British oil major BP has discovered 200 million barrels of oil in a hidden cache in the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to a technological breakthrough allowing the company to see beneath geological formations that had befuddled oil exploration for decades.
The find, worth a potential $2 billion in recoverable oil, is in an undrilled section of BP’s Atlantis field in 7,000 feet of water 150 miles from New Orleans. Long obscured by a salt dome, which distorts seismic waves that oil companies use to map features below the earth, the oil reserves were revealed by using a supercomputer and mathematical algorithm to interpret the seismic data in a new way.
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The Gulf find is another example of oil companies advancing technology to make unexpected discoveries. The advent of seismic imaging allowed oil and gas companies to model mineral layers below the earth’s surface and drill more precisely. The combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing unleashed the U.S. onshore shale revolution. Now, BP’s imaging advance could save drillers hundreds of millions of dollars in false starts and dry wells, and perhaps more important, prevent them from passing up billions of dollars in oil hidden within reach of existing platforms and pipelines.
Salt has been a barrier
Salt domes have stumped scientists for years. Such geology in deep water is usually promising because the formations trap oil and gas in underground pockets for easy extraction. But companies hadn’t been able to image under the domes with much clarity.
Scientists at the BP’s Energy Corridor office park worked for years to improve subsea imaging under salt domes and identify new oil deposits. Then, last year a BP scientist fresh out of out of graduate school asked his bosses if he could borrow the company’s 15,000-square-foot supercomputer to run an algorithm he had developed.
Xukai Shen wanted to use the machine for two weeks. And in that time he and his team produced a new image with much more detail of the earth layers under Atlantis. Via traditional methods, such analysis would require at least a year of painstaking data comparison for geophysicists. Shen and his team did it in little more than two weeks, and created a much more accurate model.
“It produced the best image of the field we’ve ever seen,” said Etgen, the project’s principal researcher. “We basically fell out of our chairs.”