Jim Farnsworth of Cobalt International Energy

Cobalt International Energy’s Bet On Deepwater Angola

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January 16, 2011

The New York Times brings us an in depth look at Cobalt International Energy and its lead oil man, former head of worldwide exploration for BP, Jim Farnsworth, as they explore the depths of Angola’s deepwater prospects;

Jim Farnsworth of Cobalt International EnergyOilmen are optimists, by creed if not always by nature, and early last spring things looked, as those in the industry like to say, prospective. The deepwater rigs in the Gulf of Mexico were steadily drilling, with no suggestion of any impending calamity, and oil was flowing from the vast finds in offshore Brazil. Circumstances looked particularly prospective to a geophysicist named Jim Farnsworth, who works for Cobalt International Energy, a company that held a group of leases 50 miles from the mouth of Angola’s Cuanza River basin. It was at that site, he had come to believe, that an enormous basin of oil lay, beneath an obscuring layer of salt, in rocks deep below the bottom of the sea. The industry had been over this territory a decade earlier; a few scattered wells were drilled into the Cuanza basin, and then, having found little oil, the companies plugged them. In seismic images, you could still see the pipes, running through the sediment of the ocean floor.

What concerned Cobalt executives about Gold Dust was that the rock at these depths might have been too compressed — by the pressure of the overlying sediment — to make it a good reservoir for oil. Oil needs to find light, porous reservoir rock so that it has a place to collect. Currently, there is no way to examine the deep Angolan geology directly, but a former Cobalt geologist named Mike Lentini believed he had found a convincing analogy. Geologists know that the rocks on the Brazilian coast are close relatives to the deep Angolan rocks — these rocks were formed eons ago at the same time and in the same place. In 2002, Lentini was on the Brazilian coast, and he saw rock that was strikingly light and porous — the perfect reservoir for oil. If the relationship between the geologic history of Brazil and Angola was as precise as Lentini thought it was, then the Angolan rock that Cobalt hoped to drill into might still hold oil. It was a conditional, hopeful insight. But it was enough to get Cobalt into this region of Angola a little bit early and win the pick of prospects. Knowing the details of Brazil’s geology, Lentini told me, “was like having the Rosetta Stone.” It gave the industry license to dream; analysts soon speculated that the finds off Angola might compare with the giant ones off Brazil.

The possibility of a boom commands particular attention now, because the industry’s faith in a limitless future has begun to diminish. The International Energy Agency — which had until recently been optimistic about oil — concluded last fall that the world has very likely already passed its peak oil production.

“The deepwater was one of the last big exploration plays on the planet,” says Gerald Kepes, a partner and head of upstream and gas at PFC Energy, a consulting firm. “We’re now looking at the second half of the global deepwater play. You can see the end of it, maybe 25 years from now.”

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