Oil companies expand their offshore drilling

Eighty miles southeast of the Louisiana coast, 100,000 tons of steel float in the Gulf of Mexico, carrying the hopes of the oil and gas industry.


Posted at 1:37 a.m.

Updated at 12:00 p.m.

Ivan Penn

The New York Times

This huge deep-water platform is called Appomattox and is owned by Shell. It collects the oil and gas that other nearby facilities extract from reservoirs thousands of meters below the seabed. Pumps deliver fuel to shore.

Governments and large companies have promised to reduce CO emissions to zero2 by 2050. But oil companies like Shell are betting that the world will need oil and gas for decades to come. They are expanding offshore drilling into deeper and deeper waters, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to oil companies, offshore extraction is not only necessary, it is also better for the planet than on-land drilling, since it emits much less greenhouse gases, for the same production of gas or oil.

“The world is still going to need oil, even in 2050,” Shell CEO Wael Sawan said in a recent interview. “Emissions will have to be lower and lower. »

Extracting a barrel of oil in the Gulf of Mexico emits up to a third less CO2 than the same amount extracted on land in the United States, according to a report released last year by the National Ocean Industries Association, which brings together offshore oil, gas and wind companies. (This calculation only takes into account extraction and refining, not the use of fossil fuels in engines or power plants, which are much more important.)

Oil spill

Oil production in the Gulf of Mexico plummeted after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in 2010 and the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. But it has resumed over the last decade. This renewed activity is part of a broader trend: the United States is producing at record levels and extracting more crude than any other country.

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U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTO, PROVIDED BY THE NEW YORK TIMES

The oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010 was the worst in U.S. history.

The boom worries green activists and scientists who are urging the energy sector to accelerate the transition to cleaner fuels and technologies, such as wind and solar power and electric vehicles.

“We’re not asking to stop oil production today,” said Brettny Hardy, an ocean program attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental law nonprofit. But no matter how you look at it, accelerating the shift to clean energy is imperative. However, what the industry is currently doing does not facilitate this transition. »

For many environmentalists, the risk of disaster from offshore mining is high. The oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon accident – ​​owned by BP – seriously affected marine life, the fishing industry and the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

The oil spill has focused attention on Rice’s whale, which lives only in the Gulf of Mexico and is listed as an endangered species by the U.S. government. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed many, as did ship strikes: fewer than 100 remain today.

“This concern does not come out of nowhere, everyone has seen what happened because of Deepwater Horizon,” emphasizes Najmedin Meshkati, professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, who was part of of a federal study commission on this oil spill.

The Biden administration had planned to cut sales of drilling leases in the Gulf, which environmentalists say would help protect Rice’s whales. In August 2023, the Office of Ocean Energy Management reduced the area offered from 73 million acres to 67 million acres.

But in November, a federal appeals court overturned that limit. In December, the oil companies put up $382 million to buy the drilling rights to the original acreage.

Gulf of Mexico

According to oil companies, offshore extraction is much less risky today thanks to technological progress and tighter regulations.

“Offshore oil and natural gas exploration and production has never been safer,” said Holly Hopkins, vice president of the American Petroleum Institute.

Energy companies have their eye on the Gulf of Mexico because there is a lot of oil and gas there, especially in very deep water. By the end of 2023, there were three times as many deep-water rigs in the United States as shallow-water rigs. In 2009, they were tied.

The federal government estimates that oil production in the Gulf of Mexico will increase until 2027 and gas production will continue until the early 2030s.

Shell is the largest producer there. Its strong presence in the Gulf is highlighted with the Appomattox platform, which is heavier than the world’s largest aircraft carrier, according to the company. Commissioned in 2019, it can accommodate up to 180 workers. It is anchored in a fixed position. Around it, drill ships dig wells, which are connected by pipes to the platform, where equipment separates oil, natural gas and water.

Shell recently launched a smaller floating platform, the Whale, which can accommodate up to 60 workers. Another unit, Sparta, is planned. In total, Shell, a global energy giant based in London, operates nine platforms – four of which can also drill – in the Gulf of Mexico.

During a recent visit to the TimesAppomattox housed 130 workers: oil and gas engineers, cooks, janitors, a nurse and laundry operators who run the washers and dryers 24 hours a day.

The platform floats, alone, on the deep blue sea. Sometimes we can see in the distance one of the drilling ships exploring the seabed in search of new deposits.

The platforms become artificial reefs, and Appomattox attracts fish and dolphins, says Rich Howe, global vice president of deep-sea mining at Shell.

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PHOTO ERIN SCHAFF, THE NEW YORK TIMES ARCHIVES

Rich Howe, global vice president of deepwater mining at Shell

Shell is not alone in expanding its operations offshore. BP, Chevron and other energy giants are already doing the same or will do so in the Gulf of Mexico.

“This is the birthplace of deep water drilling,” Mr Howe said. “This is where many technologies were invented. »

This article was published in the New York Times.

Read this article in its original version (in English; subscription required)

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