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Six lessons from the BP oil spill

What the tragedy of the BP oil spill has taught us about regulations, technology, and how our energy diet must change.

(Page 3 of 10)

2 design a better drill rig

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As oil discoveries in deeper waters beckon, giant new rigs will plunge drill bits two miles below the sea surface and five more miles into the earth – the equivalent of 29 Empire State Buildings. But such ultradeep drilling means ultrahigh pressures. At any time a bit could hit a pocket of pressurized gas that bursts to the surface and explodes. Capping a blowout 10,000 feet down would make the Deepwater Horizon problem look like a do-it-yourself caulk job.

The industry is currently working on new "sixth-generation" deep-sea rigs that experts say will be the safest ever developed – but still not foolproof in handling one of the most challenging engineering feats faced by man. The cost of the new rigs: about $500 million.

For that price, says Mike Smith, president of Bassoe Offshore (USA), a brokerage firm, you get a state-of-the-art rig that displaces perhaps 100,000 tons of seawater and sprawls over an area larger than a football field. Yet with all their sophistication and size, even such behemoths may be only just barely big enough to support the miles of pipe, thousands of tons of drilling "mud," and massive pumps needed to control a deep well's explosive power, experts say. Today's rigs already cost up to a million dollars a day to operate – an enormous financial risk if there's a dry hole or a blowout.

Huge costs. High risks. Potentially catastrophic environmental damage if things go wrong. Today's conundrum: How do you go deep without breaking the bank or the environment?

Technologies are being developed that experts say could make deep-water drilling safer and perhaps less expensive. One, Reelwell, a Norwegian technology, uses a drill pipe only a few inches across and sends the rock it chews topside for disposal through the inside of the pipe, rather than through a traditional outside "riser" pipe. Eliminating that miles-long riser avoids thousands of tons of weight, so Reelwell could be operated by a far smaller rig even when drilling in deep water.

Another approach comes from Badger Explorer, also a Norwegian company, which uses a high-tech burrowing machine. The device requires only a small exploration ship to guide it. No need for a drill rig at all.

The Explorer, a long, sleek metal cylinder with an electric auger on the front, drills through solid rock, depositing the debris behind the device rather than funneling it to the surface. The auger is tethered to a cable that powers the machine and sends back data. If the Explorer hits a pocket of gas, it moves right on. There's nowhere for the gas to go – no dangerous conduit to the surface.

ExxonMobil, Shell, and Norway's Statoil have all invested in the technology, which could be available within three years. "That situation in the Gulf was very rare," says Kjell Erik Drevdal, the president of Badger Explorer. "Still, there is always the risk that these things could happen with present technology. By doing it our way, we won't have to worry about such danger."

Sensors represent another focus of research to make deep-drilling rigs safer and more effective. They could be placed far down in the drill hole to detect gas flow, pressure, and other conditions long before they reach the surface to threaten humans or the environment. Electromagnetic technology could also be used to spot tiny danger zones and sound warnings before drill bits even reach them.