Government, industry prepare for 2007 hurricane season

New procedures are being implemented to better protect gulf of Mexico oil and gas operations during the coming hurricane season, federal government and industry officials said.

May 30th, 2007

Nick Snow
Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON, DC, May 30 -- New procedures are being implemented to better protect Gulf of Mexico oil and gas operations during the coming hurricane season, federal government and industry officials said.

Measures range from requiring all structures to have global positioning systems to restricting operations of mobile offshore drilling units that have not been brought up to new standards, they told reporters during a May 30 briefing at the US Dept. of the Interior.

"We're preparing for a very, very active hurricane season," said Walter D. Cruickshank, deputy director of the US Minerals Management Service. He noted that a week earlier, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast 13-17 named storms during the Atlantic hurricane season, with 7-10 of those becoming hurricanes and 3-5 hurricanes reaching Category 3 strength or higher.

MMS is implementing seven operational enhancements to further clarify special engineering practices and reporting procedures on all offshore structures from mobile offshore drilling units (MODUs) and jack ups to existing and new fixed platforms, said Cruickshank. On June 1, the hurricane season's opening day, the DOI division also will activate a new hurricane information website with current storm information and updated production and evacuation information, he said.

Simultaneously, the American Petroleum Institute has published three interim documents that apply the latest understanding of environmental conditions in and around the gulf to better protect offshore facilities from hurricanes, API Pres. Red Cavaney said.

'Metocean' impacts
Hurricanes Ivan in 2004 and Katrina and Rita in 2005 produced higher waves and stronger winds than anticipated in deeper areas, moving the industry away from viewing the gulf as a uniform body of water, he explained. Recognizing a central portion, the "metocean," as a gathering spot for water currents that can strengthen storms led API to reassess applicable recommended practices, Cavaney said.

API published three interim documents for the 2006 hurricane season covering operation and construction of both MODUs and fixed and floating production platforms. The interim documents announced on May 30—dealing with hurricane condition data, offshore structure design, and assessment of existing offshore structures—are expected to become final recommended practices in 2008.

"Meanwhile, our companies are refining and distributing fuel at record levels after recovering from damage sustained during the 2004-05 hurricanes. For 2007, refiners and marketers continue to work with authorities to clarify priorities for power restoration critical to restarting operations and, where possible, to provide emergency power generation to avoid significant disruption to fuel delivery and distribution," Cavaney said.

The GPS requirement is one of several steps that will improve tracking of equipment and evacuation of employees, noted Rear Adm. Wayne Justice, enforcement and incident management director at the US Coast Guard. "Assuring that two agencies can communicate, even if one has to move to another location, is critical. We have shown we can do that," he said.

Cruickshank said that after the 2005 hurricanes forced MMS to temporarily relocate its Gulf Coast headquarters to Houston from New Orleans, its five offices in the region now have independent communications systems so they can still function if one has to shut down during an emergency.

"New practices have suggested that MODU operators increase the number of mooring lines from 8 to 12," he said. MMS has issued notices to operators in the gulf providing guidance for meeting new requirements, which includes following API's recommended practices, he said.

Possible restrictions
"The costs could be substantial," observed Elmer Danenberger, engineering and operations division chief at MMS. "Several mobile drilling rigs won't be able to operate in parts of the gulf during hurricane season because they don't have new equipment. Up to 20% of the existing MODU fleet could be affected."

New standards primarily involve top-side equipment because subsurface systems came through the 2005 hurricanes with relatively minor damage, he told reporters following the briefing. The Mars platform experienced problems when wind tore a derrick loose and sent it into the water, creating a cascade that jarred the entire structure, he said.

Platforms now are being designed so decks are about 25 ft higher at 75 ft above the surface, Danenberger said. Older platforms still are likely to survive, based on their performances during the 2005 hurricanes, but the newer ones are being built to sustain less top-side damage, he said.

Offshore pipelines have developed alternative routes since the two Category 5 storms, while some platforms have built systems that make it easier to unload stored crude onto barges, added MMS Associate Director Chris Oynes.

Onshore, said Cavaney, "Pipeline companies have taken a variety of steps, including onsite backup electric power generation capability, improving communications systems to support continued operations, and working with vendors to preposition food, water, and transportation, and plan for other emergency supplies and services."

"We think that with the improvements that have been made to new and existing facilities that they'd be able to better withstand what they had to endure in 2005," said Cruickshank, "although it's never smart to second-guess Mother Nature," he added.

Contact Nick Snow at nsnow@cox.net.

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