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
“Most of the time the Gulf of
“When a storm is coming onshore,” said Smith, “we’re already planning to redeploy and restart.”
A series of steps
When a threat arises, the first thing
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.
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,
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
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
Dangerous weather, however, is not limited to named storms, and energy companies must be prepared for sudden, unexpected thunderstorms or squalls. Since 1999,
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
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.”
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