Rising demand for energy worldwide is driving the search for energy in the form of oil and gas. One important area for explorers is offshore in so-called deepwater locations like the Gulf of Mexico.
Far out in the Gulf waters off the coast of Louisiana, the Deep Water Millennium (owned by TransOcean, Inc.) is fixed over a drill site called Genghis Khan.
The ship is held in place by small adjustments from computer-controlled thrusters, monitored by Senior Dynamic Positioning Operator Ralph Benham.
"We are dynamically positioned, we don't use anchors or any other means," he said. "All we use is our thrusters to stay on location. We use reference systems, such as the global positioning system? We use our differential correction, so we are accurate within one meter of location. So, the well, we know where it is and we know where the ship is and we use the thrusters to keep the ship where we need to be."
And where the ship needs to be is over the hole it is drilling through rock that lies more than a thousand meters below the water's surface.
"The drill pipe goes down to the bottom of the well, and the mud circulates up and comes up in between the drill pipe and the riser and then goes across the shakers," a supervisor describes the processing.
The mud and rock that come up provide important information.
Samples find their way to the onboard laboratory where it is analyzed.
"We have all kinds of equipment here," says Mr. Leifung. "Basically we have a microscope, from this we can tell what kind of rocks, what kind of cuttings come out of the hole. We have gas equipment to analyze the gas, what kind of gas."
The Deepwater Millennium is operated under contract by the Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, whose vice president and general manager is Bob Abendschein.
"We are always hunting for new discoveries," he says. "Technology plays a lot, evolving technology plays a lot into finding these new discoveries."
He says most geologic undersea structures were explored years ago, but that new technology can reveal potential hydrocarbon deposits that were missed.
"There's a lot of new techniques, a lot of methods we use at Anadarko to go back in and re-image these structures and, basically, uncover things that were passed over before," Mr. Abendschein says, "What we do is we send sound waves down and they produce images of the formation and it helps us delineate the reservoir and figure out where to drill."
Not long after these images were recorded, the crew of the Deepwater Millennium made a significant discovery at the Genghis Khan site.
Once a lucrative deposit of oil or gas is found, millions of dollars go into establishing production facilities out on the site.
Deepwater wells can be hundreds of kilometers from shore.
Thousands of meters of pipe need to be sent down through the water and then into undersea rock to reach the hydrocarbon deposits.
The well being developed here by Anadarko will be linked by undersea pipes to the existing Marco Polo platform, which is tethered to the sea floor not far away.
"Those are sub-sea tie-backs which means basically the pipeline is laid on the floor," explains Mr. Abendschein.
The oil and gas produced offshore is sent back to the mainland by another undersea pipeline.
In some coastal areas residents have blocked development of potential offshore energy projects out of fear of environmental damage.
But Bob Abendschein says shipping oil by tanker is far more dangerous than sending it ashore by pipeline from offshore rigs. "Ships are a lot different than pipelines. Pipelines have safety valves and pressure sensors. The minute something goes wrong, the whole system shuts in," he says.
Operations on far offshore rigs can continue even in bad weather, although if a hurricane approaches, the crew can quickly shut down and head for shore.
Even an exploration ship like the Deepwater Millennium, if necessary, can pause operations and leave quickly, according to officer Ralph Benham.
"Fortunately, hurricanes are one of the least of our worries, because we have very accurate forecasting and we can pretty much predict using the weather services when they are going to arrive," he says.
Once the storm passes, Mr. Benham says the ship can return and start up operations again in the exact same spot.
The technology developed by oil companies like Anadarko in the Gulf of Mexico works in offshore areas worldwide, according to Bob Abendschein. He says they are working to get similar operations up and running in West Africa and in Georgia in the coming years.