Brazil’s plan to become one of the world’s biggest oil exporters hinges on exploiting crude six miles below the ocean surface in deposits so hot they can melt the metal used to carry uranium to nuclear plants.
Tapping what may be the biggest oil finds in the Western Hemisphere in three decades will require equipment that can withstand 18,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, enough to crush a pickup truck, pipes that can carry oil at temperatures above 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 Celsius) and drill bits that can penetrate layers of salt more than one mile thick.
Petroleo Brasileiro SA, the state-controlled oil company, is betting on the Tupi and Carioca fields to become one of the world’s seven biggest crude exporters. Until the tools needed to exploit the reservoirs are invented, the crude will remain locked under the sea, said Matt Cline, a U.S. Energy Department economist.
This is a very, very technically challenging environment where no one's ever done this,'' Cline, who tracks the Latin American oil industry, said in a telephone interview from Washington.These discoveries are in very deep water, and once you get to the seabed they are very deep under the floor, with a layer of salt that is definitely a difficult barrier.’’
Brazil’s oil will be harder to develop than the Gulf of Mexico, where the deepest wells are now in production, Cline said. Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp., the two biggest U.S. oil companies, saw diamond-crusted drill bits disintegrate and steel pipes crumple when they attempted to tap deposits beneath the Gulf’s seafloor two years ago.
Pumping oil from the Brazilian finds, parts of which are 32,000 feet (10,000 meters) below the ocean’s surface, will require boring almost twice as far down as the world’s deepest producing offshore well.
The obstacles will discourage development unless crude prices stay high, said Tina Vital, an analyst at Standard & Poor’s in New York. U.S. oil futures reached a record $119.90 a barrel last week.
Engineers will have to overcome temperatures that range from near freezing above the ocean floor to temperatures that can melt bismuth, used for transporting uranium rods and for shotgun shells. Layers of salt will also increase the challenge because the crystals absorb seismic waves used to pinpoint oil deposits.
``The seismic issue is important because if you don’t identify the location of the oil properly, you’re going to waste a lot of money when you drill the hole in the wrong spot,’’ said Vital, a former Exxon engineer.
Brazil pumped 2.13 million barrels of oil a day in the last three months of 2007, more than OPEC members Angola, Libya and Algeria.
Tupi, 155 miles (250 kilometers) off Brazil’s coast, may begin production by 2012, according to consulting firm Strategic Forecasting in Austin, Texas. The field may have 8 billion barrels of recoverable oil.