Deepwater Drilling May Open New Oil Frontiers

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 11, 2006

Oil companies are buzzing after Chevron, Devon Energy, and Norway-based Statoil ASA last week announced the successful discovery of oil at a staggering depth beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico (map of region).

Jack 2, as the new test well is called, extends downward for more than five miles (eight kilometers).

The well delves through 7,000 feet (2,134 meters) of seawater and more than 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) of seafloor to strike oil in the lower tertiary formation—a layer of rock laid down between 65 million and 24 million years ago.

The find, potentially the United States' largest in four decades, could yield from 3 to 15 billion barrels of crude oil. Even though the top estimate would not do much to slake the nation's growing thirst for fuel, it could boost existing U.S. reserves by 50 percent.

(Related story: "'Addicted to Oil': How Can U.S. Fulfill Bush Pledge?" [February 2006].)

But experts suggest that the cutting-edge technologies used to create and operate the well are far more important than any single oil find.

Such technologies could open access to previously unattainable oil across the globe. And high oil prices are making the enormous startup costs worth the gamble.

"It's giving folks greater confidence to explore in the deepwater Gulf region," said Judson Jacobs, director of upstream technology for Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) in Boston, Massachusetts.

The Gulf is hardly unique, he adds. Other promising deepwater locations await exploration off the coasts of Brazil, the United Kingdom, West Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Treasure Hunt

Deepwater oil exploration begins on the ocean surface with a fleet of seismic vessels. The boats use long cables to send sound waves through the water and sea bottom. (Related: "Whales Could Be Harmed by Oil-Search Noises, Report Says" [June 2006].)

Different layers of sedimentary rock reflect unique parts of the sound waves back to shipboard receptors. The data are then analyzed by software to produce a 3-D image of the underground environment.

Continued on Next Page >>


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