Drilling companies face tough decision with rigs in Gulf



Posted on August 28, 2012 at 6:20 PM

Updated Tuesday, Aug 28 at 6:21 PM

David Hammer / Eyewitness News
Email: dhammer@wwltv.com | Twitter: @davidhammerWWL

NEW ORLEANS -- Trying to decide whether to board up your home or office and evacuate is hard enough. Now imagine if you’re floating hundreds of miles offshore on a drilling rig that costs $1 million a day to use, whether it’s able to drill or not.

It’s a tough decision for oil and gas operators in the Gulf, and it’s one they had to make at least two days in advance, when Isaac’s path was anything but certain.

There were 76 rigs actively drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico before Isaac came through, and according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, 49 of them had been completely evacuated by 11:30 this morning. That’s about 64 percent.

Many of those rigs are jack-up or moored platforms that can’t be quickly moved. But nearly all of them operating in depths of more than 1,000 feet are drillships or floating rigs that can sail like ships and move off site if necessary.

Transocean Ltd., the largest operator of deepwater drilling rigs in the gulf, had 13 rigs working last week and 12 of them have dynamic positioning systems and have moved to safety, company spokesman Guy Cantwell said Tuesday.

The one rig that can’t move out of harm’s way is the Nautilus, which is moored to the seafloor. It’s like the Marianas, which was damaged drilling a well in 2009 when Hurricane Ida came through.

It was drilling the well known as Macondo, 50 miles off Venice. It had to be replaced by the Deepwater Horizon, which ended up exploding in April 2010 while trying to temporarily abandon the well.

There are specific procedures that the operators complete in preparing a production platform for shut-in or a drilling rig for suspension of drilling operations,” BSEE spokeswoman Eileen Angelico said. “BSEE District staff work closely with the operators to ensure that these procedures are followed and the platforms and rigs are secured to prevent damage and potential pollution.”

It’s a time-consuming and expensive process, and it includes having to lift the massive stack of valves and pistons known as the blowout preventer. That’s the 450-ton device that failed to close in the Macondo well when it blew out, causing the worst accidental oil spill in history.

Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute said there are three key steps that oil and gas companies take to prepare for these storms: Reducing the load onboard a drilling rig or platform; strengthening the equipment and structures; and relocating the structure or, at least, the personnel onboard.

BSEE notes that shut-in work for hurricanes has never led to any spills before. The government agency is prepared to send teams of inspectors to every rig and platform after the storm has passed so the operations can resume quickly, Angelico said.

There’s a similarly costly and complex process for shutting in wells under production platforms, the fixed structures that actually draw oil and gas from the earth. Those cannot be moved, so crews have to tie down equipment, evacuate and hope for the best.

There are 596 manned platforms in the gulf and 503 of them – 84 percent – were fully evacuated by 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. That is crucial because major hurricanes can do severe damage to these structures. In 2008, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, both Category 2 storms, destroyed 60 platforms. In 2005, Katrina and Rita, two Category 5 monsters, destroyed 115 platforms and badly damaged dozens more.

That damage can have some impact on oil prices because, unlike exploratory drilling rigs, the platforms are part of the nation’s oil and natural gas production pipeline. Some platforms produce 100,000 barrels of oil per day. That’s about $10 million a day the company could expect to make off the crude, once it goes through the refining process.