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Brazil faces ‘tyranny of depth and darkness’ in drilling for deep-sea oil

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RIO DE JANEIRO — From his rickety fishing boat, Alexandre Anderson has watched his daily catch shrink. Over the years, he’s also seen sludge from oil leaks and spills — to him an omen of what is to come as Brazil develops some of the world’s biggest and most technically challenging offshore oil fields.

“We see big slicks of oil, fish that have changed colors,” he said.

But Anderson, 40, head of a fishermen’s cooperative, is a lone voice against one of Brazil’s most powerful sectors, a rapidly expanding oil industry that in recent years notched important deep-sea discoveries that have united Brazilians in a patriotic fervor. Energy officials here say those “elephant fields” 200 miles offshore have given Brazil one of the world’s largest reserves of oil and instantly made a country known more for soybeans and sugar cane a potential rival to heavyweight oil exporters such as Nigeria and Qatar.

Yet signs have emerged that the oil production, in swirling, frigid waters going down five miles, could pose serious hazards in a country that holds itself up as an international leader on environmental matters. In November, an undersea leak at the Frade field operated by Chevron spewed 3,000 barrels about 230 miles off the northeastern section of Rio state, shaking the sense of security that Brazil’s regulators had about producing oil along this picturesque coast.

That came on top of the alarm bells for some petro-engineers and oil executives here after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster last year fouled the Gulf of Mexico with nearly 5 million barrels of crude. Brazilian officials scrambled to learn all they could from U.S. regulators about what had gone wrong at BP’s Macondo field, which is in shallower waters than many of Brazil’s wells, said safety officials at the national oil company, Petrobras, and the country’s oil regulator, the National Petroleum Agency.

As Brazil increasingly banks its energy future on oil, accelerating the spending of $224 billion in a bid to double oil production by decade’s end, it is increasingly clear that the very nature of the country’s ambitions means heightened hazards.

“The operations, when you go to deeper water, get to be of inherently higher risk, which means unless you do some special things, the likelihood of catastrophic failure increases,” said Robert Bea, an American engineer who has worked for Petrobras on risk assessment and has carefully studied the BP disaster. “It’s the tyranny of depth and darkness.”

In the vast Santos Basin, where the latest fields have been discovered, getting to the oil means drilling through three miles or more of rock and shifting salt. The pressures are intense enough to shatter a sinking ship. The oil can get so hot that as crude rises in ice-cold pipes, there is a danger of waxy buildup and blockage.

And underneath it all is a prize measured in billions of barrels, with each well bore potentially able to produce more than 100,000 barrels daily. “So if that well gets loose,” Bea said, “we’ve got a big problem.”

Brazil ‘not a beginner’

Ricardo Cabral de Azevedo, a petroleum reservoir engineer at the University of Sao Paulo who has done research for oil companies here, said the industry is worried about the ultimate fail-safe: the blowout preventer, a complex device that slices through pipe to instantly cap a well in a disaster. At BP’s Macondo field, the BOP, as it is known in the industry, suffered compound failures.

Azevedo thinks that the possibility of disaster in Brazil is minuscule because of some of the world’s toughest regulations for offshore production. But he said companies may be pushing the bounds of technology by going through 8,000 or more feet of water.

“It is a problem because all the equipment has to go to higher pressure, and higher pressure may cause failure,” Azevedo said of the BOP. “We really don’t know if it will function.”

Petrobras has had problems before. Crude flowed into Guanabara Bay from a pipeline rupture in 2000. A year later, the P-36 production platform exploded and sank, killing 11. More recently, union workers have raised concerns about safety on platforms.

But in an interview, Magda Chambriard, a veteran Petrobras engineer who is now director of the National Petroleum Agency, said Brazil and Petrobras have learned from mistakes made here and elsewhere, including the BP disaster. “Brazil is not a beginner,” she said.

After the Gulf of Mexico disaster, she said, oil production here was temporarily halted 11 times for officials to carry out risk assessments. She said that Petrobras has ships, aircraft and nine coastal “centers of defense” to respond to a major accident and that private oil companies here have heavily regulated contingency plans for accidents.

Chambriard said the situation is far different from that in the mid-1980s, when the first of two giant offshore fields were found. “Nowadays we have expertise, people and money,” she said.

Activists seek debate

Petrobras, to be sure, produces more oil from deep waters than any other company, and from 1977 until recent years, it has set successive water-depth records.

But in the event of a big spill, the company is prepared with 30 vessels dedicated to containing and collecting oil, nearly 100 miles of containment barriers and 75 miles of absorption material, said Humberto Spinola de Araujo, Petrobras’s safety and environmental manager for exploration and production.

The company, which has an extensive research department that has exported drilling technologies to other countries, is also working to improve drilling equipment and techniques, Luiz Felipe Bezerra, Petrobras’s general manager for well engineering, said in an e-mail. He acknowledged what he called “significant challenges to be overcome” but said Petrobras would plow ahead.

“These difficulties will not prevent the work from being completed,” Bezerra said. “There are no technical limitations.”

Environmentalists, however, said that in all the talk about the new oil fields, there has been little public debate over the possible dangers to the environment. Instead, euphoria has replaced cold calculations about the long-term costs to Brazil’s coast, said Sergio Leitao, a lawyer and the national campaign director for Greenpeace in Brazil.

“The discussion, the talk, from the government is that we have won a great lottery,” Leitao said. “And that this translates into a mountain of money that will resolve all our problems.”

Out in his boat, with two fellow fishermen, Anderson talked about how a decade ago he could still return home with hundreds of pounds of fish. On this day, despite laying net across a wide swath of choppy water, he and his companions returned with just a handful.

“Imagine, to double or triple that [oil] production will also double or triple the pollution,” he said, as he turned the small outboard motor and headed home. “That will be the cost of those explorations.”

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