If there are second thoughts in the penthouse at Petrobras, they are difficult to detect. The company dispatched its troubleshooters to aid BP in the Gulf, and the Brazilian regulator (the National Petroleum Agency) has ordered companies to review their inspection and safety procedures for offshore operations. But Petrobras, the eighth-largest company in market value in the world, has shown no signs of altering its drilling calendar, and held a $70 billion public stock offering this fall, the largest issuing of stock in history.
Such exuberance might seem odd. Petrobras’s new find lies more than three times farther from shore than BP’s ruptured Macondo well, and beneath 7,200 feet of ocean compared with the 5,000 feet of water at the BP blowout site. But the engineering feats needed to get at the oil below the salt layer have stoked Brazilian national pride. “So much hope has been deposited in the new pre-salt oil as a source of revenue to alleviate fiscal accounts, to finance education and health, and to leap Brazil into a new cycle of investment and growth,” says Christopher Garman, a Latin America analyst for the Eurasia Group, a firm that evaluates risk. “The only political fight in Brazil is over how to spend its future oil bounty and who gets the lion’s share.”
Petrobras has had its own accidents along the way, including the 2001 explosion and sinking of P-36, then the world’s largest floating oil platform. The incident took 11 lives and spilled thousands of barrels of crude oil into the Atlantic. After taking a beating in public and in the courts, the company overhauled its safety measures, automating much of the drilling operation and lowering its accident rate. Petrobras now says it has been fetching more oil from deep down than any other company. (It currently controls nearly a quarter of global deepwater operations.) As the search for extreme oil pushes geophysicists and engineers to the limits of their capabilities, Petrobras is in the vanguard.
And so Bueno and his team kept drilling. In late 2006, after 14 months and $240 million in expenditures, Petrobras found its oil. The test well’s official name was RJS-628, and the area was dubbed Tupi after the Tupi-Guarani Indians, some of Brazil’s original inhabitants. That well was a game changer. Subsequent tests pointed to 5 billion to 8 billion barrels of crude oil at Tupi alone, the largest find since the massive Kashagan field in 2000 in Kazakhstan. Now Brazilian officials speak of 50 billion barrels or more lying below the salt: a 160-million-year-old empire of hydrocarbons, comparable in volume to the great oil fields of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, spread below an expanse of ocean half the size of Italy—all suddenly within reach. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called it Brazil’s “winning lottery ticket” and later flew out to a platform ship to symbolically inaugurate a giant test well, dipping his hands in the “first oil,” like some Hollywood idol leaving footprints in wet cement.
All that remains to do is collect—but it will not be easy. The Brazilian jackpot is buried deeper below the sea’s surface than Alaska’s Mount McKinley is tall. Both the scale and cost of operations are epic—renting an offshore drill rig costs $500,000 or more a day—and the technological challenges are harrowing. Powerful ocean currents, brutal temperatures, and occasionally gale-force winds assail the rigs, tankers, and pipes. Water pressure and thermal shock are intense as oil from the reservoir bubbles up into the well at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, only to hit near-freezing temperatures at the ocean floor, which can cause it to coagulate in the pipes. Then there is the challenge of shepherding all that crude safely back to the surface and to shore, a full day’s journey by tanker.
The explosion that sank BP’s rig (video) in April was not lost on Brazilian regulators, who demanded that all companies operating in national waters review their emergency plans. The political blowback from the Gulf might still hit Brazil, but in a nation that has described its new oil bounty as a “second independence,” the engineers and geophysicists trump the Cassandras. “Extracting pre-salt oil is the equivalent of putting a man on the moon,” says Shafe Alexander, director of exploration for BP’s Brazil operations. “This is pushing the frontier.”
Salt is often associated with petroleum. In fact, back in the 19th century, oil was an annoying by-product of brine wells drilled by salt prospectors; it was either discarded or bottled and hawked to gullible customers as a cure for rheumatism and sprains. Much of the oil under the North Sea, once considered to have the world’s most challenging oil fields, lies trapped below layers of rock salt, the remains of an ancient seabed laid down 250 million years ago when saltwater invaded an inland rift and then quickly evaporated in the arid climate. But the salt below the Brazilian Atlantic is something else entirely: more remote, thicker, and more daunting than anything the oil industry has ever faced. Oil companies used to avoid salt, sometimes drilling around it to reach deep deposits. But with traditional petroleum reserves in shallower waters waning and advanced geological surveying techniques pointing to tantalizing reserves below, companies now know the pre-salt oil is too good to ignore.
Drilling it is another matter. Just to reach the crust of salt that overlies Tupi’s oil, prospectors had to plumb the 7,200 feet of ocean and another 10,000 feet of rock and sandstone below the ocean floor. Then they had to pierce through more than a mile of rock salt. Crossing the salt barrier brings even more complexity to deep-oil extraction. “What we don’t know is how nature works under the salt below the bottom of the ocean,” says José Sérgio Gabrielli, Petrobras’s president and evangelist-in-chief.
Nor does anyone else. The salt below the ocean is essentially the same as the crystallized stuff we sprinkle on our food, but compressed underground, it behaves in unpredictable ways. Because it is weaker and softer than surrounding rocky sediment, it behaves more like a fluid than like crystal or stone. Under immense geologic pressure and heat, it easily deforms and tends to creep underground. That makes salt an excellent geologic seal, wrapping around the porous rock where oil and gas are pooled. It is also the bane of exploration crews.
Engineers liken drilling salt to boring through taffy: Open a hole and it immediately oozes shut. That means well walls and pipes have to be strengthened with special steel to prevent collapse, buckling, or rupture. Engineers must also insulate the riser pipes with polymers, plasticlike material that makes the pipes more flexible and keeps the oil from cooling too quickly and clotting on its way to the surface. And to guard against hydrogen sulfide and other corrosive gases that come bundled with pre-salt oil, Petrobras is experimenting with resistant materials to protect the pipelines. Such technology is rapidly becoming standard for ultradeep-water drilling.
That the world’s biggest oil companies share standards for ultradeep-water drilling is encouraging; it means there are no cowboys out there, winging it with untried technologies. It is also worrisome, for the same reason. The safety valves that failed to stanch the oil leak after the blowout at BP’s Deepwater Horizon well are used everywhere. “This is latest-generation equipment. No one knows what went wrong or why,” Carlos Henrique Abreu Mendes, environmental manager for the Brazilian Petroleum Gas and Biofuels Institute, a trade association for energy companies, told reporters at a press conference in May.
Next page: A phenomenal feat of fossil fuel