Journey to the Center of the Earth

By Philips, Matthew | Newsweek, March 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

Journey to the Center of the Earth


Philips, Matthew, Newsweek


Byline: Matthew Philips

Miles below the ocean floor lies enough oil to power the U.S. for more than a decade--and perhaps our best shot at energy independence.

From the window of a helicopter 1,500 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, oil platforms look like Tinkertoys in a swimming pool. Dozens dot the horizon stretching south from New Orleans and continuing out as the water deepens and turns a darker blue. Then, about 50 miles offshore, the platforms stop, and for the next hundred miles there's nothing. This is the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, where the ocean floor is 8,000 feet down and covered in a heavy layer of muck. Below that is an ancient salt bed several miles thick, and hidden under that, trapped tens of thousands of feet down, there's oil--billions and billions of barrels of it. And it's all in U.S. waters.

Chevron's Tahiti platform, about 190 miles offshore, first appears as a speck in open water. Even up close, its size is deceiving. A three-level structure sits above the surface, but its 555-foot hull is entirely submerged. At 714 feet tall and weighing more than 80 million pounds, Tahiti is the equivalent of a 70-story skyscraper floating in 4,000 feet of water. The first thing you notice when stepping onto its platform is a high-pitched hum: the sound of thousands of barrels of oil being pulled from the depths and pumped back to shore.

To Chevron, it's among the most beautiful sounds in the world, proof that a decade of investment in deepwater-drilling technology is beginning to pay off for big oil companies like itself, as well as BP, ExxonMobil, and Shell. After a string of hurricanes led to seven straight years of declining oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, a handful of new deepwater projects reversed the trend in 2009. This year deepwater oil is likely to power the first year-over-year increase in total U.S. domestic production since 1991. The turnaround comes as President Obama is making it a priority to wean America off foreign oil. That will require replacing more than half the oil we consume, or nearly 10 million barrels a day, even though domestic oil production has dropped 50 percent since 1970.

Oil producers like Chevron say offshore drilling represents our best shot at energy independence. Today some two thirds of U.S. production comes from land-based reserves, mostly in Texas and Alaska, but those sources aren't producing the way they once did. The U.S. government estimates that the Gulf of Mexico holds somewhere around 70 billion barrels of oil, 40 billion of which remain undiscovered in the deep water. Combined with the entire Outer Continental Shelf, there's thought to be more than 85 billion barrels of undiscovered crude off the coast of the U.S., more than a decade's worth of oil at our current pace. By 2020, 40 percent of U.S. oil could come from offshore, according to analysts at IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

With easily accessible oil in decline around the globe, oil majors are vying for reserves hardly worth a second look a few years ago: plumbing the frigid waters off Greenland, where icebergs have to be towed away from rigs; sifting the viscous tar sands of Alberta, Canada; venturing into the rainforests of Venezuela's Orinoco Basin; and probing more than 4,000 feet below the ocean off the shores of Ghana. Last year Brazil's state-owned Petrobras drew the first oil from its 9.5 billion to 15 billion barrels of proven new reserves buried below 4.5 miles of sea, sand, rock, and salt, and spread over an area larger than Britain, 185 miles off the coast of Brazil.

In the U.S., however, offshore drilling remains politically fraught. Environmentalists argue that we can achieve energy independence by cutting demand and ramping up renewables. They add that the thousands of gallons of mud deepwater drilling unearths contain toxic metals--mercury, lead, and cadmium--that may end up in the seafood supply. The water that comes up from wells contains a toxic mix of benzene, arsenic, lead, and various radioactive pollutants, according to studies by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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