Friday, May 7, 2010

5 Offshore Oil Hotspots Beyond the Gulf That Could Boom–or Go Boom

After the fallout from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—the dispersal agents, the containment domes, the apologies, the blame game, the court rulings over who should pay, the know-nothing punditry, and all the environmental wreckage—offshore oil drilling will go on. The cold truth is that we need the oil, and under the sea is one place we can still find it—in part because extracting it is sufficiently difficult that companies focused on easier-to-get deposits in the past.

There’s plenty of oil under the Gulf, which became perfectly clear when responders couldn’t stem the flow of the current spill, allowing thousands of barrels to leak into the water every day. But other undersea sites are loaded with oil—and are similarly expensive and risky to exploit. Here are five that might be particularly promising, and prone to trouble.

1. Alaska’s north shore

The Deepwater Horizon accident caused President Obama to put his plans to open more U.S. waters to energy exploration on hold. But the President’s proposal, which could well be resurrected, included allowing bids to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas on Alaska’s northern coast after 2013 if viability studies gave the thumbs-up. Also, in 2009 Obama gave Shell the conditional go-ahead for a project in the Beaufort.

There’s just one problem, the Coastal Response Research Center says: We’re not ready. While the increasing ice melt in the Arctic might open up more area to the possibility of drilling, a spill would be disastrous. Responding to a major spill is a logistical nightmare even somewhere with the proper infrastructure, as the BP oil spill has shown. But the north shore of Alaska is remote, and the weather is bad. Slicks would be difficult to see in the winter, with the sun barely, or never, coming over the horizon. And while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has provided those handy 72-hour forecasts for the oil spreading in the Gulf, they’re still working on how to model the spread of oil in icy water.

2. The Gulf of Guinea

Nigeria and Cameroon are among the countries that bound the Gulf of Guinea, located at the big bend in Africa’s west coast. It’s one of the most promising regions in the world for offshore oil deposits. The United States already imports a sizable chunk of its oil from the region, and an International Monetary Fund working paper (pdf) in 2005 said that the U.S. could look to up its investment in the region as a way to lessen reliance on turbulent Middle Eastern countries.

And then, there were pirates. A slew of attacks in the last two years targeted oil supply vessels, fishing boats, and other ships. Even in 2008 the Center for Investigative Journalism reported that attacks on oil installations slowed Nigerian production from 2.5 to 1.5 million barrels per day.

3. The Sea of Okhotsk

The treacherous, icy continental shelf on the north of Russia extends thousands and miles and could be laden with energy reserves, but right now the Russians have their eyes on the eastern part of their huge country, specifically the Sea of Okhotsk. Presently Russia is pushing the United Nations to expand its territorial claim further over the sea’s shelf so it can begin trying to the tap the perhaps billions of tons of oil, and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, in the sea.

Truly, though, Okhotsk is an unpleasant and dangerous place to work. To sum it up:

The Sea of Okhotsk is subject to dangerous storm winds, severe waves, icing of vessels, intense snowfalls and poor visibility. The average annual extreme low ranges between -32°C and -35°C. Ice sheets up to 1.5m thick move at speeds of 1-2 knots.

During the ice-free period, wave heights range between 1-3m, but can reach as high as 19m during 100-year storm conditions. Strong north-east and south-east winds cause a great amount of sea agitation in autumn and winter [Offshore Technology].

4. Deepwater Angola

Angola is the new kid on the block. In 2007 it joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). It has knocked off Nigeria as West Africa’s number one oil producer. In March it beat out Saudi Arabia to become China’s number one oil supplier. And the United States’ Energy Information Administration reports that Angola is trying to grow even faster, to as high at 3 million barrels a day by 2015. If not for OPEC production limits, it might be able to grow even faster.

BP, ExxonMobil, and other huge oil companies produce oil here. One of BP’s deepwater operations here, the Greater Plutonio, lies in water as deep as 5,000 feet—roughly the same depth at the Deepwater Horizon leaks.

And Angola is, in a word, dangerous. Part of the reason so much of the nation’s oil infrastructure is offshore is to get away from the land, where civil war raged from 1975 to 2002. While the politics may have stabilized somewhat, a University of Texas assessment points out (pdf) another problem of Angolan production: it’s a long way from China, the U.S., or Europe, meaning longer tanker trips.

5. Brazil’s Santos Basin

The good news: The Tupi oil field, out to sea south of Rio de Janeiro, could hold enough oil to up Brazil’s oil reserves by 50 percent. The bad news: Tupi is stuck below a layer of salt that in some places is up to 6,500 feet thick.

Brazilian oil giant Petrobras wants to start exploring the region as soon as this year. But no one knows for sure what they’re getting into. The salt layer supposedly acts like a sludge, and explorers have traditionally tried to avoid going through such formations. The energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie estimated it would take upward of $100 billion to fully explore, and Offshore Techonlogy says the region could be 10 times pricier to explore than the other deposits off the Brazilian coast that Petrobras currently explores.

Outside the Gulf Coast region, Brazil is the world’s most promising ultra-deepwater producer, with new discoveries in the past five years in the so-called Santos basin that experts think will make the South American giant a powerhouse in the oil business [Kansas City Star].

Brazil’s National Petroleum Agency is getting in on the act, too. Last week it made an oil discovery in the Santos Basin—but at a depth of nearly 18,000 feet.

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