Gulf Oil Find Promising, Problematic

A much-publicized oil deposit five miles beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico looks good so far, but drilling at such great depths will require years of work and tricky engineering. But experts are optimistic about the prospects.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

For decades the Gulf of Mexico has been America's biggest oil patch. As reservoirs on land went dry, the Gulf kept producing. But big reservoirs in the Gulf are getting harder to find. Engineers are going farther out to sea and drilling deeper. This week they announced a new find, one that is deeper than ever before. But as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, the first new barrel of oil is a long way off.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The oil lies more than four miles beneath the sea bed. It's in what geologists call the lower tertiary trend, the layer of rock and silt and sand laid down about the time the dinosaurs died out. Geologists suspected there was oil there, but how could they get to it? First, the ocean is 7,000 feet deep there. Then there's 20,000 feet of earth to get through, including layers of salt. Chris Oynes is the Gulf manager for the Federal Minerals Management Service.

Mr. CHRIS OYNES (Federal Minerals Management Service): This is new when you have the combination of the water depth and going that deep into the lower tertiary geologic formation, that the big complicating factor is you're, of course, drilling beneath salt when you're in the offshore setting, and more importantly, lots of problems in terms of identifying the target accurately enough so that you can have a picture of what you're trying to go after.

JOYCE: Geologists can see through the earth using sound waves like sonar, but seeing that deep and through salt is tough. Lately though, super-fast computers and better seismic techniques have given them three-dimensional images good enough to guide them to the new oil.

Over the past four years, oil companies drilled 19 exploratory wells into this lower tertiary formation in the Gulf, and 12 of them hit oil. This week three of those companies, Chevron, Devon Energy, and Norway's Statoil, announced they'd actually pumped up to 6,000 barrels a day from a well called Jack Number 2. They claim the whole formation could hold between three and 15 billion barrels of oil. If that proves to be accurate, and even company executives say that's just an educated guess, it could amount to about one-fifth of all the oil thought to be in U.S. waters. Oynes of the Minerals Management Service says the discovery is promising but no one's actually produced oil from such depths in the Gulf before.

Mr. OYNES: It's like sort of drilling to Mars. It's a nasty environment when you get down to the bottom that you're going to have a lot of technical challenges to make sure you're safely dealing with this. You're going to run into high pressures on the well and high temperatures. In this general area it would probably not be uncommon to see at least 15,000s pound per square inch, maybe higher.

JOYCE: The oil may also come with some pretty nasty traveling companions - corrosive carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide - and there are more mundane obstacles too. There aren't many oil rigs that can operate in such depths. Oil experts also point out that even the headiest estimates of what's in this formation wouldn't satisfy America's oil thirst for more than a year or two. But William Fisher, an oil geologist with the University of Texas, says this first plunge into the lower tertiary gives the Gulf some new life.

Mr. WILLIAM FISHER (University of Texas): It's exciting in terms of opening up a whole new area in the Gulf. And you know, I think the Gulf of Mexico has been written off at least four or fives during it's history. And yet we always come up with something new and different.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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