Offshore Production

Deeper and deeper

New oil and gas exploration and production technology -- at least onshore -- is more prevalent in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. There's a reason: U.S. onshore oil and gas fields are more mature than those in other nations, so the need is greater for technology to keep them viable. But technology also is on the march offshore. There it's happening on a global basis. And it's being primarily used not by independents, but by major oil companies, which dominate offshore exploration and production. Most of the onshore technology also has application offshore. But there it is being combined with starting advances in deepwater drilling. Records for the depth of wells are being set every few months. Off the coast of Brazil, for example, that country's national oil company, Petrobras, is producing oil from a well recently drilled 6,004 ft underwater. It's currently the deepest oil production in the world, performed by a "floating production system" that features a Jules Verne-like subsea well that operates remotely without the aid of divers; the well is connected by steel "risers" to a special drilling ship moored on the surface. Shell Oil Co., meanwhile, is producing 300 million cu ft of gas a day from a well recently drilled under 5,300 ft of water in the Gulf of Mexico. The subsea well is "tied-back" an astounding 63 miles from its host platform -- one of the new tension-leg types that, rather than sitting on the sea floor, is held in place by vertically oriented tension cables connected to deadweight anchors. Exploratory wells probe even deeper. One off the coast of Nigeria and Angola is being drilled in more than 8,000 ft of water. To tap these remote, ever-more-expensive offshore oil and gas resources, however, "we need the capability to produce in 10,000 ft of water, with a tie-back of 100 miles," says Allen Verret, technical adviser to the DeepStar Project, a Houston-based industry consortium that develops deepwater technology. "We'll do it," he asserts, exuding the confidence that always has been an oil-industry trademark. "Breakthroughs will occur."

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