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New oil find tests drilling's watery limits

The Gulf of Mexico discovery, which could boost US reserves by half, set a new depth record.

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Evidence this week of a major new oil find is a tantalizing reminder of the importance of deep-water drilling to America's energy future. The field found deep below the Gulf of Mexico could boost the nation's proven oil reserves by as much as 50 percent, Chevron Corp. announced Tuesday.

But amid the exuberant claims of a new era for domestic oil drilling, some energy industry insiders could be forgiven for their subdued responses. The sheer depth of Chevron's discovery reinforces a well-known truth: the world's much-needed petroleum reserves are harder and more expensive to find than ever.

"They've learned that it's feasible" to produce at great depths, says Jim Bushnell, research director at the University of California Energy Institute in Berkeley. But the total potential supply of oil there represents "about two years' worth of consumption. It's not a long-term solution to America's energy future by any means."

To drill the test well, called "Jack 2," Chevron and two other companies had to plunge 7,000 feet below the warm surface waters of the Gulf, and then pierce several miles below the sea floor for a total depth of 28,175 feet.

Nearly 150 years ago, when petroleum first intruded on the era of whale oil and candles, the first well in Titusville, Pa. was only 69 feet deep.

Chevron estimates that the 300-square-mile region surrounding Jack 2 could hold between 3 billion and 15 billion barrels of oil and natural gas.

The upper end of that range would rival the discoveries on Alaska's North Slope a generation ago. The successful test comes as America's land-based oil wells are yielding diminishing returns. The nation's known total reserves are 29 billion barrels. Americans consume more than 7.5 billion barrels of oil each year.

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