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Pushing Frontiers of Oil Exploration

Drillers Going Off Deep End in Gulf

By Leon LazaroffSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 6, 1995


PINCHED by declining reserves and environmental curbs on exploration, some of the biggest oil companies in the United States are banding together to go where no petroleum explorers have gone before.

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In an engineering effort that parallels the early days of the Apollo moon mission, ''Project DeepStar'' is an attempt to tap the deepest regions of the Gulf of Mexico.

If successful, the offshore venture could produce tens of thousands of jobs and stem the US slide into foreign oil dependence.

''What we've done so far is like the Mercury sub-orbital flights that went around the earth,'' says Project DeepStar director Curtis Burton, comparing current deep-sea drilling technology to the earliest NASA flights. ''Now, we're poised to launch the moon shot.''

Using some of same technology developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Deepstar plans to send remotely operated vehicles guided by computer-positioning technology to mine oil and gas reserves more than 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf.

Currently, the world's deepest oil well is in Brazil's Campus Basin area, some 3,300 feet below the ocean's surface. In the Gulf, Shell Oil Company's $1.2 billion Auger Field is being perforated at a depth of 2,860 feet by operators 200 miles from the Louisiana shoreline.

By contrast, most oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea takes place between 400 to 600 feet.

For more than a decade, the oil industry has toyed with the idea of drilling beneath salt sheets on the ocean floor. The incentive is clear: US petroleum reserves are dwindling. Last year, for the first time, more than half of the US crude oil needs were met by imports. But the oil-price tumble in the early 1980s, coupled with the high cost of research and development, simply made deep-water exploration a bad investment.

Until DeepStar.

Officially dubbed the Deep Water Staged Recovery System, the consortium includes 19 oil companies, all majors and some independents, as well as 44 service companies led by Texaco.

Share and share alike

All have agreed to share costs and resources, pooling their findings and sharing the results. Initiated in 1992, DeepStar involves such big players as Exxon Corporation, Shell, Mobil Corporation, and Marathon Oil Company, as well as comparatively smaller companies like Houston-based DeepTech International.

Already, Mr. Burton says, 3.5 billion barrels of oil and gas have been discovered in the Gulf's deep water, and the total could exceed the 13 billion barrels Alaska's Prudhoe Bay is projected to produce.

''This is the best way to afford developing this technology and then making sure the technology is there for everyone,'' says Tom Ames of Marathon Oil. ''Companies are participating and unabashedly sharing their information.''

Mr. Ames explains that domestic oil companies came to realize that unless they developed deep-water wells, they risked becoming overly dependent on foreign oil while allowing aggressive oil-producing countries such as Sweden, Britain, and France to out-distance them in the development of deep-water drilling technology.