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Gas Well Blowout in the Gulf

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Old 07-25-13, 09:43 AM   #1
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Post Gas Well Blowout in the Gulf



This time we dodged a bullet. This morning the well "bridged over", clogged with sand, as experts from Wild Well Control on scene had expected, and the fire has almost burned out. All 44 workers on the rig had been safely evacuated after discovery that the shear rams on the blowout preventer, designed as the last-ditch feature to cut through any drill pipe in the well and close off the wellbore from the surface, had failed.

The well spewed gas for several hours before it ignited and began to burn the rig. Hercules 265, an old Bethlehem-class, mat supported jack-up rig - a 40-year old design - was working over an unmanned and unused gas platform, over which it cantilevered the drilling package above the production platform to service the well. Small by some of today's standards for deepwater vessels, Hercules 265 and dozens of others of her size and rating still service thousands of wells in the near-shore areas of Louisiana where the offshore industry began.

The well located 55 miles southwest of Grand Isle, Louisiana in about 150' of water, owned by Houston's Walter Oil & Gas Corporation, blew out Tuesday during a re-entry operation in an old well. "Sidetracking", or drilling down an old wellbore to a "kick-off" point can be problematic, when the bit cuts through the wall of the well casing to begin to drill into the formation outside. This is usually done to re-purpose a depleted well, and is well-known technology, practiced for many years.

However, this part of the Gulf is known for "shallow gas", small, usually uneconomic pockets of which exist at depths well above the normal 8,000 ft horizon that marks the beginning of producible gas deposits. Drill into one of these, and you're in for a surprise known as a "gas kick" that can send high-pressure gas up the annulus between the well casing and the drill pipe, expanding as it rises due to decreasing pressure from the mud column above it. It's easily detectible and drilling crews, particularly those offshore are well-trained to handle them. The last thing you want is for that burp of gas to arrive on the surface where it may unload the mud column from the borehole and with the overburden of drilling fluid partially removed, begin to blow.

There are mechanical and procedural solutions for such kicks, but it appears that one or the other broke down in this case. Right now there are too many "if's" to assign cause to this accident, but environmental effects will be minimal as the well was producing natural gas - that burned off in the resulting fire. A light sheen on the water, most likely from entrained "natural gasoline" or light liquids produced as condensate from the runaway well, quickly evaporated. It remains to be seen what damage the rig has sustained, but it is likely that the drilling package is a total loss as it was hanging over the fire for hours. Whether the old jack-up vessel moored alongside is worth saving is still questionable.

Thankfully, all hands escaped hours before the well ignited, and with two firefighting vessels pouring water on the wreckage, we should know soon just how much damage was done both to the rig and the well. You can be sure company and federal investigators will be swarming over what remains of Hercules 265 for answers. This incident serves as a reminder of what can happen as the offshore industry in Texas and Louisiana moves toward profitability. Engineering, procedures, training, and equipment must all be equal to the challenge.
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Old 07-26-13, 10:21 PM   #2
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I've often wondered what life is like aboard these drilling rigs. How large is the crew, what sort of work do they do, types of shifts, manner of accommodation, quality of food, length of rotation, caliber of compensation, etc. Would imagine internet connectivity is available that must radically alter the dynamic in recent years.
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Old 07-27-13, 01:04 AM   #3
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Of all the places for me to be, that has to be the worst place to put me of anywhere on earth. When standing up on the deck of that thing it's very high up off the water so my fear of heights would instantly kick in and I'd be constantly aware I'm way too far off the water to be comfortable. Then the prospect of storms rocking the rig around and high waves would worry me constantly. Then I'm pretty much terrified of being in the water with everything in the ocean around my legs. THEN knowing there is nowhere to go if something goes wrong and time is limited. If you get to a boat, you're lucky. If you don't you are floating shark bait in hundreds of feet deep and inhospitable water. Worst for me though is there is no freedom. You can't just walk away, go ride a motorcycle or visit friends. I'd constantly be a nervous wreck until I had a nervous breakdown thinking about everything.

Being on a drilling rig is just worst case scenario for me. It is every phobia I have tied into one.










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Old 07-27-13, 01:15 AM   #4
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Pretty sweet duty, actually. Offshore platforms are generally divided into two classes, drilling units and production units, although large production platforms can accommodate a drilling operation until all of the "slots" (individual wells) are drilled up, then the drilling rig moves to another platform. The largest offshore operations leave the drilling system largely intact, because with 30 or 40 wells served by a single large platform, there's always workover service ("maintenance") to be done.

