Bob Old had just started flying for oil and gas companies when, in October 1985, he guided his helicopter to a rig in the Gulf of Mexico to evacuate workers in advance of an approaching storm.
But that storm rapidly strengthened into deadly Hurricane Juan, stranding Old and dozens of energy workers on the offshore platform for nine days as Juan stalled over the Gulf Coast, overturning rigs and boats off the coast of Louisiana and killing nine. Both Old and the oil and gas industry learned lessons from the experience, albeit at great costs.
“Most of the time the Gulf of Mexico looks like a scenic postcard, but it also can be the scariest nightmare,” said Old, now the Americas manager of Bristow Group, a Houston aviation services company with a fleet of more than 400 helicopters and jets. “It can be very unpredictable.”
As the Atlantic hurricane season enters its most active period during August and September, energy companies and the contractors that work for them are recalling the lessons of Juan and other past storms, employing better forecasting, better planning and earlier decision making to avoid the situation that Old and thousands of other workers sometimes found themselves in during the past 40 years. In addition to advancing technology that allows meteorologists and companies to better predict major storms and their likely paths, industry officials and emergency preparedness specialists also cite a cultural change that puts greater emphasis on safety over squeezing every last drop of oil from offshore wells before evacuating.
At Royal Dutch Shell, which operates the most oil platforms in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, the safety of the people comes first, protection of offshore facilities second, and maximizing the oil and gas production third, said Phil Smith, Shell’s general manager for emergency management in North and South America. Shell has a team of about 80 people dedicated to hurricane and storm planning for the company’s Gulf operations.
“When a storm is coming onshore,” said Smith, “we’re already planning to redeploy and restart.”
When a threat arises, the first thing Shell does is establish a transition time that it calls the “T time” to either evacuate or relocate a rig or platform. The “T time” can be as long as five or six days before an anticipated storm arrives.
Shell then develops lists of non-essential personnel — such as engineers and construction and maintenance workers — who can be evacuated from the platform without affecting critical operations. Meanwhile, rig crews tie down equipment, offshore drilling’s equivalent of battening down the hatches. Shell shuts down ancillary construction and maintenance work, and ensures food and other supplies are sufficient if some people remain on the platforms.
Shell aims to begin evacuating workers at least three days before conditions start deteriorating, contracting with companies such as Petroleum Helicopters International and Bristow to have at least seven helicopters ready to deploy into the Gulf, with additional helicopters on standby. Anywhere from 25 to 200 people work on an offshore platform, depending on its size.
Bristow’s helicopters can transport about 12 people at a time to complete the round trip from shore to offshore and back in less than three hours. During evacuations, flights essentially run from sunrise to sunset with each two-to-three person crews limited to 10 hours of flight time a day.
Onshore, Shell helps set up shelters for its employees at locations such as at its training and conference center in Robert, La. or further west near Houston, if the storm isn’t headed to Texas. Rig workers evacuate with minimal belongings.
Shutting down the oil and gas wells also is a complicated procedure. “Those wells don’t just turn off like a light switch,” Smith said.
Offshore oil fields often comprise several wells. Each well must be treated with injection chemicals to regulate the internal temperatures and stabilize pressures so the well is safe to shut down. Pumps are shut off and the blowout preventer is closed, but the choke valve is kept open to maintain some flow.
This is called a “soft” shut in that’s done for just a few days while the storm passes, so production can be restarted quickly. A more permanent, so-called “hard” shut in may require new drilling to get oil flowing again.
And, unless storms are extremely severe, essential personnel — at least a quarter of the overall crew — may remain to keep production flowing nonstop. A tropical storm or a weaker hurricane that doesn’t pass directly over a platform may allow production to continue.
“We’re kind of hedging our bets a bit,” Smith said. “Sometimes the storm turns or fizzles out and you’re still producing.”
Changes in technology and practices mean rigs and platforms often can be moved out of harm’s way when severe weather approaches. In the past, rigs were almost always moored in one place but, today, oil companies often employ drillships and deepwater floating platforms that can be piloted out of the path of approaching storms.
The deepest oil platform in the world, Shell’s Stones floating production, storage and offloading facility, can detach from a massive turret buoy that plugs into the bottom of the hull and then move to safety. But the two-year-old platform, located 200 miles south of New Orleans, hasn’t needed to take such evasive maneuvers yet.
Bristow’s emergency evacuation planning is year round, but it really picks up in the beginning of May prior to the hurricane season that runs from June through November. They map out everything from staggered helicopter deploy schedules during an evacuation to the plans for securing their aviation facilities that risk flooding to the hotel rooms they would book for evacuating employees and their families. The goal is to keep the employees of their customers safe, but they also need to prioritize the well being of their own employees and their helicopters.
It’s been almost a decade since Shell enacted a full Gulf evacuation — removing the personnel from all their deepwater Gulf platforms — during the 2008 season when hurricanes Ike, Gustav and others rolled through.
Only one partial evacuation was ordered thus far this year, when the season’s first named storm, Subtropical Storm Alberto, moved up the eastern Gulf in late May. That required the evacuation of Shell’s new Appomattox platform just days after it reached its destination.
Dangerous weather, however, is not limited to named storms, and energy companies must be prepared for sudden, unexpected thunderstorms or squalls. Since 1999, The Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference has counted 29 helicopter accidents in the Gulf, including seven fatal ones that killed 15 people.
Very few of the incidents were related to named storms. Most were caused by mechanical problems or issues with landing during difficult, but not the most severe, weather, according to the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference. One of the worst incidents included a 2009 crash of a helicopter headed to a Shell platform caused by a large bird striking the cockpit. Eight people were killed.
Even just windy weather patterns in the Gulf should never be taken for granted, said Old, the helicopter pilot and executive. Sometimes there are orderly planned evacuations, he said, “and sometimes it’s just strap everything down because it’s going to be a heck of a squall line.”
“There’s nothing to stop the weather out there. Absolutely nothing,” Old said. “The beauty is the weather reporting is so much better, and so is the safety. Nobody wants to get stuck offshore.”
This article first appeared on the Houston Chronicle – an Energy Voice content partner. For more from the Houston Chronicle click here.