The Risky Hunt for the Last Oil Reserves Does Deep Sea Drilling Have a Future?
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 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.
- Part 1: Does Deep Sea Drilling Have a Future?
- Part 2: 'The Technical Demands of Drilling Are Magnified Enormously with Depth'