Rigs like Hercules 265 position themselves alongside a small, standing platform with the wellhead on it and extend a set of legs down to the bottom, and jack themselves up out of the water to provide a stable working platform for the drilling rig and quarters. To reach the well, they extend a drilling unit over the side to do the drilling. These "cantilever" jack-up rigs may seem old school, but some of the largest and most modern rigs in the fleet are the big jack-ups that can work in 450' of water.

The crew, depending on the size and location of the rig may consist of as few as 30, but more likely include 45 to 80 workers or even more, including drilling crew, contract workers (specialty crews for directional drilling, logging, or running casing), roustabouts (general labor), electricians, motormen, compartment cleaners and galley workers. Operations never stop, except for hurricanes, during which drilling rigs and production platforms are secured and abandoned until the storm passes. Most work a 12-hour shift called a tour (they pronounce it "tower"), 14 days on and six off, 21 and 7, 30 and 14, or other arrangements depending on the time it takes to get to the rig. Crews generally change at 8am and 8pm, but this schedule varies from rig to rig. Rigs that are close inshore change crews more frequently than those drilling in the Arabian Gulf, the arctic, or offshore Africa because ferrying workers back and forth every week or so is expensive. Some drilling contractors will occasionally fly the family over to Europe and at least partially subsidize a week's vacation for their workers who they will fly up to meet the family. It's not a whole lot more expensive than flying the guy all the way home and back once a month.



Most of the newer rigs put four men in a "stateroom" (construction rigs call them a "hut" which is probably more accurate, considering their size). Two sets of bunk beds and four good-sized lockers are in each room, usually with a small table for letter writing or study. The beds have excellent commercial mattresses and are quite comfortable, each having its own reading light so you can read without disturbing everyone else in the compartment.

Workers are pretty good about getting out of their filthy clothes and boots in the change room, hitting the showers, and putting on casual clothes for their hours off. The compartments are kept clean by contract workers who clean, mop and change linens regularly. The crews have lounges where satellite TV and a wide selection of movies on DVD are available, and most carry iPods for entertainment. Internet access is available to the crews on most rigs because they all have satellite data links to their home offices and the oil company to which they are contracted. A few computers and Skype links don't add much to the bandwidth requirements.



The food is simply incredible. Whenever I'm out there I have to be very careful of what I eat because I'll be too heavy for the helicopter to lift me off the pad. Most of these workers burn 5 to 6 thousand calories a day or more (yeah, despite the technology, this is still physical labor), and the cooks expect you to EAT. A coupla prime ribs, half a chicken, thick pork chops, fresh vegetables, pasta, bread, and a selection of pies, cobblers, and bread puddings - are available for four meals a day (one served around midnight which is lunch for the guys on the evening tower, or midnight snack for those on the daylight crew. If that's not enough, there's a 24-hour coffeepot, a selection of cookies and soft-serv ice cream 24/7. I had a Scot service manager under my arm for a few weeks in the Arabian Gulf who tried to eat his way through the ice cream machine singlehanded. At least we always knew where to find him. After a month we were considering throwing him overboard and having him towed back to Abu Dhabi.



The first few years I was going offshore there was an additional perk, at least in the Louisiana and upper Texas coastal waters. Shrimpers were constantly circling drilling rigs because they quickly became artificial reefs with all kinds of fish and plenty of shrimp. The longer those guys could stay out fishing, the more money they made. Most rigs would gladly swap a hundred gallons of diesel for a few buckets of fresh shrimp, so there was a big shrimp boil on the rig at least once a week. We ate 'em fried, grilled, or featured in a gumbo or étouffée. If you aren't an expert Cajun cook, don't even think about a cooking job offshore.

Pay used to be incredible. Today, it's just OK, but there are a lot of benefits. Back as recently as the early 70's when I got my introduction to the "oil patch", there were a lot of guys with an 8th grade education making 40 to 50K annually out there - about what a young engineer with a couple years experience might make in an office. Today, starting pay is a bit more, and when you consider they are housed, fed, clothed, laundered, for that paycheck, plus some kind of compensation for travel to where they catch the boat or helo for the rig, that's not at all bad. If they were working back on the farm, they would probably have earned half that. Because of the work schedule, a lot of guys I've met in the Gulf run a family farm back home that the wife and kids run while Dad's offshore, then he goes home on his "days off" and does the heavy work. It makes a pretty sweet income situation, considering the husband gets full medical, dental, vision, etc coverage - along with that for his family. There are occasional bonuses, depending on the company and the crew's performance.



