Looking for More
Behind the drillships and platforms, and the superintendent in the WellDecc, are the computer geeks, whose efforts to guess where the oil is are often credited with enabling the deepwater rush. One of them is Barney Issen, the Jerry Garcia of Big Oil. A guy with a beard and long wavy black hair parted in the middle, he happily admits to driving for years with a “Question Authority” bumper sticker on his car. He has questioned how the earth came to be, too. “Most of us ended up here because we had that moment on the mountain, wondering how it all came to pass, and how we could learn more about it,” he says. For Issen, that path led to a degree in geophysics – he originally wanted to work on a moon shot – and a job running the computers at Chevron.
To get an idea of where oil is, ships with special air cannons send out blasts of vibration, which travel down tens of thousands of feet and back. The velocity of the returning signals, and their round-trip times, are recorded by sensors on miles-long cables dragged behind the ship. Signals reflected by different strata have different speeds, which helps geologists picture what lies below the ocean floor. The big problem in deep water is the layers of subsurface salt, which refract vibrations in confusing ways. “It’s like trying to see things through those cubes of glass, or through the edge of a fish tank,” explains Issen.
Every year, Issen gets better at making sense of erratic signals. Computers have been getting faster and algorithms more powerful, and oil companies are beginning to be able to see through the salt with some degree of certainty.
When Chevron gets ready to talk about drilling, it gathers with investors, often other oil companies. They meet in a room they call the Visualization Center, and they all look at Issen’s models on an 8-by-25-foot screen. Sometimes the decision makers don 3-D glasses. Other companies have even experimented with projecting models of the seabed on 360-degree surround screens in an environment called a “cave,” but, says Issen, “that can be more cool than useful.” Investors bring their own models to the conversation, and a consensus about where the oil is begins to emerge. It’s still a business that requires guesswork: three out of four deepwater drills are unsuccessful. But not long ago, companies drilling on land hit oil in only one of every ten wells.
As the oil companies get better at finding the oil, though, the oil is getting harder to find. Optimists believe that the march of technology, embodied by Deep Seas, will enable companies to extract more and more oil from previously “depleted” fields while continuing to get better at finding and developing new fields. My visit to Deep Seas, and the time I spent with Chevron’s geologists, seemed to give credence to the optimists’ view of things. A shortage of oil, it appeared, was only a shortage of ships, computers, and other drilling technology.
But while it is true that a lot of good oil is left in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico – the Minerals Management Service estimates that about 44.5 billion barrels of oil remain to be discovered – deepwater drilling is only a small part of the solution to the oil shortage. Although Chevron considers the 500-million-barrel Tahiti field an “elephant” of a find, for example, elephants aren’t what they used to be. Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar field, which was tapped in 1951, has already yielded some 54 billion barrels and may have 70 billion more. The United States alone, meanwhile, consumes roughly 20 million barrels of oil every day.
Money will help, though. The higher prices go, the more oil companies can do. While discussing other projects, Siegele mentioned that the economic “breakover” point for mining the tar sands of Alberta was north of $60 a barrel; oil had reached $75 that day. There may be 150 to 300 billion barrels of recoverable oil in those sands. As for Issen, he is looking forward to mapping new territory and using better seismic imaging. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, yes,” he says. “But clearly, we think there’s real potential.”
Bryant Urstadt has written for Harper’s and Rolling Stone.