Deepwater Drilling Rig Operators Learn from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, unmanned offshore drilling rigs drifted sometimes hundreds of miles. To better prepare for hurricanes, the industry responded with rig upgrades and new operational guidelines. Houston Public Radio's Ed Mayberry reports.

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When a tropical storm or depression is forecast for the Gulf of Mexico, offshore drillers begin securing wells and drilling equipment. Noble's Mark Burns says non-essential personnel leave first, followed by all other drilling contractors.

"You can't just shut everything down, turn the engines and lights off and then get on the boat or the helicopter and go away. First thing you need to do is work with your customer--Shell, Hess, Exxon, whoever it may be--and you have to secure the well you're drilling."

Noble has been in contact with Gene House at their Mexico office in Ciudad del Carmen, on the west side of the Yucatan Peninsula, who oversees operations for Noble's work for Mexico's national oil company Pemex.

"As Mark said, we have eight rigs active in Mexico right now. When we're finished, we will have evacuated about 685 people from these rigs. That's including Pemex, third parties and ourselves."

In the past, Mark Burns says some unmanned rigs broke loose of moorings and drifted sometimes hundreds of miles.

"Eleven jack-ups sustained major damage, thirteen semis were set adrift, 21 suffered mooring damage. There was a significant amount of pipeline damage. That was a lot of times caused from the environmental condition, storms coming through, and damaging old platforms, that kind of thing."

Since the 2005 hurricanes that hit the Gulf, the industry worked to better prepare for future hurricanes. Burns says the height of drilling structures has been increased and mooring systems have been strengthened.

"In lieu of the events of 2005 we responded as an industry working with MMS, U.S. Coast Guard, and we--every drilling contractor and offshore operator--is working to these interim guidelines. One of the lessons learned was mooring systems need strengthening, real-time monitoring tracking capabilities implemented. So the industry has worked together, both the operators, the drilling contractors, the government, regulatory authorities. Additional anchor wenches, stronger mooring wire and chain, water plane tanks added for additional stability."

Now that the weather danger has passed, Noble plans to restart operations in a phased sequence.

"We'll determine the extent of any damages, if any, and then we'll start staging our personnel back offshore. It's in a controlled environment, but first you send a technical response and assessment team. The point is that in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, there'll be a lot of helicopters flying today, a lot of boats remobilizing back to location. We'll get things back to normal."

Ed Mayberry, Houston Public Radio News.

Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...