MEXICO CITY — Two years after the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, Mexico's state oil company is about to test its hand at drilling at extraordinary depths in the Gulf of Mexico.
If all goes as planned, Petroleos de Mexico, known as Pemex, will deploy two state-of-the-art drilling platforms in May to an area just south of the maritime boundary with the United States. One rig will sink a well in 9,514 feet of water, while another will drill in 8,316 feet of water, then deeper into the substrata.
Pemex has no experience drilling at such depths. Mexico's oil regulator is sounding alarm bells, saying the huge state oil concern is unprepared for a serious deepwater accident or spill. Critics say the company has sharply cut corners on insurance, remiss over potential sky-high liability.
Mexico's plans come two years after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. On April 20, 2010, a semi-submersible rig that the British oil firm BP had contracted to drill a well, known as Macondo, exploded off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers and spewing 4.9 million barrels of oil in the nearly three months it took engineers to stop the spill.
BP has said the tab for the spill — including government fines, cleanup costs and compensation — could climb to $42 billion for the company and its contractors.
Pemex's plans to sink even deeper offshore wells underscore Mexico's pressing need to maintain sagging oil production — exports pay for one-third of government operating expenses — along with oil companies' desire to leverage technology and drill at ever more challenging depths.
Carlos Morales, the chief of the Pemex exploration and production arm, which employs 50,000 people, voiced confidence that his company has the ability to sink wells in ultra-deep water.
"You have to bear one thing in mind," Morales said. "Pemex is the biggest operator in the Gulf — including everyone — both in production and in the number of rigs we operate. We are operating more than 80 rigs offshore."
The area where the two wells are to be sunk is about 30 miles south of the maritime boundary in the Gulf between Mexico and the United States.
After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP, the U.S. Coast Guard, and state and federal officials mustered some 3,000 vessels to help set booms, clean marshes and gather spilled crude.
Mexico has nowhere near that fleet of vessels at its disposal. Its navy has 189 ships. Pemex itself contracts around 180 boats.
That's one of the concerns of Juan Carlos Zepeda, the head of Mexico's National Hydrocarbons Commission, a regulatory body created in 2009 that has wrestled with Pemex over its practices, demanding that it adopt global standards on safety and preparation for worst-case scenarios.
Pemex has signed a contract with Wild Well Control, a Houston company with blowout expertise. Morales said Pemex was negotiating a contract with a second Houston firm, Cameron International, that had sophisticated tools — such as huge underwater capping stacks — that helped BP control its Macondo well below the Deepwater Horizon.
Still, the Deepwater Horizon disaster haunts like a lingering nightmare.
"Macondo was a watershed in deepwater drilling. There is before Macondo and there is after Macondo," said Fabio Barbosa, an economist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who specializes in the oil industry.