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Deep-Sea Drilling Muddies Political Waters

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A deep-water drilling rig in the South China Sea operated by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, or Cnooc. Photo Credit Jin Liangkuai/Xinhua, via Associated Press

By A version of this article appeared in print on February 7, 2013, in The International Herald Tribune.

AUSTIN, Tex. — The oceans deep are a repository of many secrets. Shipwrecks have existed undisturbed for centuries, as have corals and fish of almost unimaginable diversity.

Now, increasingly, the secrets of the seabed are being looked at by companies drilling for oil and minerals. International geopolitics and the environment are getting more muddled as a result.

“Deep-sea drilling is expensive and hard, and the technology wasn’t there until very recently,” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States. Now, major powers are vying for drilling rights in places like the East China Sea, where the tussle is between the two largest energy consumers in Asia: China and Japan. Tensions there flared this week when Japan said China had recently aimed military targeting radar at one of its ships near disputed islands.

The drilling industry continues to move toward deeper waters and new deposits. In the Gulf of Mexico, drilling is now occurring beneath as much as 8,000 to 9,000 feet, or about 2,400 to 2,700 meters, of water, according to Mike Lyons, general counsel of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. The Deepwater Horizon rig, by contrast, was drilling in about 5,000 feet of water in the gulf when it exploded after a blowout nearly three years ago.

Technology has accelerated the move toward deeper waters. “A lot of the drilling now in the Gulf of Mexico is done with drill ships, as opposed to conventional drilling platforms that people have used in the past,” Mr. Lyons said. The ships can inhabit deeper waters and be stabilized over a drill site with the aid of sophisticated computers, he said.

Amy Myers Jaffe, executive director for energy and sustainability at the University of California, Davis, said that the industry’s advances into deeper water had been steady but incremental.

With the increased capability comes increased scrutiny, especially after events like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident and a 2011 oil leak off of Brazil, as well as a natural gas leak last year at a North Sea drilling platform about 150 miles, or 240 kilometers, off Aberdeen, Scotland.

Ms. Jaffe said that drillers had perhaps viewed deep-water operations as too routine. “I think that we were a little blasé about how hard it is to do,” she said. “And maybe the industry is now grappling with the difference between 2 percent tolerance and 0 percent tolerance” for mistakes. Zero percent may be the new model, especially in places that have recently experienced public outcries over spills, including Australia, Brazil and the United States, she said.

Shell’s difficulty in drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska further illustrates the technological challenges of operating in new, often adverse settings.

The industry is eager to “get access to these fragile and complicated areas” like the Arctic, said Frederic Hauge, president of the Bellona Foundation, an environmental group based in Oslo. But the risks are immense, he said, adding that in Norway, he felt that companies lacked adequate emergency response plans for their far-afield rigs.

As technology helps propel the industry further offshore, geopolitical difficulties are intruding. Many countries have overlapping maritime boundaries. Lebanon and Israel have disputed claims in the natural-gas-rich eastern Mediterranean Sea. The United States and Mexico have also had differences over rights in the Gulf of Mexico, though they signed a cooperation agreement a year ago on drilling.

In the East China Sea and the South China Sea, disputes continue as China, with its rising energy appetite, clashes with its neighbors over drilling rights and sovereignty claims.

“If these were uncontested regions, I’m sure people would have gone forward already” with drilling, said Ms. Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Should the drilling industry venture into even deeper waters, additional political complications await. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, signed by more than 150 countries — though not by the United States — gives the International Seabed Authority, based in Jamaica, oversight of mineral exploration in waters that lie beyond a country’s so-called exclusive economic zone, which typically extends 200 nautical miles, or 370 kilometers, from shore.

Adam Cook, a marine biologist with the seabed agency, said that while the group had agreed to 17 exploration contracts with companies, most of those companies were looking for minerals like manganese nodules, which are rock formations. So far, none are after oil or natural gas, and the consensus is that there is “unlikely to be any drilling for oil and gas beyond national jurisdiction in the near future,” Mr. Cook said in an e-mail.

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