Boots & Coots allies with railroad accident response firm

Sam Fletcher
OGJ Online

Boots & Coots International Well Control Inc., Houston, has formed an alliance with Hulcher Professional Services Inc., an emergency response firm for the railroad and transportation industries.

The move gives Boots & Coots support for well control and industrial firefighting as well as upstream and downstream emergency responses for the oil and gas industry.

"It adds to our ability to respond to an emergency with the heavy equipment and the trained equipment operators that we need instead of having to hire local contractors," Jerry Winchester, Boots & Coots president and CEO, told OGJ Online.

"We've used them before on a couple of oil field jobs and especially on our special services side," he said.

Most recently, the two companies joined forces to battle a massive fire at a 10-acre wood mulching site northwest of Houston. After 17 days of digging through mounds of wood chips, tree roots, branches, sacks of dead grass, and other debris to expose and battle flames, workers extinguished the fire Nov. 26.

Based in Denton, Tex., Hulcher was formed in 1960 as a response service for train derailments. "They're to train wrecks what we are to blowouts," Winchester said. And like Boots & Coots, Hulcher since has expanded to provide other services.

Hulcher operates a fleet of more than 1,400 vehicles and equipment units, including 400 pieces of heavy construction equipment, from 39 yards located strategically throughout North America, including three in Canada and one in Mexico.

Boots & Coots is considering storing well control and firefighting equipment at some Hulcher yards for quicker response to remote disasters. "Everything doesn't have to come out of Houston," Winchester said.

"All of Hulcher's heavy equipment is maintained to Caterpillar Co. specifications. They have an aggressive preventive maintenance program, so when their equipment leaves out for a job, it's 100%," he said.

"All of their stuff has winches, which is important for all we do [in moving firefighting equipment and removing debris]," said Winchester. "On many jobs, it has been hard finding local bulldozers with winches mounted on the back like we need. We've had to carry winch packages with us to mount on the 'dozers we'd hire at the well site."

Moreover, he said, "All of their 'dozers are rigged with alternate air supplies to sustain operators when working with hydrogen sulfide."

He said, "Everything is set up to roll within an hour after getting an emergency call. Each piece of heavy equipment has its own trailer assigned to it, ready to go."

Just as important is access to heavy equipment operators who have both the training and the motivation to handle emergencies, said Winchester.

"Your average heavy equipment contractor doesn't like to have his 'dozers and other equipment operating so close to a fire that the paint blisters off," he said. "The average heavy equipment operator only wants to put in an 8-hr day while emergency response is geared around the clock."

Boots & Coots already had alliances with Halliburton Energy Services, the John Wright Co., and ABB Vetco.

"Halliburton worked its first blowout for old Skelly Oil Co. back in 1921 when they were still using steam-powered rigs," said Winchester. "We formed our alliance with Halliburton Energy Services in 1995, and they have always been first class in the support they've given us."

On one occasion, the only aircraft immediately available to fly a Boots & Coots response team to a blowout in North Africa was an executive jet used by Dick Cheney, Halliburton's CEO before he became US Vice-President. "So we took the jet to North Africa and Cheney had to book a commercial flight," Winchester recalled.

Alliances with John Wright Co. and ABB Vetco, the specialty wellhead equipment manufacturer, were formed "a couple of years ago," he said.

"John Wright is the premier relief well drilling group," said Winchester. "A lot of people say they can drill a relief well, but not many ever have actually intercepted a wild well and circulated mud down the relief well and up the bore of the other well to kill it."

High costs and environmental concerns dictate the need for advance planning, so that the best equipment, the proper replacement wellhead, specific drilling fluids, and other items are available when needed, he said. It also means having a backup contingency plan, such as a relief well already drilling, in case efforts to kill the well at the surface are unsuccessful.

"It's all about getting the best people out there on a job," said Winchester. "By the very nature of our business, we see some customers on their worse days, the really bad hair days. We want to help them the best we can."

For that reason, Boots & Coots has expanded to provide additional services, from preventive measures to forestall mishaps to restoration and environmental services after a blowout. Its special services unit deals with marine oil spills, along with refinery, pipeline, manufacturing, and transportation emergencies, inclusive of hazardous material handling.

"In the old days, a wild well team would go out, cap the well, throw their overalls in the back of the truck, and leave with the oil and condensate still dripping," said Winchester. "But it's not like that anymore."

There aren't as many blowouts today as 20 years ago, at the height of the drilling boom in 1981, when Texas alone had a higher rig count than the entire US today. With so many inexperienced crews working then and rigs being rushed from one job to the next, more accidents occurred.

There are still plenty of blowouts to keep the wild well crews busy, although the public may not always hear about them.

"Talking about a blowout is the prerogative of the customer," said Winchester. "If it happens in a populated part of the US with the CNN [Cable News Network] helicopters circling overhead, the customer may have to talk about it. But not if it happens in a remote part of the desert in North Africa or the Middle East.

"One of our biggest jobs was a blowout in Kuwait this year that no one ever knew about."

Contact Sam Fletcher at samf@ogjonline.com

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