Bob Old, who participated in helicopter rescue operations during the deadly Hurricane Juan in the Gulf of Mexico in 1985, recalls how he along with dozens of energy workers were stranded on the offshore platform for nine days. The event was a learning experience for both Old and the aviation industry.
“Most of the time the Gulf of Mexico looks like a scenic postcard, but it also can be the scariest nightmare,” said Old, a manager at Bristow Group, a Houston aviation services company. “It can be very unpredictable.”
Now, as the Atlantic hurricane season begins, energy companies and contractors are focusing on improved forecasting, planning, and decision making to avoid situations like those experienced by Old. New technology allows meteorologists and companies to more accurately predict major storms and their paths.
At Royal Dutch Shell, which operates the most oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, the priorities in order of importance are safety, protection of offshore facilities, and maximizing the oil and gas production“, says Phil Smith, Shell’s general manager for emergency management in North and South America.
“When a storm is coming onshore, we’re already planning to redeploy and restart,” said Smith, who has a team of 80 professionals for hurricane and storm planning.
Energy companies like Shell establish transition times, or T time, to evacuate or relocate a rig or platform. T times can be five or six days before a storm arrives. Shell has a list of non-essential workers – such as engineers and construction and maintenance workers – who can be evacuated without interrupting operations. In the meantime, rig crews secure equipment and shut down ancillary construction and maintenance work. The company will ensure there is sufficient food and supply for people remaining on the platforms.
Shell evacuates workers at least three days before conditions worsen, contracting companies such as FairLifts to schedule at least seven helicopters with additional helicopters on standby for evacuation operations. FairLifts works with a network of affiliates that provide helicopters to transport 12 people at a time from offshore to shore and back in under three hours. Flights run from sunrise to sunset with crews limited to 10 hours of flight time per day.
Unless a storm is extremely severe, essential personnel may remain to keep production going.
“We’re kind of hedging our bets a bit,” Smith said. “Sometimes the storm turns or fizzles out and you’re still producing.”
Oil companies also employ drillships and deepwater floating platforms that can be moved away from the path of storms to avoid destruction. The deepest oil platform in the world, Shell’s Stones facility, can be detached and moved to safety.
“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.”