Getting in Deep

The unending quest for oil has now led drillers to vast reserves lying more than a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico

Aboard the 110,000-ton Discoverer Enterprise in the Gulf of Mexico, a team of 150 men and women drop a drill bit more than a mile to the bottom of the sea, to establish a wellhead. While drilling, the ship sits still in the water, held in place by six giant steerable propellers, called thrusters.

"Deepwater play," as the industry calls it, is one of the few drilling frontiers left in the world that can make a giant oil company even bigger. One hundred years ago, the Gulf area's first oil boom, the January 1901 gusher at the Spindletop field on the Texas coast, cost $2 for every foot drilled. By contrast, this project is running more than $2,400 a foot for a hole more than four miles deep. This well is a signpost of sorts, showing how thirsty for oil America has become and the extraordinary lengths our nation will go to find it.

"Conditions at this depth are poorly understood," warns Richard Charter of Environmental Defense, so problems with this new technology may occur in the future. Writer James R. Chiles visited the Enterprise when the oil well developed a worrisome mechanical problem. He describes a 28-hour effort by Mike O'Hare and his team to fix a stuck latch on the blowout preventer (BOP), which sits atop the well on the bottom of the seafloor. The BOP, a 47-foot-high, 360-ton steel package of valves, electronics and hydraulic gear, is designed to stop the well from "gushing." Because the problem lies far deeper than divers can safely dive, O'Hare must fix the stuck latch using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

Overall, writer Chiles admires the can-do spirit of the deepwater drillers, who "operate on a big scale, out here, far beyond the horizon."

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