Technology: Exploring The Ocean's Frontiers

Robots and miniature submarines take oil drillers to new depths

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The dark and forbidding depths of the Gulf of Mexico, once frequented by only the hardiest of sea creatures, are now alive with human activity. Miniature submarines and robot-like vehicles prowl the ocean bottom while divers wend their way around incredible underwater structures -- taller than Manhattan skyscrapers but almost totally beneath the surface of the waves. This is the new geological frontier, and a daring breed of modern-day explorers is using technology worthy of Jules Verne and Jacques Cousteau to find fresh supplies of oil and natural gas.

Until recently, drilling in the Gulf was concentrated close to shore in water as shallow as 9 m (30 ft.). But now that most of those easy-to-tap reserves are depleted, oilmen are looking to the slopes of the continental shelf, hundreds of meters deep and 160 km (100 miles) or more from land. The cutoff of oil supplies from Kuwait and Iraq and the resulting run-up in prices have lent new urgency to the exploration ventures, some of which have been in the works for a few years. "Oil at $30 to $40 a barrel is suddenly making every project that boosts our domestic supplies look a lot more feasible," says Wayne Dunlap, an offshore technology expert at Texas A&M.

Led by Conoco, Occidental, Texaco and Shell, every major international oil company has joined the hunt, which has turned the blue-green waters off the coast of Louisiana and Texas into one of the busiest exploration areas in North America. Even Petrobras, the national oil company of Brazil and a deep- drilling pioneer, has established a Houston-based subsidiary to get in on the action. The lure of the Gulf is irresistible: estimated oil reserves of up to 36 billion bbl., nearly four times as much as in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. Companies have snapped up nearly 1,700 federal drilling leases at depths of 370 m (1,200 ft.) and beyond. Some 25 rigs are currently in operation, and several big production projects are in the works.

The far reaches of the Gulf are especially attractive to the major companies because there has been little of the environmental opposition that has blocked most drilling efforts off California and the East Coast. The oil industry is a major employer along the Gulf, and coastal residents have lived with drilling just offshore since 1947.

The deepwater quest began in 1984, when the Hunt brothers pioneered some of the new production techniques in a subterranean formation known as Green Canyon, some 240 km (150 miles) southwest of New Orleans. But they failed to make the big strike they needed to salvage their collapsing financial empire. Conoco followed the Hunts and had more luck, finding sizable deposits at the * 535-m (1,760-ft.) level. The company, with Occidental and Texaco, spent $400 million to build the world's deepest production platform, and has been producing from 20 wells for about a year.

An equally huge project is Shell's $500 million Bullwinkle platform, 130 km (80 miles) off the Louisiana coast. Standing 162 stories high -- taller by 49 m (161 ft.) than Chicago's Sears Tower -- it looms like a gigantic iceberg in 412 m (1,353 ft.) of water, only its top-deck production facilities visible above the water. Chevron is planning a big project nearby. Southeast of New Orleans, Exxon is operating a 110-story platform, and a few miles away British Petroleum is erecting its own 100-story behemoth.

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