Today, practically all offshore workers have at least two years of college or vocational school, and many have their bachelor's degrees. I've met schoolteachers, office workers, even professional chefs a couple hundred miles from shore - making good money and converting a lot of it to savings. Some hold down part-time second jobs back on "the bank". The money's good, the work's hard and often uncomfortable, and it can be dangerous if you and your crew aren't careful. That's why drug and alcohol screening is pretty intense, and all hands support it. You don't want to work with some crackhead whose blunder could cost you an arm or your life.

If you've ever watched "reality shows" like "Black Gold" and the like, don't believe a word of it. They are about as representative of oilfield people as the WWE is of polo. Those clowns wouldn't last a minute on a rig today. A typical hand today has his sights set on management and an air-conditioned office in Houston or Dallas, not holding down a barstool in Odessa, Texas. They're sharp, well-trained, and disciplined. You don't get stuck with sixty of your co-workers for two or three weeks straight out where there's nowhere to run and try to be a badass. Those "reality" shows represent the oilfield of sixty years ago - if any of those procedures and practices were permitted today, somebody'd be facing more federal sanctions and lawsuits than he could shake a stick at.

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Old 07-27-13, 01:35 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by O. L. T. View Post
Of all the places for me to be, that has to be the worst place to put me of anywhere on earth. When standing up on the deck of that thing it's very high up off the water so my fear of heights would instantly kick in and I'd be constantly aware I'm way too far off the water to be comfortable. Then the prospect of storms rocking the rig around and high waves would worry me constantly. Then I'm pretty much terrified of being in the water with everything in the ocean around my legs. THEN knowing there is nowhere to go if something goes wrong and time is limited. If you get to a boat, you're lucky. If you don't you are floating shark bait in hundreds of feet deep and inhospitable water. Worst for me though is there is no freedom. You can't just walk away, go ride a motorcycle or visit friends. I'd constantly be a nervous wreck until I had a nervous breakdown thinking about everything.

Being on a drilling rig is just worst case scenario for me. It is every phobia I have tied into one.
You and me both. Thankfully, the company I worked for wouldn't let but a handful of us climb above the first girt (about 10 feet above the drill floor) for insurance purposes. I was FINE with that!

The worst experience I ever had was a shoot on a brand new rig being completed down at Ingleside shipyards - where the rig, Rowan's Gorilla IV was being fitted out. They were in a time crunch to sail the next morning, but sometime during the night before their final day in the yard, a barge and struck one of the legs while the rig was jacked up to the top of the legs for testing - 450 feet above the water. It had torn up the ladders and jacking mechanism on one leg so they couldn't jack back down until repairs were complete. Welders were working frantically to cut away the bent beams while the yard assembled a scaffold 450 feet in the air for workers to get to the main deck that now towered over 40 stories overhead, out of reach of the yard cranes and the service cranes on deck that were never designed for more than 100 feet of lift.



I had to carry a camera rig (25 lbs), a recorder (40 lbs.), tools, tape and spare battery packs (20 pounds) up 40 flights of rather rickety stairs. I never looked down, the climb alone just putting one foot after the other, very nearly killed me. When I got to the top, I found a hatch cover and sat down before I fainted. Then I hear a voice, "Hey Bob" - and next to me is seated an old friend who worked with me years before. He's a service supervisor and had just climbed the same stairs carrying an enormous steel toolbox. We both sat there and panted and quivered for about 30 minutes before we could go to work. He doesn't like heights anymore than I do - except he made the mistake of looking DOWN about halfway up. After that, he said he didn't remember much of anything. We decided we didn't need the stress test part of our annual physicals - If we had heart trouble, we'd just blown it out.

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Old 07-27-13, 07:35 AM   #6
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Thanks for the insight, Lil! Great read!!
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Old 07-27-13, 10:29 AM   #7
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i did an offshore rotation on a deepwater production platform for 6 months, 2 weeks on 2 weeks off. It was a great experience. Good living quarters and food. I enjoyed it a lot, especially the money Production platform quality of life is a LOT better than a drilling rig usually. We had good food, directTV in each room, fiber internet. Not much to complain about. Although you do forget which day of the week it is since it all blurs together.

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Old 07-27-13, 01:20 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by O. L. T. View Post
Of all the places for me to be, that has to be the worst place to put me of anywhere on earth.

Being on a drilling rig is just worst case scenario for me. It is every phobia I have tied into one.
Oil companies recognize this, and platform crews, as I understand it, give out bonus hazardous-duty pay and benefits to compensate for some of the sacrifices that rigging-crews make and the life they lead.
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