Operators and contractors had an unsought, but inevitable opportunity to put the lessons of hurricanes Ivan (2004) Katrina and Rita (2005) to the test at summer’s end, faced with the menace of Hurricane Dean. Rebounding off of 2006’s welcome hurricane doldrums, Dean swept mightily into the Gulf of Mexico in late August. Dean’s arrow-straight trajectory skirted US Gulf of Mexico development areas. However, it bee-lined across the Caribbean, landing hard as a Category 5 storm on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula early on 21 August. It was reported as the most intense hurricane to hit land there in nearly 2 decades.
The industry had its act squared away, busily securing equipment and spiriting personnel ashore. Dean was expected to spend the 21st traversing the peninsula, exiting north of Ciudad del Carmen and into the Bay of Campeche, the heart of Mexico’s offshore business. It was expected to enter the bay as a Category 2 storm.
That Tuesday, Noble Corp methodically evacuated 685 people from its 8 Mexican jackups, including PEMEX personnel. Noble had 5 jackups in Cantarell, PEMEX’s largest offshore field, 2 more further south, and the eighth north along the coast. All 8 were in the storm’s predicted track zone. The company held a media briefing on 21 August to discuss its hurricane preparations and procedures.
One major lesson learned for jackups after Katrina and Rita (“KatRita”) was to increase the air gap between the water surface and the bottom of the jackup hull. Following that horrific season, API RP-95J was developed, recommending that the air gap be increased from 50 ft to more than 60 ft, said Mark Burns, Noble’s vice president/division manager. Mr Burns oversees operations of Noble’s 9 GOM MODUs.
The jackups were preloaded in preparation for the storm, as well, added Gene House, vice president/division manager of Noble’s Mexico Division, the additional loading driving one leg into the seabed until no further penetration occurs. This represents a depth of some 80 ft to 90 ft below the seabed. In addition, equipment was tied down and the well secured so evacuation could proceed.
“That really is about all you can do to prepare yourself,” Mr House remarked. “There could be damage. I certainly hope not.” Noble COO David Williams observed that the rigs should weather the storm in up to about 90-knot winds. However, he cautioned, “These are marine units, and in a marine environment, you never know.”
Mr House indicated that the winds should have died down by the evening of 22 August. “We’ll go have a look as soon as we possibly can,” he said, adding that a helicopter was standing by for a reconnaissance on 23 August.
Since the US GOM was spared, Noble was already planning to return personnel offshore, as early as 21 August in some cases. Other operators and contractors will doubtless proceed with revving up their own operations. “In the US Gulf of Mexico, there will be a lot of helicopters flying today and boats operating,” remarked Mr Burns.
Noble’s preventative actions did not spring to life in a vacuum. Even before KatRita, Noble had committed to a mooring-upgrade program, Mr Burns said, the first drilling contractor to do so. The long-term project began in 2004 following Hurricane Ivan. To date, Noble has upgraded 3 deepwater rigs, with the Noble Paul Romano currently undergoing modifications and two more in the queue. The upgrades will be complete in spring 2008.
Noble scored another first, Mr Burns said, by installing GPS on every rig in its fleet, including its submersibles. This important upgrade, which allows real-time rig tracking, plus providing an indisputable record of rogue-rig excursions, was in place before the landmark 2006 season, he added. “It was invaluable to us,” he said.
More recently, Noble has installed additional monitoring systems. The system sends additional information via satellite to web servers in Texas and Virginia. The system monitors and reports in real time each rig’s longitude and latitude, pitch, roll, air temperature, barometric pressure, wind angle, maximum wind, wind speed, dew point and humidity.
Noble’s evacuation procedure is divided into 3 stages. Stage 1 (“Alert”) kicks in when a tropical storm or depression is forecast to move into the GOM. At this time, the contractor informs its customers and prepares its plan to secure the well and equipment. Stage 2 (“Watch”) is activated when the storm moves within 200 miles of the GOM. The company works through its evacuation checklist, removes non-essential personnel and considers what transportation is available. Finally, Stage 3 (“Rig Evacuation”) means shutting in and securing the well and equipment, and fully evacuating the rig.
Noble works closely with the operator, who pays for the evacuation. Mutual help among contractors is the order of the day.
“It’s a small industry and we all work together,” he said.
Post-Dean, Noble reported essentially no damage from the hurricane. Repopulation of the rigs offshore Mexico was completed on Sunday, August 26. Noble completed repopulating five rigs operating in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, August 25.