OFFSHORE DRILLING

On world's most remote platform, safety is reinforced through persistence, peer pressure

PERDIDO SPAR, Gulf of Mexico -- Work aboard the world's most isolated offshore oil production platform and drilling rig is loud, dangerous and often unpredictable. Still, each day begins in a mundane way.

A 6 a.m. briefing starts with a rundown of all the work to be performed over the next 12-hour shift with notes on where to avoid danger. Next, there's a discussion of small safety hazards people noticed the day before -- workers descending stairs too quickly, warning tape not properly signed, crew members improperly lifting heavy equipment.

What sets work on Perdido apart from many other locations is the constant repeating of a message that all on board must maintain close attention to their and each other's safety. Money is the imperative, but tasks must be performed at a steady, deliberate pace. Rushing is forbidden.

It's all part of a stringent safety training regimen not seen in other facets of the energy industry.

Vince Daniels, the health, safety and environment officer at Royal Dutch Shell's Perdido project, said even minor daily safety lessons are important to keep a strong culture of carefulness in the minds of the 170-plus workers stuck on this swaying, floating island in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

"You're not going to see that energized running around doing things, because when you do that, even coming down the stairwell you can slip and fall and have an injury," Daniels explained. "There's still an element of excitement and danger here with the work we do, and we are on our p's and q's as far as what we do and how we do it."

Three days spent on Perdido by an EnergyWire reporter provided a window into life aboard the ultra-deepwater platform. What was witnessed was a lighthearted spirit of camaraderie and friendship among the crew, constantly overshadowed by awareness of the extreme risks inherent in working on the groundbreaking project.

Shell executives try hard to take advantage of both of these moods in their push for zero accidents or injuries. They say they're frustrated by an inability to improve on a safety record that's already considered good by industry and government. About 25 incidents throughout the Gulf have been reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) so far this year, all relatively minor scrapes like a broken wrist, cuts that require a few stitches or fingers pinched in doorjambs.

But officials at Perdido say they hope their constant push toward perfection will help hold the line against even more serious incidents. Chris Smith, operations manager for the Perdido spar, said the regimen is necessary given the high price for mistakes, made abundantly clear by the fatal 2010 explosion of the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon.

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"We have to, because the consequences of a mistake are so much higher than in other industries," Smith said.

In search of 'a lot of oil'

Many in the offshore oil and gas industry consider Shell's Perdido operation to be the most advanced running today.

About 200 miles south of Galveston, Texas, and about 70 miles from the nearest installation, Perdido -- Spanish for "lost" -- boasts a number of firsts in offshore drilling.

The operation is home to the world's greatest ocean-depth-operating production platform and drilling rig, both floating in 8,000 feet of water. And it's tied into the world's deepest offshore wellhead, in the Tobago field, resting at the bottom at 9,600 feet.

It's also the first to incorporate complex sea-bottom oil and gas separation with topside equipment. At an industry luncheon last year, Shell Oil Co. President Marvin Odum boasted about this breakthrough, explaining that the seafloor separation -- accompanied with 1,500-horsepower electric pumps to drive the hydrocarbons to the surface -- is necessary because of the crushing water pressure.

A 200-foot-high platform is mounted to a cylindrical spar roughly the size of Paris' Eiffel Tower, with the combined 55,000 metric tons creating enough displacement to keep everything afloat. Moored to the seafloor, Perdido bobs up and down in the water much like a cork. It's also semimobile, with the crew using a system of massive chains and winches to allow it to migrate over a 300-foot radius, to service the array of wells in the Great White field beneath.

The whole thing is powered by massive natural-gas-powered generators, a backup diesel generator, a complex network of heating and cooling systems, and its own water treatment plant.

Just 8 miles from the maritime border with Mexico, Perdido is also the most remote offshore operation anywhere. What brought Shell and its partners out to this spot was a desire to test an entirely new and potentially lucrative oil find, explained Smith.

