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Deepwater Oil Discovery Flows from Advances in Technology

Super computers, mathematical formulas, and advances in imaging all played a part in a much-publicized recent oil discovery beneath the Gulf of Mexico.

Consider the idea of drilling a pipeline straight down Mount Everest -- 8,850 meters, give or take a few. That is just about how deep geologists went from an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year to find oil. The equipment used set records for pressure, depth, and for duration in deep water.

Geophysicist Roger Anderson from Columbia University adds, "It's a last frontier, unquestionably. It is what we call the ultra deep water."

Down they went, through more that 2,100 meters of water, continuing six kilometers more through a thick layer of hardened salt, to an ancient rock layer geologists know as the lower tertiary trend.

Advances in seismic imaging, platform stabilization and the use of supercomputers made it possible. Computers calculate size and location of probable oil deposits and help guide exploratory pipelines to it. It is still risky business, says Anderson.

"It is an interesting random poker game and somebody has to take a chance in order for the industry as a whole to move forward."

Americans use about seven-and-a-half billion barrels of oil a year. Industry analysts estimate the newly discovered field could hold between three and 15 billion barrels of oil and natural gas. And there are plans for other deep well explorations in the area. There has been no announcement so far about how the oil and gas will be brought to shore; only that it will be difficult, costly, and take years.