The End of Magical Oil

Until this horrifying video of oil barreling out of the well drilled by the now drowned Deepwater Horizon rig surfaced a few days ago, few Americans had given the deepwater wells of the Gulf much thought -- but all of us were getting more and more dependent upon them.

Between 1995 and 2004, deepwater production grew by 535 percent -- an unimaginably high, Madoff-like rate in a country with tapped oil reserves and a driving habit that gobbles up a quarter of the world's oil production. If we glimpsed these wells at all, they were in a Jules Verne-like dreamscape of triumphant technology presented in an oil company ad. Dangers? We didn't think of them. These wells were not on the east and west coasts, where the politically-empowered environmentalists worry about their views. And they weren't in the pristine white north, so dear to many of us who've never been there.

Deepwater wells were in the Gulf -- the official sacrifice zone for U.S. energy policy -- where a critical mass of our refineries, a tangle of marine terminals, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and many decades of oil exploitation have sullied waters and local politics as far back as anyone can remember. Until it appeared on YouTube, this was "magic" oil, miraculously plugging the gap in our unspoken energy policy of increasing imports while yakking ineffectually about energy independence. Magically, too, its seemingly sacrifice-free growth was projected to jump by 62 percent to 2.1 million barrels a day by 2016 -- nearly 43 percent of the whole U.S.'s straggling domestic oil production in 2008.

Now, as BP eerily prepares to drop a "top hat" over this ever larger spill, it's time to re-examine this magic oil, and the trick that brought it to us.

Deepwater drilling had an improbable, unbelievable, giddy rise from its birth in 1993. Every well was pushing the envelope, either of depth in the water or the depth of the drillbit beneath the crust. "Every well I did was the deepest ever," an oil industry professional told me, yesterday. "I worked on 20 wells that set records. Every guy that did my job had worked on 20 wells that set records. We were sprinting, breaking records right and left. Everything they did had never been done before." For 17 years the deepwater rigs were jamming on the edge of the envelope.

As the demand for deepwater oil grew, so did the demand for deepwater rigs, each differently designed than the last. "A year and half ago there were 35 drillships like the Deepwater Horizon," an officer on a Transocean drillship told me, "and by 2016 there will be 65. There's a very limited number of people with the experience to be officers on them. And that pool is getting diluted.The age of the captains on these ships is falling from the mid 40's to the mid-30's." The International Association of Drilling Contractors recently bemoaned a coming shortage of professionals.

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Lisa Margonelli is a writer on energy and environment. She spent four years and traveled 100,000 miles to write her book, "Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank." More

Lisa Margonelli directs the New America Foundation's Energy Productivity Initiative, which works to promote energy efficiency as a way of ensuring energy security, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and economic security for American families. She spent roughly four years and traveled 100,000 miles to report her book about the oil supply chain, Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank, which the American Library Association named one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007. She spent her childhood in Maine where, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, her family heated the house with wood hauled by a horse. Later, fortunately, they got a tractor. The experience instilled a strong appreciation for the convenience of fossil fuels.

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