NEW YORK-- Nearly seven miles below the Gulf of Mexico, oil company BP has tapped into a vast pool of crude after digging the deepest oil well in the world.
The Tiber Prospect is expected to rank among the largest petroleum discoveries in the United States, potentially producing half as much crude in a day as Alaska's famous North Slope oil field.
The company's chief of exploration on Wednesday estimated that the Tiber deposit holds between 4 billion and 6 billion barrels of oil equivalent, which includes natural gas. That would be enough to satisfy U.S. demand for crude for nearly one year. But BP does not yet know how much it can extract.
"The Gulf of Mexico is proving to be a growing oil province, and a profitable one if you can find the reserves," said Tyler Priest, professor and director of Global Studies at the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston. The Tiber well is about 250 miles southeast of Houston in U.S. waters. At 35,055 feet, it is as deep as Mount Everest is tall, not including more than 4,000 feet of water above it.
Drilling at those depths shows how far major oil producers will go to find new supplies as global reserves dwindle, and how technology has advanced, allowing them to reach once-unimaginable depths.
Deep-water operations are considered to be the last frontier for pristine oil deposits, and the entire petroleum industry is sweeping the ocean floor in search of more crude.
BP needs to invest years of work and millions of dollars before it draws the first drop of oil from Tiber. Such long waits are not uncommon. Three years after announcing a discovery at a site in the Gulf called Kaskida, BP has yet to begin producing oil there.
Projects like the Tiber well will not reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil, which continues to grow. But new technology does permit access to major oil finds closer to U.S. shores.
BP expects Tiber to be among the company's richest finds in the Gulf on par with its crown jewel, the Thunder Horse development. Thunder Horse produces about 300,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, as much crude as half of Alaska's famous North Slope.
Even if Tiber produces that much, it would still be a trickle compared with the largest oil producers in the world -- the Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia, which produces 5 million barrels per day. But because it's close to home, Tiber would be especially attractive to refiners in America, where the government wants to cut down on oil imports from the Middle East. "Early indications are that it's a significant positive discovery," said Matt Snyder, lead analyst with Wood MacKinzie's Gulf of Mexico research team.