Chevron is leasing the Clear Leader, which floats in 4,300 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico, to drill for oil through nearly five miles of rock(Sony Vaio VGN-FZ battery).

Big Oil never wanted to be here, in 4,300 feet of water far out in the Gulf of Mexico, drilling through nearly five miles of rock.

It is an expensive way to look for oil. Chevron Corp. is paying nearly $500,000 a day to the owner of the Clear Leader, one of the world's newest and most powerful drilling rigs. The new well off the coast of Louisiana will connect to a huge platform floating nearby, which cost Chevron $650 million to build. The first phase of this oil-exploration project took more than 10 years and cost $2.7 billion -- with no guarantee it would pay off (Sony VGP-BPS8 battery).

Chevron came here, an hour-long helicopter ride south of New Orleans, because so many of the places it would rather be -- big, easily tapped oil fields close to shore -- have become off-limits. Western oil companies have been kicked out of much of the Middle East in recent decades, had assets seized in Venezuela and seen much of the U.S. roped off because of environmental regulations. Their access in Iran is limited by sanctions, in Russia by curbs on foreign investment, in Iraq by violence (Sony VGP-BPL9 battery).

So, Chevron and other major oil companies are moving ever farther from shore in search of oil. That quest is paying off as these companies discover unexpectedly large quantities of oil -- oil that only they have the technology and financial muscle to find and produce (Sony VGP-BPS9 battery).

In May, the first wells from Chevron's latest Gulf of Mexico project came online. The wells are now pumping 125,000 barrels of oil a day, making the project one of the gulf's biggest producers. In September, BP PLC announced what could be the biggest discovery in the gulf in years: a field that could hold three billion barrels (Sony VGP-BPL11 battery).

Beyond the Gulf of Mexico, companies have announced big finds off the coasts of Brazil and Ghana, leading some experts to suggest the existence of a massive oil reservoir stretching across the Atlantic from Africa to South America. Production from deepwater projects -- those in water at least 1,000 feet deep -- grew by 67%, or by about 2.3 million barrels a day, between 2005 and 2008, according to PFC Energy, a Washington consulting firm (Sony VGP-BPL15 battery).

The discoveries come as many of the giant oil fields of the past century are beginning to dry up, and as some experts are warning that global oil production could soon reach a peak and begin to decline. The new deepwater fields represent a huge and largely untapped source of oil, which could help ease fears that the world won't be able to meet demand for energy, which is expected to grow rapidly in coming years (Sony VGN-FZ460E battery).

For oil companies, the discoveries mean something more: After a decade of retreat, large Western energy companies are taking back the lead in the quest to find oil. "A lot of people can get the very easy oil," says George Kirkland, Chevron's vice chairman. "There's just not a lot of it left." (Sony VGP-BPS11 battery)

There are challengers to Big Oil's deepwater dominance. Brazil recently has moved to give a larger share of its offshore oil to its state-run oil company, Petrobras. A handful of smaller companies, such as Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Tullow Oil PLC, have had success offshore, particularly in Ghana, where giants like BP and Exxon Mobil Corp. are now playing catch-up (SONY VAIO VGN-FZ4000 Battery).

The enormous investments of time and money required for such projects have made many experts skeptical that they can ease the long-term pressure on global oil supplies. The scale of the projects means that few smaller companies have the resources to take them on. Devon Energy Corp., an independent producer based in Oklahoma City, recently announced plans to abandon its deepwater-exploration business to focus on less-expensive onshore projects, which is says will produce a better return (Sony VGP-BPS10 battery).

"This is technology capable of going to the moon," says Robin West, chairman of consulting firm PFC Energy, involving "extraordinary uncertainty, immense levels of information processing, staggering amounts of capital." (Sony Vaio VGN-FZ21M battery )

Offshore drilling is almost as old as the oil industry itself. In the 1890s, companies began prospecting for oil from piers extending off the beach near Santa Barbara, Calif. Gulf Oil drilled the world's first fully offshore well from cedar pilings on a shallow lake near Oil City, La., in 1911 (Sony VGN-FZ150E battery).

From there, the industry pushed gradually outward, from the Louisiana bayous in the 1920s into the Gulf of Mexico, where Kerr McGee drilled the first well out of sight of land in 1947.

The push into deeper water has come in the past decade.

"What has enabled us to do that is technology," says David Rainey, BP's head of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico. "We have been pushing the limits of seismic-imaging technology and drilling technology." (Sony Vaio VGN-FZ18M battery)

Perhaps a bigger reason for the recent emphasis on deepwater exploration is that companies had few other places to go. In the early decades of oil exploration, Western companies were the only ones with the technology to manage big oil projects. But as technology spread and state-run oil companies became more sophisticated, foreign governments have relied less on outside help and have demanded greater control of their own oil resources (Toshiba PA3535U-1BRS battery).

With a few exceptions, state-run companies have largely stayed out of the deep water, with its enormous technical challenges and multibillion-dollar investment requirements. Western companies have steadily pushed farther offshore, not just in the Gulf of Mexico but in places like Nigeria, Malaysia, Norway and Australia (Toshiba PA3534U-1BRS battery).

At the same time, traditional oil fields have begun to dry up. In Mexico, the world's seventh-largest oil producer, daily production has dropped 23% since 2004 as output from its giant Cantarell field fell sharply. Other countries have seen their own, mostly smaller, declines (Toshiba PA3399U-2BRS battery).

Falling output from old fields has stoked fears that world-wide production could be nearing its peak. Global oil reserves -- a measure of oil that has been found but not yet produced -- fell in 2008 for the first time in a decade, according to BP's annual statistical review. Moreover, there are signs demand could soon catch up to supply. Global oil consumption has risen by 5.4 million barrels a day in the past five years, while production has risen by just 4.8 million barrels a day (Toshiba PA3399U-1BRS battery).

Such fears helped drive a rapid run-up in oil prices to nearly $150 a barrel in July 2008. The global recession cooled demand, driving down prices, although many experts expect prices to rise again when the economy recovers. Already, prices have rebounded to about $80 a barrel, from under $35 in December 2008 (Toshiba PA3285U-1BRS battery).

Rising prices have spurred offshore exploration. By 2008, about 8% of global oil production came from deepwater fields.

Leave a Reply.