"This is the first economic development of the lower tertiary trend in the Gulf of Mexico," he said. "A lot of people are very interested in how this goes, because at very deep water depths, you're going to have to have pumping capabilities." Newer ultra-deepwater projects are expected to rely on technologies developed at Perdido, he added.

The project is even providing a window in the lightless world of deep-sea marine life.

The operators of Perdido's 5-ton unmanned submarine, or remote operated vehicle (ROV) -- run by Oceaneering International Inc. -- said they routinely encounter bizarre life-forms they take note of. During one brief demonstration, a reporter saw on the ROV's camera a strange species of squid and a type of swimming sea cucumber the Oceaneering team nicknamed the "headless chicken."

But the main attraction is the oil and gas deposits.

The tertiary trend Smith described lies in a relatively shallow, easy-to-drill zone about 6,000 feet from the ocean floor. And it's rich -- although it's currently pumping about 75,000 barrels of crude oil per day at Perdido, Shell expects production to soon hit 100,000 barrels a day, and the company anticipates the platform keeping a similarly strong pace for at least 20 years.

"Out here, there's a lot of oil," said Tony Miller, the rig manager and top representative at Perdido from Helmerich & Payne Inc., the company that operates Perdido's onboard drilling rig. "There's not a lot of gas. There is some, but it's not tough to handle."

Though the tertiary trend being drilled is challenging, Miller said that's because it is a soft, low-pressure field, requiring a fairly lightweight drilling mud to maintain hydrostatic pressure. The Perdido team sees little blowout risk because about five different pumps are needed to get the oil and gas out.

"As far as pressure and things like that, this is a great place to work," Miller said. "What we have to worry about is losing our mud into the formation and getting to that spot."

'As we learn, we get better'

The main technical challenges at Perdido are the water depth, remoteness, and the unending effort to keep focused on safety and emergency training while juggling the thousands of detailed things that go into keeping the site running. These, more than anything, influence the culture and atmosphere at the site.

The rotating crews and contractors who work on Perdido must contend with a 24-hour boat ride or 90-minute helicopter flight to get back to the service point in Galveston -- a distance that adds to the platform's isolation but also encourages a familylike atmosphere. Downtime boredom is broken by in-bunk satellite television, special meal nights at the cafeteria, bingo on Saturdays, and conversation among the men and women, most sharing similar backgrounds.

The pace of work here is unexpectedly slow and deliberate, a steadiness on the platform and rig that runs counter to the exotic image that offshore oil and gas production often invokes.

Part of it comes from the fact that the team there is doing things that haven't been done in offshore energy before.

"It's all right now kind of a learning curve, and we're learning a lot of stuff," Miller said. "We're not in a hurry. We're learning, and as we learn, we get better."

But adapting even experienced crew members to the newer technologies -- like the controls that synchronize both the platform and subsea equipment -- is creating some challenges, acknowledges Steve Hill, the offshore installation manager at Perdido.

"It's a struggle for us to get the crew trained to the level they need to be at and still manage the operation," he said. "Out here we've got limited real estate and space, and it takes all of us to make this place work, and when you have to lose two or three or four of your crew, who are critical, to school for a week, 14, 16 days out, you're in a hitch."

There's always something to fix. During one visit, the production team was plagued with natural gas compressor problems alleviated with flaring. Fixing it required new parts flown in by helicopter.

Another challenge comes with running the onboard and subsea production equipment and the drilling rig at the same time. The production side says it has to be careful not to get in the way of the drilling crew and vice versa, requiring both sides to consult daily the SIMOPS board, for "simultaneous operations," to determine which tasks absolutely cannot be conducted at the same time.

The operations team was also having trouble sorting out a bug in the software that was creating false alarms. Despite five weeks of training on the system, managers ultimately decided to bring in an expert with the Japanese contractor to help fix the problem.

"It's a lot to keep up with, and you have to rely on a lot of people," Hill said. "Imagine getting a term's worth of college in five days."

