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Extreme Oil
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The Journey The History The Science
Exploration Production Transportation Refining
Early Prospecting - Modern Exploration Always a Messy Business - Modern Production Pipelines, Tankers, Trains, and Trucks Turning Crude Into Commodities

Excavation Feature
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Modern Production

Despite increasingly sophisticated methods of exploration, drilling, and enhanced oil recovery, only 30 percent of the contents of a typical oilfield is ever brought to the surface. As oilfields in production gradually run down, oil companies constantly watch their reserves, and the price per barrel, while considering new sources. And in the quest for new production, oil companies have become famous for the extremes to which they will go. Some of the challenges oil producers face relate mostly to terrain, climate, and geology -- two clear examples being drilling offshore and production in the far north.

Offshore drilling combines the industry's insatiable demand for new supply, space-age navigation and drilling technology, and a fair amount of daring on the part of crews working on, and sometimes under, the rigs. The first offshore operations began in the late 1940s, and the practice grew over the next four decades to include over 800 platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Offshore drilling now takes place in the waters off the coasts of more than half the world's nations.

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Oil tankers like this one ship millions of gallons of oil by sea.
Rigs have drilled in waters as deep as 7,500 feet (more than two kilometers), as far as 200 miles from shore. Platforms are often movable, and many are designed with structural and control features that compensate for motion due to wind and waves. Repairs may be undertaken by commercial divers working in some of the most dangerous conditions possible: They work in pressurized chambers at depths of up to 2,000 feet, requiring divers to breathe a mix of oxygen and inert gases such as helium, and necessitating days of slow ascent to avoid the bends.

Back on land, one of the most unusual forms of oil production takes place among the bitumen deposits of central and northern Alberta, Canada. Because the solid or semi-solid oil in these "tar sands" will not flow, its extraction is akin to open-pit mining. Massive shovels and trucks scoop out and transport the earth to processing plants where high-temperature water and chemical treatment separates the thick oil from other sandy constituents. Further steps may refine it into synthetic crude, which is more easily transported and sold. The techniques used are important not only for the resource they have already made available in Alberta -- considered comparable in size the Saudi Arabian reserves of 260 billion barrels -- but also for the future implications of how mining and industrial separation techniques may open previously unavailable resources elsewhere.

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Oil fires, like the one pictured here, present risks inherent to oil extraction.
The oil business abides not only natural but also political extremes. Near the Mideast, there are daunting problems in another gulf region important to oil: West Africa's Gulf of Guinea. Stretching from Ivory Coast in the west to Angola in the south, this region is believed to contain roughly 25 billion barrels of oil. Though this source is only one-tenth the size of the Saudi reserves, the U.S. sees this as a helpful alternative to Mideast oil. Moreover, it could provide a starting point for economic and social development in this poor region. The equitable and development-focused use of oil revenues, however, would require nothing short of a political-economic transformation of many of the Gulf's corrupt and conflict-prone states. Meanwhile, critics point to oil, and the huge sums Western companies pay into opaque and unaccountable "kelptocracies," as the problem, rather than the solution -- and they warn of a similar dynamic building in Central Asia.

The geologic, political, and other difficulties of oil production can complicate even sincere efforts to predict future national and global oil supplies. Recent restatements of oil reserves by Shell, scandal over corruption at the European giant Elf/Aquitaine, and calls for increased accuracy and transparency in the reserve estimates from Saudi Arabia and other oil producing states show that it is not only the poorest nations whose hands get dirtied by oil.

-- Edwin Adkins

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