Shell Oil Co. plans to begin drilling for oil next month 110 miles east of Ocean City in the Baltimore Canyon area--an offshore drilling location so unproductive that all drilling ceased nearly two years ago.
The venture--which industry analysts describe as a daring gamble--involves drilling the world's deepest underwater oil well in 5,800 feet of water, further out in the Atlantic Ocean than previous attempts.
"It's a totally different geologic area than where the drilling has been done earlier in the Baltimore Canyon and very exciting," said Bruce Lazier, an oil industry analyst for Paine Webber.
Lazier said the venture is one of three major exploration efforts going on in "frontier" areas that offer long-shot prospects of big oil finds in return for high risks.
The two other offshore frontier areas are the Mukluk area off the Alaskan Coast and the Santa Maria basin north of Los Angeles.
Early geologic tests in the new Baltimore Canyon area are very promising, Lazier said.
"The exploration scientists are very excited about it, but when you're talking about drilling in the depths Shell is talking about you have to talk about finding major amounts of oil to make it economically viable," he said.
Even if the company discovers oil, technology doesn't exist now for recovering it economically at those depths. "This project has two risks," he said. "Is there any oil? And, if so, can you develop the technology to get it out?"
The well will be the first activity in the Baltimore Canyon since the last well was plugged in October 1981. Drilling in the shallower, continental shelf area produced 22 dry holes and five wells with small, commercially insignificant amounts of oil and gas. These disappointing results cost the oil industry more than $1.7 billion.
Shell officials have said that they are not discouraged by the failure of drilling in the shallower area because it cannot be used to predict the potential in the deeper area, where Shell believes there is a major, oil-bearing reef similar to an oil-rich formation discovered in Mexico in the 1920s.
The Shell venture also comes at a time when falling oil prices and the lingering effects of recession have generally dampened oil companies' enthusiasm for exploration and development. Current prices are not much of a factor in the decision to drill because if oil is found, it may take until the mid-1990s to bring it ashore.
Shell--admitting that it was a gamble at the time it did so--leased the off-shore site in 1981 for $41 million. Drilling the first of a possible four exploratory wells will cost the company another $30 million--or about $200,000 a day. Shell's partners in the venture are the Standard Oil Co. (Indiana) and Sun Co. Inc.
"There is a real long shot of finding hydrocarbons, but I can assure you we put a tremendous amount of technical and geological work into this sale," Lloyd Ottenman, the company's general manager for offshore operations in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, said at the time of the sale.
The venture involves running pipe through 6,800 feet of water (approximately 1.25 miles) to the ocean floor and then drilling some 14,000 feet into the ocean floor. About 100 workers will be involved in the drilling effort, which will use one of only about four drill ships in the world that can work at those depths.
The previous record for the deepest underwater well was a 5,600-foot-deep hole drilled in the Mediterranean.
The first well should be completed in about three months.