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By Randy Lee Loftis

The Dallas Morning News

The 5,000 feet of water between the Gulf of Mexico's surface and the Deepwater Horizon blowout has kept the oil and natural gas flowing.

Each time BP has tried to cap its runaway well, the company has warned that no one has ever tried it at such a depth.

But off the coast of Texas, companies have been drilling in far deeper water, sometimes twice as deep - and making the same environmental and safety promises that BP made for its Deepwater Horizon operation.

The BP blowout is calling attention to unique engineering challenges and environmental risks associated with seeking oil and gas at unprecedented depths in the gulf.

Equipment designed to withstand harsh conditions at extreme depth failed, perhaps because of those conditions, making some engineers discount assurances that unexpected problems could be stopped at far greater depths.

At the same time, the depth at which the blowout occurred has triggered much more harm to the gulf's ecosystem than a shallower leak would have caused, leading to concerns about even worse effects from a possible deeper spill.

The companies operating in extremely deep water off the Texas coast make their safety and environmental assurances in documents they filed with federal regulators in support of their drilling plans.

As BP's plan vowed, other exploration and production plans say a sub-sea blowout is so unlikely as to merit little or no discussion and no special review. If a blowout occurred even at 10,000 feet, company plans assert, readily available technology would stop the flow of oil and gas quickly, with minor environmental damage.

Operating at an extreme depth is an engineering challenge, largely because of high water pressure. Recent research shows that depth is also a major ecological factor, fundamentally changing how the gulf's biological systems respond to an uncontrolled rush of oil and gas.

Federally funded research - aimed almost exclusively at boosting deep-water drilling and often done in close partnership with the oil and gas industry - has all but ignored the potential ecological damage from a deep blowout, despite pleas from marine biologists.

An examination of companies' drilling plans by the Dallas Morning News shows that the Minerals Management Service, the agency that governs drilling in federal waters, has not increased its scrutiny when companies sought to drill at extreme depths.

The agency even failed to correct oil companies' regional spill response plans that listed arctic mammals such as walruses as local gulf species. The nearest walrus range to the gulf is in northeastern Canada.

President Barack Obama declared a six-month moratorium on new deep-water drilling to allow time to consider such concerns, but a federal judge in New Orleans blocked the moratorium last week.

Obama's study commission on offshore drilling, chaired by former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly and former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, is supposed to examine deep-water issues.

Some experts say worries over depth are misplaced.

Robert Randall, a professor of ocean and civil engineering at Texas A&M University who works with the industry and federal regulators, said stopping an extremely deep blowout would not be any harder than halting a shallower operation because both require the same techniques. Offshore drilling industry executives agree.

But to Bob Bea, a former Shell executive who is now an engineering professor at the University of California, stopping a blowout at 10,000 feet is just a fantasy because of pressure, temperature and inaccessibility.

In an e-mail, he said, "The difficulty is an exponential function of the depth of the water. "Same as the difference between going to the Moon and going to Mars."

When Kerr-McGee drilled the first well from a fixed platform in federal waters off the coast of Louisiana in 1947, a worker with a snorkel probably could have handled most repairs. It was just 16 feet to the bottom.

Since then, diminishing returns from shallow drilling, plus the development of new technology, have pushed the search for oil into previously unimaginable depths.

In 2004, Transocean's Discover Deep Seas rig drilled a well at 10,011 feet about 200 miles south of New Orleans. Just one area of the gulf, about 160 miles east of Corpus Christi, Texas, illustrates how drilling at extreme depths has become almost routine. Alaminos Canyon is a sharp gouge in the gulf floor and one of the hottest locations for ultra-deep drilling. Since 1996, federal regulators have approved 83 plans for the area that authorized wells as deep as or deeper than BP's blowout, according to Minerals Management Service records.

The service approved scores of wells at 7,000 feet or deeper. Nearly two dozen plans cleared the way for drilling between 9,000 and 10,000 feet. Two operations were approved for deeper than 10,000 feet. Not all of the approved wells have been drilled.

Whether the BP blowout happened because of human error, cutting corners, faulty equipment or a combination, it has defeated all assaults for more than two months.

Just as depth may have contributed to the blowout and has confounded efforts to stop it, depth also has worsened the environmental damage from the leaking oil and gas. But until now, the gulf ecosystem has received little attention in the push to drill in deeper waters, marine biologists say.

"No one thought about what that means ecologically," said Dr. Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

The discovery of huge, submerged masses of oil, gas, water and chemical dispersant from the BP blowout is raising troubling new questions.

McKinney is worried that "floating dead zones" with drastically low oxygen levels will wash over coral reefs in the northern gulf. Some research now suggests that those corals are the originals, the sources of the world's corals in shallower water - the tropical rain forests of the sea.

"Those things are like forests of corals," McKinney said. "It's just an incredibly diverse community. "If you kill all those, what's the recovery time? Hundreds of years."