Last Tuesday managers working in the international oil industry gathered for a gala dinner in London. Beforehand, though, they made a serious appeal to the US President. "Obviously we are concerned", says Steven Newman, head of Transocean -- the company whose drilling platform, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20 this year.
Newman was not talking about the approximately nine million liters of crude oil flowing into the sea every day at the site of the accident. The chief executive officer of Transocean meant the moratorium that President Barack Obama had declared, which put a halt to deepwater drilling for six months.
Newman's colleagues agreed that it was a dangerous overreaction by the US administration. "The world does need the oil and the energy that is going to have to come from deepwater production going forward," BP's chief of staff Steve Westwell said. The moratorium will "be a step back for energy security," agreed Jay Pryor, vice president for corporate business development at California-based oil company Chevron.
No Shame, Ten Weeks After 'Deepwater Horizon'
Ten weeks after the drilling platform disaster and oil continues to flow into the Gulf of Mexico. So far, according to some estimates, ten times more oil has leaked into the water than spilled from the Exxon Valdez when it struck an Alaskan reef in 1989. So there is an element of impudence to the oil companies' berating politicians for the deepwater drilling moratorium.
But a fundamental reconsideration of our dependence on oil? Never. Large energy companies rely on humankind's greed for oil. In fact the governor of Mississippi, Hayley Barbour, a Republican, considers the moratorium a far worse thing than the oil leak itself. It is "not only bad for the region, it's bad for America," Barbour said. A New Orleans federal judge then lifted the ban. Better supervision and a few new safety rules, and oil exploration in the deepest waters can carry on -- that is how many Americans see this situation.
Over the past few weeks, others outside the US have shown that they share that view. On Wednesday Norway tendered licenses for oil exploration in 94 sectors of the North Sea. A day before, the shareholders of the Brazilian oil company Petrobras approved a stock offer worth up to €68 billion ($83.2 billion), the largest in history. Petrobras will use this gigantic influx of capital to explore deepwater oil fields off the shore of Rio de Janeiro. And off the coast of the Newfoundland, in Canada, Chevron has started work on a borehole at depths of 2,600 meters below the ocean surface -- over 1,000 meters deeper than the hole that the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon had drilled.
Most New Oil Sources Found in Deeper Water
Deepwater oil exploration will go on, because this is where most of the new sources of oil are being found. "The easy stuff, that you have access to, is already spoken for," explains London-based oil industry analyst Chris Skrebowski. "All that's left is the frontiers, which are necessarily more technically challenging."
Most of those frontiers lie in deep water. Only 3 percent of worldwide oil production originated from the deep sea in 2002; that fraction will rise to 10 percent in two years. The oil industry sees its future in three areas of the Atlantic: The Gulf of Mexico and the Brazilian and West African coasts make up a "golden triangle" of deepwater oil exploration with enormous, if still undeveloped, potential.
"Everyone thought exploring the deep sea would be as exciting as a trip into outer space," says Klaus Wallmann, head of the Marine Geosystems Research Unit at the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences, in the German city of Kiel. The reality, though, was different. Compared to conditions in the deep sea, flying to the moon looked easy.
Risk 'Multiplies Exponentially'
A few thousand meters down and the pressure is so great that "it's like parking a small car on a thumb nail," says Peter Linke, also of the Leibnitz Institute, who works on projects as deep as 6000 meters. At those depths, water pressure simply crushes machinery.
With the Deepwater Horizon platform, the hydraulics of the so-called blowout preventer, a giant safety valve on the ocean floor, apparently failed. Linke isn't surprised. Breakdowns with hydraulics are "an everyday occurrence" at those depths, he says. The water is also very cold, around 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit). At such temperatures the gas that is almost always present in oil fields forms hydrates, as well as ice crystals, and these can block pipes.
"The risk multiplies exponentially in deep water," Linke notes. He's an experienced deep-sea explorer who has salvaged damaged machinery from the ocean floor, where, because of the extreme forces acting on all the materials, "it looks like a giant tied a knot in it."
