Industry passes Ivan's test, prepares for next

Bob Tippee

Nature gave the safety of offshore oil and gas operations a severe test last year.

Hurricane Ivan caused no loss of life and no major pollution Sept. 13-16 when it ripped through the Gulf of Mexico with winds as strong as 140 mpg and 150 platforms and 10,000 miles of pipeline in its path.

It did destroy seven platforms in shallow water with mud slides. And it caused damage to 24 other platforms in various water depths that the Minerals Management Service calls significant. MMS says 102 pipelines needed repair.

By any standard, this is a direct hit. Yet, while the blow interrupted more than 10% of the Gulf of Mexico's oil and gas production for at least 4 months, environmental damage was at most negligible, although there were minor spills.

The experience deserves more attention than it has received during efforts to allow oil and gas leasing of sections of the Outer Continental Shelf now subject to moratoriums.

It also deserves careful study to see how offshore work can be made even safer.

To that end, the US Minerals Management Service this month let six contracts worth more than $600,000 for studies of the storm damage and responses:

-- The Texas A&M University Offshore Technology Research Center (OTRC) will assess storm sea fastenings on floating platforms.

-- Offshore Risk & Technology Consulting Inc., will study station-keeping failures and mooring standards.

-- Det Norske Veritas will assess pipeline damage.

-- Energy Engineering Inc. will assess the performance of fixed platforms during Ivan and other storms.

-- OTRC will look at mud flows and mud slides.

-- William Lettis & Associates Inc. will conduct a pilot for regional mapping of mud-slide susceptibility.

MMS says Ivan produced measured wave heights of 52 ft, the gulf's highest in records of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Data Buoy Center.

"Undoubtedly," MMS says in its report on 2004 deepwater operations, "Hurricane Ivan produced waves higher than 52 ft that went unmeasured." Platform damage suggests wave crests of 60-65 ft above sea level.

For tests like that, an industry can't be too prepared.

(Author's e-mail: bobt@ogjonline.com)

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