Yet even as regulators investigate the causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the broader dangers posed by the industry’s push into deeper waters have gone largely unscrutinized.
“Our ability to manage risks hasn’t caught up with our ability to explore and produce in deep water,” said Edward C. Chow, a former industry executive who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The question now is, how are we going to protect against a blowout as well as all of the other associated risks offshore?”
Dangers do not directly increase with greater depth, according to experts like Mr. Chow. But they do rise as exploration and production rigs become more complex and more remote.
Perdido, for example, is more than a 20-hour supply boat journey from shore — far enough out that a major fire could burn out of control before assistance arrived. Hurricanes regularly batter the region with giant waves and winds exceeding 100 miles an hour. Underwater, both powerful currents and mudslides play havoc with delicate equipment and the pipelines that bring oil and gas back to shore.
The water temperature, which hovers at just above freezing at depths below 3,000 feet, can harden natural gas into crystallike structures called hydrates that can clog pipelines and other equipment. And because the wells are deeper than human divers can go, oil companies must rely on remote-controlled submarines to maintain their equipment or perform repairs.
Oil industry officials, while acknowledging the risks, say safety concerns are overblown.
Chris Smith, a senior manager at Royal Dutch Shell in charge of running Perdido’s production, said that projects like Perdido were engineered with multiple safety barriers and redundant systems.
“We’ve proven over the years, and the decades, that if the reserves justify it, we will find a way to do it,” Mr. Smith said. “The trick is how to do it safely.”
Perdido, which means “lost” in Spanish, is at the cutting edge. The deepest offshore platform in the world, it is intended to pump oil from 35 wells over the next two decades.
Like dozens of other deepwater facilities that have sprung up in the gulf in recent years with names like Blind Faith, Mad Dog and Atlantis, Perdido uses the latest technology to tap offshore oil fields that were previously inaccessible.
In contrast to the Deepwater Horizon, a floating rig that was focused on drilling new wells, the Perdido platform is a vast hub that can drill and pump oil from wells across 30 miles of ocean floor. Below it is a subsea cityscape of pumps, pipes, valves, manifolds, wellheads and blowout preventers — all painted a bright yellow so as to be visible to the floodlights of the remote-controlled submarines that maintain it.
Shell, in reducing the weight of the platform, which can produce up to 130,000 barrels of oil a day, is among the first companies to use a new technique: instead of pumping the drilled liquid to the platform and separating the oil, gas and water there, as is typically done, engineers installed new separation equipment directly on the sea floor. While that improves efficiency, the equipment is also more difficult to monitor and fix than if it were on the platform.
Thomas M. Leschine, a marine expert at the University of Washington, Seattle, said oil companies and regulators have become complacent about the growing risks of offshore drilling because accidents are so rare.
“It’s clearly in the interest of the industry to believe their activities are safe,” said Mr. Leschine, who testified before Congress about safety issues in June.
Engineering innovations during the 1990s, like better seismic imaging technology, greatly pushed the boundaries of deepwater production — traditionally defined as deeper than 1,000 feet of water.
More than 20 percent of all bids in the gulf last year were for leases in water deeper than 6,500 feet. The deepest well in production in the gulf — Perdido’s Tobago well — lies in 9,600 feet of water. Meanwhile, new ships that can drill in 12,000 feet of water have recently arrived in the gulf.
Problems are more common than the industry likes to admit.