Drill engineers do not just need to deal with the effects of such depth, they also need to drill through layers of rock. The distance between the drilling platform to the source of the oil is like the distance between a plane in flight to the earth, explains Matthias Reich, a professor of deep sea-drilling technology at the Freiburg Mining Academy in the German state of Saxony. Thick steel pipe can bend like florist's wire.
At the contact point between earth and machinery, a drill made out of diamond or tungsten carbide bites into the rock. In the "golden triangle," the oil often lies under layers of salt, kilometers deep. These blanket the oil reserves, and they also muffle the seismic-pulse technology which engineers normally use to find oil. "Below the salt you will be blind," says Inge Manfred Carlsen, petroleum research director at the SINTEF Group, an independent research organization based in Norway.
Drilling blind is dangerous, because the engineers are forced to calculate the pressure in the chambers where the oil will be found. The coveted resource sits in porous rock reservoirs, similar to sponges. The first time the drill hits one of these deposits the pressure of the oil flowing upwards must be equal to the pressure of the oil underneath. It is like walking a tight rope -- to get the desired result specialists inject the holes with drilling mud, made of water, clay, barite and other ingredients. Should the engineers not add enough pressure, the oil can spurt out violently, causing a much-dreaded blow out.
Another potential deepwater drilling catastrophe: The ground underwater is still relatively young, and therefore contains many gas bubbles. Should the drill bit hit one of these bubbles, the whole thing could go up -- this is what is called a "gas kick."
'Taking Risks we Don't Understand'
"One in four exploration wells must be abandoned in the deep water Gulf of Mexico because of (these) drilling hazards," says Arthur Weglein, physics professor and Director of the Mission-Oriented Seismic Research Program at the University of Houston in the US. "We are taking risks we don't understand," adds Robert Bea, a professor at the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Bea is leading an independent investigation into the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.
The oil-exploration industry is now preparing for higher safety standards. These will likely include duplicate "shear rams" in the blowout preventer system, which would shut down the bore hole in an emergency -- simply a spare system, like the backups found in any nuclear power plant. In the future it will also be standard for a blowout preventer to be able to be remotely activated, using an acoustic signal. But will any of this prevent future disasters?
Brazilian firm Petrobras has started to increase its production capacities aggressively. They now produce a quarter of all oil from deepwater sources, worldwide. There is hardly any company listed on stock exchanges with more oil reserves at its disposal. The firm could insure Brazil's entry into the league of industrialized nations, and the company will not be stopped because of an accident in the Gulf of Mexico.
Deepwater Oil 'A Gift from God'
At the end of 2007, Petrobras engineers discovered the Tupi field off Rio de Janiero, with reserves between five and eight billion barrels. Only a few short months later, Petrobras reported finding three more giant oil fields. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva described it as "gift from God," although the gift lay under two kilometers' worth of ocean, two kilometers' worth of salt and three kilometers of other sediment, at a depth of 7,000 meters. "It is among the most complicated projects in the world, in terms of deep water," says Caio Carvalhal, research associate at Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Brazil.
There is also a potential oil-production boom off the coast of Africa, in particular off Ghana and Angola. At the same time oil companies are exploring the Arctic, where it is suspected further, massive stores of gas and oil are hidden -- and that is despite the particular difficulties of the fragile eco-system in that area.
And all the while, crude oil continues to flow into the Gulf of Mexico. And there could be worse to come. Deep-sea researcher Linke has concerns that the oil flow and the attempts to prevent it may have damaged the pipelines at the oil source. In which case gas and oil could start coming up through the sea floor. "That is a worst-case scenario," he says, and drilling to relieve pressure would be in vain.
The emergency plan BP has provided may indicate the level of concern the petroleum giant has about such horror scenarios. The plan says walruses must be protected, even though walruses don't live in the Gulf of Mexico. The company also promises advice from an expert, Peter Lutz. In case of catastrophe, the biologist from Boca Raton, Florida, can help assess damages to the environment. But the originators of the emergency plan at BP had evidently not spoken to that particular expert for some time; Professor Lutz died of cancer five years ago.