But the realities of petroleum engineering do not always follow the script. The question remains: Are we ready to go back into the deep water?
The industry, environmental groups and the Obama administration all give different answers, while Congress wrangles over Republican-backed legislation that would speed up approval of drilling permits — a political debate framed by $4-a-gallon gasoline.
No one doubts that the horror of last year has put the industry on its toes and sharpened the oversight of the federal government. Two industry groups have developed hardware packages that they say could be deployed quickly to cap a blown-out well in as little as 10 days.
The era in which oil companies would carelessly list a dead person as an expert to turn to in an oil spill, or mention walruses as an example of Gulf of Mexico marine life, is apparently over. What happened to BP, which is facing more than $40 billion in costs as a result of its Macondo well, is enough to sober up any oil exploration company.
But the problem has hardly been solved. Oil companies say the government has had trouble finding people qualified to judge permit applications and monitor the 276 deep-water wells and 46 deep-water production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. And critics of the industry note that new wells will go deeper, testing the limits of technology that last year showed itself to be less robust than advertised. In this view, the industry and the government are like generals and admirals who have geared up to fight the last war.
“Hope is no strategy for success,” said Robert Bea, a University of California professor who headed a team of industry experts and academics known as the Deepwater Horizon Study Group. “Quite frankly, I think we’re scared. The scare is that we’ll go off half-cocked, half-prepared, have another significant loss of well control, and that’s going to be an industry stopper.”
Bea suggests that not all deep-water prospects should be treated equally. Some geological formations in what Bea calls the “golden zone” of the northern gulf have unusually high pressures, temperatures and gas-to-oil ratios. Combined with brittle rock, these features make the region an extremely tricky place to drill. No one, he said, has done a close analysis of the “failure modes” of drilling into such formations.
The industry is also advancing into the icy waters off the coast of Alaska. That poses a different set of challenges should something go wrong. Shell, which plans to drill off Alaska, says it was already prepared to deal with ice and now has added divers, added redundant mechanisms to its blowout preventer and relocated some controls to make them more accessible.