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In Deep Water: the Search for Oil on the Frontiers of Exploration

It seems hardly a week can go by without another Middle Eastern nation joining the growing succession of countries grappling with protests and possible regime changes. To call that region of the world unstable is a gross understatement.

As America watches from afar, our need for energy security is never far from mind.

Oil companies are struggling to find more oil, and they’re having a hard time replacing the oil they do pump. Most easily accessible oil fields were tapped long ago, while promising new regions are proving to be technologically and politically challenging.

Many companies are also keen to restart work in the deep-water Gulf of Mexico, following a halt on drilling imposed by the Obama administration after last year’s Deepwater Horizon spill. But they are moving very slowly.

Some Western-based companies are turning to deep-water exploration in remote corners of the globe, working with state-backed oil companies in Russia, China and, yes, the Middle East, that have little experience drilling in high-risk settings.

For example, Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, has teamed with Russian oil giant OAO Rosneft to explore the Black Sea. Other companies are exploring ultra-deepwater sites off the coast of Brazil and Africa, and still others are seeking permission to drill above the Arctic Circle.

Deep-water projects show great promise, but it often takes several years and large sums of money to turn a prospect into a producing asset. Add to that an American public that is intently eyeing the potential for environmental damage, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Against this backdrop researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have joined with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to dive headlong into the issue of deep-water oil exploration. The project – the Research Center for Environmental Protection at Hydrocarbon Energy Production Frontiers, or REEF – brings together substantial multi-disciplinary teams of faculty and students from both institutions to examine critical science, technology, and policy issues surrounding environmentally responsible hydrocarbon production.

The REEF program will focus on three critical questions:

  • How do you formulate and implement policy for producing oil in ultra deep-water frontiers?
  • What are the best practices for producing oil in environmentally sensitive areas and what technology advances are needed to reduce risks?
  • What can be done to minimize risks of extreme events and what remediation policies should be in place should damage to the environment occur?

In its initial stages, researchers will focus on the issues raised by ultra deep-water exploration and production; the intent is to then broaden the agenda to address other frontier production settings in consultation with sponsors.

Enhanced energy security can take many forms, including the search for hydrocarbons in hard-to-reach places. Given the instability of oil-rich countries half way around the globe, as well as the need for a new and stringent chapter of best practices for frontier exploration, the timing couldn’t be better.

Charles “Chip” Groat, Ph.D
Associate Director / Energy Institute
The University Texas at Austin