Just when it seemed U.S. oil couldn’t be stopped, hurricane season 2017 arrived to rain on parade. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association predicts 2017 will bring 11 to 17 tropical storms and up to four massive hurricanes between June and December.
For offshore oil platforms, signs of a nasty season mean it’s time to baton down the proverbial hatches. When weather forecasters predict conditions like this seasons, all non-essential personnel are evacuated from platforms to ensure their safety. While this is a drill that rig operators have been through in the past, every storm is different, and you can’t be too prepared for the chaos a hurricane can bring.
Preparing for the Storm
Making an offshore rig ready to sustain a hurricane is a delicate balancing act between protecting the employees who work on the platform and safeguarding as much oil production as possible.
The very real impacts that hurricane season can have on production make every last operating hour crucial, so personnel essential to rig operation are allowed to remain aboard until a few days before the storm. Sometimes it can be less than a day, but well-trained crews know how to stay professional even under pressure because failure could mean a natural disaster.
Within a few day of the storms arrival, drilling stops and all personnel are evacuated. Drill ships that are in the potential path of the storm are relocated to safe waters. The unpredictable nature of storms makes it necessary to stop operations even outside of the direct path of the hurricane.
Technology is the biggest asset oil manufacturers have in the fight against storms like Harvey, Irma and Jose. Modern oil rigs are equipped with GPS systems that allow supervisory staff to monitor their positions during and after the storm and locate them should the rig be pulled away from its drilling location by storm surges.
This year’s flurry of storms poses a grave threat to America’s prominent position in the global oil market because of its impact on multiple critical areas for US oil production. Hurricane Harvey struck Texas’ gulf coast, which is home to 45 percent of American refining capacity.
Add to that the offshore operations in the Gulf, which account for 17 percent of crude oil production, and now the rigs struck by Irma and Jose, and you have the makings of a disaster.
Once again, technology will be essential in restoring production capacity as quickly as possible. Many offshore rigs are designed around lean manufacturing principles. Assuming they can endure the winds and waves, that should help get oil production on its feet as quickly as possible.
Lean manufacturing practices focus on reducing waste in the form of motion, downtime, over-processing and four other potential inefficiencies. By allowing an oil rig to continue producing up to days before a storm hits, and restart operations with minimal crew, these practices can help recover days of production time.
No amount of preparation can guarantee that sensitive equipment won’t be damaged in the course of a storm, which is why drilling companies practice special flyover and assessment procedures to determine if offshore sites are safe to send personnel back to following a massive storm.
Remobilization, or “re-mob” as it’s called, is the process of gathering all company assets and ensuring they’re safe to continue work before beginning drilling operations again. Following an assessment by helicopter, small teams are dispatched to rigs and ships to determine if everything is in working order.
The ability to track every single asset using GPS makes the process of finding ships and platforms simpler than it was in the past, but the real challenge comes in repairing damaged equipment after a storm. It can take days or weeks to repair complex extraction equipment with crews sometimes working round-the-clock to get a significant drilling facility back online.
Ultimately, the small teams can bring rigs and ships back online. Once operational, assets can begin receiving more personnel. It’s a race against the clock every time, and this year it looks like those assessment crews are going to get more than their fair share of practice.