Yet even the biggest deepwater projects aren't enough to put a dent in global supply problems on their own. The world's largest deepwater platform, BP's Thunder Horse in the Gulf of Mexico, produces 250,000 barrels of oil a day, just 0.3% of global consumption (Toshiba PA3465U-1BRS battery) .

"These discoveries are changing the debate," says Ed Morse, chief economist for LCM Commodities, a brokerage firm. What remains unclear, he says, is whether the deepwater projects will ensure that new discoveries continue to meet demand (Toshiba PA3450U-1BRS battery).

Many in the industry argue the new fields have expanded the limits of where the industry can find oil, potentially delaying a decline in global production.

"There are vast unexplored areas in deep water, so tremendous opportunities for growth," says Steven Newman, president of Transocean Ltd., which owns the Clear Leader rig(Toshiba PA3285U-1BRS battery ).

The push into deeper water hasn't always been smooth sailing. Offshore projects are expensive, time-consuming and prone to failure. Chevron boasts of a 45% exploration overall success rate in recent years, a remarkable run by industry standards, but one that also means the company has spent billions on projects that haven't panned out (ACER Travelmate 2300 Battery).

Chevron's successes have outweighed its failures. It was expected to be the fastest-growing big oil company in 2009, as measured by oil production, in large part because of new offshore projects in the Gulf of Mexico and off Brazil. Other companies that have embraced offshore exploration, such as BP, are also seeing big growth, while those that haven't are scrambling (Toshiba PA3535U-1BRS battery).

Exxon, which hasn't emphasized deepwater exploration as much as competitors, recently offered $4 billion for a stake in an oil field off the coast of Ghana.

Chevron made its big offshore bet in the 1990s, when it began buying up leases in the Gulf of Mexico that were in such deep water, the technology didn't yet exist to drill there. Confident that technology would catch up, the company in 1996 bid in and won a U.S. government auction for the right to explore for oil in several areas of the gulf, in hopes that a fraction would turn into producing fields (Toshiba PA3534U-1BRS battery).

Chevron then spent six years analyzing its new holdings, figuring out which were most likely to hold oil. The key tool in its arsenal: seismic imaging, a sonar-like process in which sound waves are shot into the rock, and their echoes are picked up by sensors on the surface (Toshiba PA3399U-2BRS battery).

Adding to the challenge: The oil that Chevron was pursuing lay beneath a thick layer of salt, which disrupts seismic sound waves and blurs the images like a smudge on a camera lens. The company had to analyze the data with supercomputers to clear up that distortion(Dell INSPIRON 1420 Battery).

The analysis revealed a potentially huge oil reservoir. Even so, Chevron estimated it had only a one-in-eight chance of finding commercial quantities of oil. The only way to know for sure was to drill (Dell Inspiron E1505 Battery).

So, in 2002, Chevron spent about $100 million to sink its first well in the field, which came to be known as Tahiti. That well needed to hit a 200-foot-long target from five miles away -- akin to hitting a dart board from a city block away (Dell Latitude D620 Battery).

"You have to roll the dice, and the dice roll now is north of $100 million," says Gary Luquette, president of Chevron's North American exploration and production division.

Chevron's first Tahiti well struck enough oil to make it worth more drilling to see how big the field might be. By 2005, the company had learned enough to go forward with the project. That required building a 700-foot-tall, 45,000-ton floating oil-production platform, and drilling a half dozen wells to feed oil to it. Tahiti produced its first commercial quantities of oil in May (Dell INSPIRON 1525 Battery).

On a recent morning, the Clear Leader rolled on the waves 190 miles south of New Orleans, held almost perfectly in place by its satellite-controlled navigation system and six Korean-made engines (Dell Inspiron 6000 battery).

In a cabin on the ship's deck, a team of drillers in coveralls monitored computer terminals as they used joysticks to control a drill bit more than 12,800 feet below. The oil they were targeting lay another 14,000 feet underground -- an easy reach for a ship that can drill down 7.5 miles (Dell Inspiron 6400 battery).

The well is part of a second phase of the Tahiti project, which will require drilling several more wells and expanding the floating platform -- an additional $2 billion in spending, still with no guarantee of success (Dell Inspiron 1501 battery).

Kevin Ricketts, a Chevron engineer who worked on both phases of the Tahiti project, recalled looking up at the massive platform while it was still on shore, and reflecting on how his team's analysis had led to its construction (Sony Vaio VGN-FZ battery).

"I'd never seen anything that big," Mr. Ricketts said. "I thought, holy moly, our production forecast led to that thing being built. I sure hope we're right."

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