The need for specialized skills to maintain operational integrity is coupled with stringent safety training and planning that takes into account the uniqueness of the operation.

Before anyone -- drillers, managers, catering crew, even press -- can set foot on Perdido, they must take a daylong course on water survival. Students practice getting in and out of life rafts and techniques for surviving without one while floating in open water. The class is topped off with a helicopter crash simulation, where students are placed in a mock-up hull that's lowered underwater and flipped upside down. To pass, you must get yourself out without panicking.

Hurricane evacuation plans are a bit more robust than for other platforms, Smith said, because Perdido's crew is so far removed from the coast and even neighboring offshore platforms. Part of Perdido's design includes a massive helicopter pad -- the largest of its kind in offshore oil and gas and big enough to accommodate two larger helicopters.

"As far south as we are, we don't have much time," Smith explained.

Supervisors insist they're careful in choosing the workforce they bring out here. Skills and experience count, they said, but they also pay attention to positive references and look for signs that the offshore worker joining them has a certain level of maturity and seriousness -- indications that the employee will take the safety culture seriously and participate in and promote it.

'Go slow, work fast'

Aside from the morning and evening briefings, the daily routine is frequently punctuated with more poignant reminders that offshore oil and gas can be a dangerous occupation.

During one recent emergency drill, Daniels described how one team "died" after confusion set in at their gathering, or muster, spot. Another team was trained in assisting with helicopter landings, including lessons on how to put out a fire in the event of a crash and graphic photos of fatal run-ins with tail rotors, just to drive the point home.

However, safety training on Perdido is mainly handled by day-in, day-out reminders to take notice of even minor infractions and to report them, with all hands actively encouraged to participate in policing. Everyone has access to cards he or she can fill out to report incidents or safety hazards, and most take part in this.

And practically every task that needs to be performed outside the living and office quarters requires a work permit. Even some equipment requires special permission to use on the platform. For instance, a reporter was allowed to take photographs outside crew quarters only after a gas test was conducted.

No safety issue is considered too small a deal to warrant mentioning. Recent notices included a package of water bottles partially obstructing a hallway, an extension cord that didn't have the proper color tag on it and complaints of snoring that was hindering the sleep of other workers.

Shell has identified 12 mistakes it believes lead to 90 percent of fatal accidents. They include not using safety harnesses when working at heights, walking under suspended loads, distracting cellphone use and entering confined spaces without training. But Daniels insists it's equally important to pay attention to the smaller infractions like running up stairs too quickly, because one slip or tumble could mean a plunge of 100 feet or more to a person's death.

The Perdido team calls it "go slow, work fast" -- a philosophy that says a lot more oil and gas production can be interrupted by an accident than from crew members simply taking their time when performing duties.

It's enforced by peer observation of work being conducted, and even observation of the observers. Much of the safety processes, like the routine work permits and frequent reporting of even minor infractions, is becoming standard throughout the entire U.S. offshore industry, many Perdido workers said.

Hill, who's been with Shell for 35 years, concedes the work atmosphere was a lot more casual in the past, with crew sometimes even forgoing hard hats. He said the stricter safety standards have been built up in the company over the past two decades, with a particularly strong push over the past nine years or so. The 2010 Macondo well blowout brought about even tighter enforcement, particularly from government, he and other Shell workers said.

It's been about 130 days since the last OSHA-reportable injury at Perdido, but company officials expressed disappointment that this year's incident record in the Gulf seems on track to match the previous two, despite the post-Macondo atmosphere and enhanced efforts at minor accident prevention. There's some optimism that offshore workers will come closer to their "goal zero" following the companywide Safety Day on June 6.

Meanwhile, the staff at Perdido will rely on the twice-daily safety meetings, incident report cards, posters and peer pressure.

"We want to capture the incidents or accidents to prevent them, because it builds a trend after a while," Daniels explained. "At the end of that week or month or year, if you continue to see a pattern of improper hand placement or whatever, it leads to an accident."

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