and yield amounts of oil once considered marginal.

Article...
  • For reasons of data protection and privacy, your IP address will only be stored if you are a registered user of Facebook and you are currently logged in to the service. For more detailed information, please click on the "i" symbol.
  • Post to other social networks

Comments
Discuss this issue with other readers!
3 total posts
Show all comments
    Page 1    
1. Restrictions on drilling are responsible
uscurt 05/14/2010
Zitat von sysopThe oil catastrophe afflicting the Gulf of Mexico underscores just how dangerous offshore oil exploration can be. Oil companies are seeking to extract the planet's last remaining barrels by drilling from ever-deeper sites on the ocean floor that wouldn't even have been considered not too many years ago. http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,694346,00.html
Deep sea drilling has become necessary because of spurious political restrictions on drilling in safer areas (e.g.,off the coast of California, ANWR, and others). One way or another, the demand for oil has to be satisfied, and even more so with the economic growth of China and India. There are many areas where it would be safe to drill without damaging the environment, save for the intransigence of fanatics bent on destroying the capitalist economy.
2. The Risky Hunt for the Last Oil Reserves: Does Deep Sea Drilling Have a Future?
ecograd 05/14/2010
I worked in offshore engineering in the late 1970's and early 1980's. We did envision drilling and producing in deep water; but, the problem was technology development. One of my colleagues designed the original Tension Leg Platform and existing technologies like the semi-submersible were refined and developed for deeper water. I would suggest that the problem is still technology development. There has been a revolution in ocean drilling in the last three decades; in 1980, 1000' was the deepest water platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, we can drill to the depths we bought leases for, we can produce at those depths, but the industry has not developed the supporting equipment and technology necessary to drill and produce at the water depths of the Horizon. It is inexcusable to see that drill pipe spewing oil without the proper support equipment to get down there and cap that well. If deep water production continues in US territorial waters, which is a decision by each state, it may well be dependent upon further technology development that permits full operations in a deep water field that has the technology and equipment to provide full oil field service functions, which includes the ability to cap a Horizon type blowout promptly. Finally, biocentric and ecocentric rights are not discussed here in the US and how to balance those rights with anthropocentric activities. The Deepwater Horizon diaster may force a more complex discussions of the risks and trade offs of deepwater production.
3.
BTraven 05/17/2010
Zitat von ecogradI worked in offshore engineering in the late 1970's and early 1980's. We did envision drilling and producing in deep water; but, the problem was technology development. One of my colleagues designed the original Tension Leg Platform and existing technologies like the semi-submersible were refined and developed for deeper water. I would suggest that the problem is still technology development. There has been a revolution in ocean drilling in the last three decades; in 1980, 1000' was the deepest water platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, we can drill to the depths we bought leases for, we can produce at those depths, but the industry has not developed the supporting equipment and technology necessary to drill and produce at the water depths of the Horizon. It is inexcusable to see that drill pipe spewing oil without the proper support equipment to get down there and cap that well. If deep water production continues in US territorial waters, which is a decision by each state, it may well be dependent upon further technology development that permits full operations in a deep water field that has the technology and equipment to provide full oil field service functions, which includes the ability to cap a Horizon type blowout promptly. Finally, biocentric and ecocentric rights are not discussed here in the US and how to balance those rights with anthropocentric activities. The Deepwater Horizon diaster may force a more complex discussions of the risks and trade offs of deepwater production.
Why do not relocate all the equipment to the seabed what the Norwegians did when the developed their latest gas field in the Barents Sea? I think that is the future. You do not need any rigs anymore since all equipment on the ocean floor controlled by a control centre on land. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sn%C3%B8hvit
Show all comments
    Page 1    
Keep track of the news

Stay informed with our free news services:

All news from SPIEGEL International
Twitter | RSS
All news from Business section
RSS

SPIEGEL ONLINE 2010
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH



Graphic: Deep Sea Monsters Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Deep Sea Monsters


Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: Plugging the Leak in the Gulf of Mexico
Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: Gulf Coast Wildlife in Danger


European Partners
Presseurop

Politiken

Corriere della Sera

One Million Erasmus Babies

ASEM Summit Paralyses Milan


Facebook
Twitter