Drilling Miles Under the Sea
By Cam Mather
I think the current environmental disaster of the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico has forced many of us to confront several issues. The first is the true cost of our addiction to oil. The second is the reality of peak oil. The logical response to learning that the oil that’s gushing into the Gulf comes from a well a mile below the surface of the water has to be, so why are we drilling there anyway? Surely there has to be easier places to find oil. Well that’s just it…. there isn’t. If we’re drilling this deep, apparently there’s a glitch in the matrix when it comes to infinite and cheap oil.
If you look at the chart of discoveries of crude oil over the years you can see that the peak year was about 1965. That was a long time ago. We work harder and harder to find oil but find less and less of it. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy we use 9 barrels of oil for every new barrel we discover. So we’re using 85 million barrels of oil a day and drawing down our one time allotment of crude oil. That’s 1,000 barrels of oil a second. Or 5,500 Olympic sized swimming pools full of that toxic black crude oil day. It’s a mind-boggling number. Does anyone think we can pump much more than a thousand barrels a second?
When the concept of peak oil is discussed in the mainstream media you often hear critics of the concept suggest that there was just a huge discovery in ________ (fill in the blank with the latest alleged big find location). When I present my “Thriving During Challenging Times” workshop I take a look at a typical scenario. In July of 2008 the front pages of the business papers were talking about a discovery of 33 billion barrels of sweet, light crude oil off the coast of Brazil. Sweet light crude is what everyone wants rather than that sour lumpy stuff from the tar sands. Sounded pretty good. Sounded like a lot of oil.
The following week, on about page 8 or 9 of the business section, we learned that the Brazilian government thought the original estimates were a little “aggressive” and that the reality was probably more in the 5 – 8 billion barrel range. Still pretty good, but a far cry from what the pundits quote when they try to discredit the concept of peak oil.
Then on August 30, 2008 “The Economist” printed a story about this discovery. Any one who ever wants to use the definitive, final source on anything, quotes “The Economist.” And what did The Economist have to say about this huge find? Well first off, any oil that is extracted isn’t going to be cheap because the drilling rigs to get it out cost $1 billion each. Ouch! That ain’t chump change. And just where is the oil? Well it’s 5 to 7 km below sea level. That’s right. It’s 7 km or 4-1/2 miles! Think about it. Think of how long it would take you to walk 4-1/2 miles! Now think of putting a hollow piece of pipe that distance, and then drilling a hole in the ocean floor until you hit oil. And the scary part of the article in The Economist was the fact that the deepest that Petrobas, the Brazilian National Oil Company has ever drilled is 2 km. So they have to figure out how to drill 3 to 4 times deeper. It went on to discuss the problems with drilling that deep. One of the biggest problems is paraffin wax. Paraffin wax is a component of crude oil. When you are drilling a well that deep in the ocean it’s a problem because the water is so cold that the wax hardens and solidifies on the inside of the pipes as it works its way up. Yikes!
So let’s walk through this. We went from the announcement of a huge discovery of 33 billion barrels to maybe 5 billion barrels, that’s almost 5 miles down that will require yet-to-be-developed technology to get it out. Oh yes, and the field is 300 km from shore which is out of the range of helicopters to get crew on and off the ship. Who’s going to operate this drilling rig? Just don’t expect that oil to be keeping the price of crude down for a while, if ever.
What we’ve discovered from the Gulf blow out is that drilling for oil just 1 mile below sea level is hard and risky. Think of 5 miles. Think of fixing a blow out 5 miles down if we are having such difficulty fixing one that is “just” one mile down.
Here are the new types of drilling rigs oil companies are using for deep sea drilling.
A company like Chevron will lease one of these for $1/2 million/day. A single well can cost $100 million dollars. This unit can generate 40 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 40,000 homes. It can drill in 12,000 feet of water.
When you see the size and potential of these rigs and costs to build and operate them, how is it possible to not accept the fact that we’ve found the easy oil and what’s left is going to be hard and expensive to get out. There will be price spikes. There will be shortages. I hammer away at this in my book “Thriving During Challenging Times.” It’s time to start taking some personal action to prepare for a future with less oil. If you learn nothing else from this environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, use it as a personal wake up call to start taking action to “decarbonize” your lifestyle. Contrary to what Dick Cheney thinks, the American way of life is negotiable. It’s spilling out of a hole at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and fouling the environment.