The Wall Street Journal: Giant Tugs Rescue The Gulf Oil Rigs Battered by Katrina: "In the 10 years since Royal Dutch Shell PLC first proved it was possible to drill deep-water wells economically, there has been a rush to use floating rigs to explore for the Gulf's huge pockets of oil and gas. Those rigs have helped boost oil and gas production in the Gulf sharply, but that output was severely curtailed by Katrina.": Friday 16 September 2005
By RUSSELL GOLD
INGLESIDE, Texas -- On Wednesday, a muscular tug called the Harvey War Horse pulled off the nautical equivalent of threading a needle: hauling a bulky 300-foot-wide floating drilling rig through a 400-foot-wide ship channel.
Hurricane Katrina's violent winds and waves hammered several floating drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, damaging them and casting them adrift. Now, it's the full-time job of tugs like the Harvey War Horse to get the rigs back in place or tow them into shipyards for repairs.
Getting the rigs working again is an urgent task. In the 10 years since Royal Dutch Shell PLC first proved it was possible to drill deep-water wells economically, there has been a rush to use floating rigs to explore for the Gulf's huge pockets of oil and gas. Those rigs have helped boost oil and gas production in the Gulf sharply, but that output was severely curtailed by Katrina. Because of the demand for their services, owners of the specialized tugs can charge more than $200,000 a day.
Moving the big rigs is painstakingly slow. This week, Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc.'s rig, the Ocean Quest, was brought into a shipyard near Corpus Christi, Texas. From her damaged pontoons to the top of her red-and-white derrick, the rig is 30 stories tall, and fully loaded it weighs as much as two Navy destroyers. The assignment was awarded to Harvey Gulf International Maritime Inc., a family-run company based in Harvey, La., that dominates the offshore tug market.
Eighteen of the Gulf's drilling rigs were in the path of Katrina's hurricane-force winds, according to RigLogix, an energy research provider. Half were either damaged or drifted miles from their prestorm locations. GlobalSantaFe Corp.'s rig, the Arctic I, was blown ashore near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Jack-up rigs, which are smaller cousins of floating rigs that use three long legs to position themselves on the sea floor, didn't fare much better. One drifted 66 miles before running aground off the Alabama coast; another sank in 155 feet of water.
Now, many of these rigs are filling up shipyards up and down the Texas coast. But even getting them to shore can require creative problem-solving. Diamond Offshore's Ocean Quest fared better than many. Before the storm, the company moved the rig closer to shore and mired it in the muddy seabed, hoping to stabilize it during the storm. But Katrina shook the rig violently, leaving a 14-inch hole in the pontoon that keeps it afloat.
Descending onto the hobbled rig by helicopter, Diamond project specialist Steve Sheek rigged a temporary patch from a neoprene wetsuit sandwiched between two steel plates. Now, the Ocean Quest will need only a couple of weeks at the Gulf Marine Fabricators shipyard here for repairs.
The job of getting the rig into the shipyard was the real challenge, and it fell to Jimmy Creppell, captain of the Harvey War Horse, one of the most powerful tugs in the Gulf. He had to maneuver the huge rig through the narrow channel as it was buffeted by 25-mile-an-hour winds and pulled and pushed by swirling currents.
It took an hour for Mr. Creppell to even line up the rig to enter the chute. Three smaller tugs motored out to help, but their engines were too puny to make much of a difference. The smaller tugs surrounded the rig on three sides, nudging it into place when needed, while Mr. Creppell's Harvey War Horse did most of the work. It was a tense and tedious hourlong trip, but Mr. Creppell kept a steady hand. "You have to keep your cool and concentrate on what you're doing. Just point the tug in the direction you want to go and the rig has to follow," said the tug captain, who took his first job as a deckhand in 1972, when he was fresh out of high school.
The basic business of hauling rigs hasn't changed much over the years. If a rig is drifting too close to a production platform or nearing the shoreline, the tugs must "lasso" the rig, says Harvey Gulf's chief executive, Shane Guidry, whose grandfather founded the company. That involves maneuvering the tug as close as possible to the wayward rig and grabbing a three-inch-thick wire bridle hanging from the side, then using a powerful clamp called a "shark jaw" to prevent the wire from injuring the tug's crew.
If the rig is floating in open water, the tugs stay nearby to monitor it while the rig owner gets a crew aboard to assess damage. Then the tug either hauls the rig back into place or tows it to a shipyard for repairs.
As oil companies venture into deeper waters searching for new oil and natural-gas fields, the rigs have gotten bigger -- and so have the tugs. Recognizing the trend toward bigger rigs, Harvey Gulf sold off its smaller tugs a few years ago and super-sized its fleet. The Harvey War Horse, which is about four years old, is equipped with a 16,500 horsepower engine. With oil prices soaring, its diesel fuel bill can run up to $20,000 a day. But the new generation tug is also more agile and safer than earlier models.
Meanwhile, the vulnerability of floating rigs to storms like Katrina and last year's Hurricane Ivan has stirred new interest in figuring out ways to improve mooring systems. The rigs, which are tethered to the sea floor with eight car-size anchors, are a danger to the rest of the oil and gas infrastructure when they break loose during storms. As they drift, the rigs drag their tether anchors for miles, raking the seabed and snagging pipelines.
During Ivan last year, the industry documented for the first time that a floating rig had damaged an undersea pipeline. This caused so much concern that the federal Minerals Management Service commissioned a study, due to be completed next year, on why the anchors failed.
But even if industry engineers come up with a more hurricane-proof mooring system, there will still be plenty of more routine work for tug operators like Mr. Creppell. After buying groceries and filling up with 100,000 gallons of fuel yesterday, Mr. Creppell headed his War Horse back into the Gulf. Following a 20-hour cruise, he was scheduled to connect up with an undamaged rig that had just completed a new well and move it to the next drilling site.
Write to Russell Gold at email@example.com
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