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After decades of decline, oil production in the U.S. is on the rise. States like North Dakota and Texas are getting a lot of attention. But the Gulf of Mexico still accounts for more than 20 percent of domestic crude supply. NPR's Jeff Brady recently got an up-close look at one drilling operation in the Gulf.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: We were on board Shell's Olympus drilling rig and platform, about 130 miles south of New Orleans. And you might expect the first smell would be oil. But actually, it's food. That's a reminder that the 192 crew members working here also live on the platform for two weeks at a stretch. Inside it feels like an office building, but without windows. We're headed toward the galley or kitchen where Raymond Taylor is in charge.
RAYMOND TAYLOR: And I started about six years ago. And I was a galley hand. I started out washing dishes.
BRADY: Taylor worked his way up and now oversees both the housekeeping and cooking staff. He likes living offshore and the pay and benefits are good.
TAYLOR: We got TVs in our room. We have a gym out here and we have a TV room out here. So we can watch movies. We play a lot of games. So it's like being at home - you just can't go nowhere.
BRADY: But after a hitch of 12-hour workdays, there's a week or two off to see family again. Big yellow helicopters transport crew members.
Standing on the platform and looking down through metal grates, you can see the bright blue gulf below. The structure is huge - 40 stories high, weighs more than 120,000 tons and it doesn't sway. It's tethered to the sea floor by long, thick pipes. Keeping the platform level is one job performed by Leaza Greenroad-Ford. She monitors water levels on the platform's hulls, which look like big, round, yellow pillars.
LEAZA GREENROAD-FORD: And so you move the water around to ballast the platforms, so the platform stays upright.
BRADY: Greenroad-Ford said she'd like more female colleagues in the Gulf and says anyone fascinated by the mechanical things would find the job interesting.
GREENROAD-FORD: Everyday it amazes me that you can take oil and gas out of the ground from 18,000 feet under the seabed floor. We're floating in 3,000 feet of water - bring that stuff on board, separate it and then pipe it to shore that's 82 miles away.
BRADY: The oil industry wants to make Americans more familiar with what they do. Companies hope to attract a new generation of workers. But they also need public approval to work in federal waters. Shell estimates the U.S. will collect royalties of up to $25 billion on this project alone. Marvin Odum is the Upstream Americas director for Shell and says projects like the Olympus platform are a significant focus for his company.
MARVIN ODUM: We started up in February of 2014 on this platform and we expect it to be here until about 2050.
BRADY: The decision to go ahead with Olympus was made after BP's 2010 rig explosion and oil spill. Executives like Odum talk a lot about safety. A series of new requirements and industry standards has increased the cost of drilling.
ODUM: If you pulled across the industry right now and said how much, you know, in this new world, does it cost to drill in the Gulf of Mexico? My guess is you'd hear something around 20 to 25 percent.
BRADY: Companies are able to absorb that extra cost because oil prices have been stable for a while, around $100 a barrel. The promise of big profits has oil companies investing billions in the Gulf. Bob Fryklund with the consulting firm IHS says that's a change from a few decades back.
BOB FRYKLUND: In the 1980s, I can remember when we used to joke about it being the Dead Sea then.
BRADY: But as technology improved, companies moved into deeper water and found more big oilfields. Fryklund says that, along with the good success rate in drilling new wells, has made the Gulf of Mexico one of the most popular targets for new investment.
FRYKLUND: It's still number one in the world. We have roughly 5,600 installed platforms over the life of the Gulf. And that compares to something like the North Sea, where there's slightly under 300.
BRADY: Frykland says the industry hopes to expand into new areas that are off-limits now, including some parts of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Companies will face stiff opposition from people who want the country to transition away from fossil fuels. But for now, the oil business in the Gulf of Mexico is booming. Jeff Brady, NPR News.
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