A record number of oil and natural gas drilling rigs currently are working in the ultra-deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS).

“For the first time, 15 rigs are drilling for oil and gas in 5,000 feet of water or greater in the Gulf,” said MMS Director Randall Luthi. This signals a “show of confidence in the resource potential of the Gulf’s ultra-deepwater frontier.”

Producers operating the 15 ultra-deepwater rigs include ExxonMobil Corp., Hydro Gulf of Mexico LLC, Shell Offshore Inc., Chevron U.S.A. Inc., BP Exploration & Production Inc., Devon Energy Production, BHP Billiton Petroleum (GOM) Inc., Woodside Energy (USA) Inc. and Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas Corp.

Drilling in deeper depths is an ongoing trend in the Gulf. An estimated 70% of the Gulf’s oil production comes from leases in water depths greater than 1,000 feet, while 40% of the Gulf’s natural gas output comes from leases in those same water depths, the MMS said. At the end of April, Gulf production was approximately 1.3 MMbbls/d of oil and 7.7 Bcf/d of gas, it reported.

In July, gas production started at the Independence Hub, a semisubmersible platform located in 8,000 feet of water (southeast of Biloxi, MS) and operated by Anadarko Petroleum (see Daily GPI, July 23). It is the deepest-water production platform ever installed and also the world’s largest offshore natural gas processing facility. The Independence project will produce 1 Bcf/d of natural gas from 15 subsea wells when fully operational.

Several other drilling rigs are being built for use in the deepwater Gulf, the agency said. The rigs under construction range from drill ships to semisubmersibles and will be capable of operating in water depths up to 12,000 feet. Some of these rigs will be ready as early as the summer of 2008, and others are expected to be operational by the second half of 2009, the MMS noted.

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