As we near the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, we find ourselves reflecting on past storms. These powerful natural phenomena have left indelible marks on the offshore oil and gas industry, from lost production and environmental hazards, such as oil spills, to the invaluable cost of maritime workers’ lives. We must consider these lessons as a blueprint for enhanced hurricane preparedness and safety protocols—to protect crews, the environment, and offshore production as a whole.
This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts a near-normal hurricane season, with a 30% chance each for above- or below-normal activity. The NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center believes with 70% certainty that we may see 12 to 17 named storms, with winds reaching at least 39 mph. Of these, 5 to 9 may turn into hurricanes with winds surpassing 74 mph. 1 to 4 of these could escalate into significant hurricanes: Category 3, 4, or 5, with winds surpassing 111 mph.
What can we learn from past storms to better deal with the 2023 hurricane season? Let’s dive in.
The Worst Hurricanes to Impact Offshore Oil & Gas Operations
The Gulf of Mexico has witnessed several devastating hurricanes that have profoundly impacted the offshore industry. The aftermath of these storms serves as a stark reminder of the damages that such weather events can inflict.
- Hurricane Ivan (2004): Ivan caused a massive underwater mudslide that toppled the Taylor oil platform, resulting in an oil leak that has been ongoing since then and has become one of the longest oil spills in history.
- Hurricane Katrina (2005): This Category 5 hurricane is one of the most devastating storms in U.S. history. It caused extensive damage to offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, destroying 113 oil and gas platforms and damaging 457 pipelines. It caused significant production losses and one of the largest oil spills in the petroleum industry’s history.
- Hurricane Rita (2005): Just a month after Katrina, Hurricane Rita led to further damage in the already vulnerable region, causing significant disruptions in offshore operations and additional oil spills.
- Hurricane Ike (2008): This was another highly destructive hurricane that caused significant damage to offshore infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico, including destruction and damage to several platforms and pipelines.
- Hurricane Harvey (2017): Harvey, another Category 4 hurricane, led to a temporary shutdown of nearly 25% of the oil and gas production in the Gulf. Its slow movement led to prolonged impacts, with massive rainfall causing extensive flooding and associated infrastructure damage.
- Hurricane Laura (2020) and Delta (2020): These storms caused significant disruptions, evacuations, and shutdowns in the Gulf of Mexico’s oil and gas operations.
- Hurricane Ian (2022): Ian struck the Gulf as a Category 4 hurricane, disrupting about 11% of production in the area. About 190,000 barrels of oil per day in production were lost.
The Human Factor: Accidents, Injuries & Near-Misses
Production losses and oil spills are devastating consequences of hurricanes, but we cannot ignore their risk to human life. Offshore workers can suffer severe physical and psychological trauma or even lose their lives if weather warnings are not adequately heeded or hurricane preparedness and evacuation procedures are not effectively implemented.
Take the tragic incident that occurred on April 13, 2021. A series of severe storms had hit the Gulf area of Louisiana. The Seacor Power, a lift boat, set sail to deliver supplies to a platform, only to capsize just a few miles into its journey. 6 crew members were rescued from the water, but 13 others went missing. Searches turned up several bodies in the following weeks, but 7 were never found.
Another heart-wrenching event happened in 2015, involving the El Faro, a cargo ship that sailed straight into the path of Hurricane Joaquin—despite weather warnings. The ship sank, and all 33 crew members on board perished. The 40-year-old vessel stood no chance against the Category 3 hurricane.
During the 2021 hurricane season, the Globetrotter II, a Noble-owned and Shell Oil-leased drillship, was hit by Hurricane Ida’s 150+ mph winds and 80+ foot waves while the crew was still on board. It was a terrifying ordeal that nearly resulted in the capsizing of the rig, and the U.S. Coast Guard had to be called in to rescue the 142 crew members.
Similar incidents have also happened with other vessels, like Transocean’s Deepwater Asgard. In 2020, the rig was still attached when Hurricane Zeta passed, pushing it so far that it nearly snapped the riser pipe. Though the Deepwater Asgard eventually managed to detach, the rig’s drilling equipment struck the seafloor twice and was dragged through the mud, resulting in severe damage.
All these incidents underscore the critical importance of safety and preparedness in the face of hurricanes. It’s not just about protecting operations and preventing environmental damage—it’s about safeguarding the lives of those who work on these offshore platforms. Employers must heed warnings, implement robust safety measures, and put the safety of their crews first.
Enhancing Offshore Safety & Hurricane Preparedness
Offshore safety—and hurricane preparedness in particular—is constantly evolving. It must if it is to keep up with technological advancements, climate change, and global oil demand.
In the offshore industry, a key factor is being prepared for the unexpected, and hurricanes top that list. Understanding and anticipating the impact of these powerful natural phenomena is paramount in ensuring the continuity of operations and, more importantly, the safety of all offshore workers.
Technology plays a critical role in hurricane preparedness. Utilizing satellite data and predictive modeling, it’s possible to gain accurate forecasts that facilitate proactive planning and swift responses. Real-time monitoring systems are also an essential part of the toolkit, providing ongoing surveillance of the structural health of offshore installations during a hurricane.
Structural resilience is a non-negotiable in the offshore industry. Offshore structures must be robust enough to withstand the battering of severe storms. This requirement extends to every aspect of the structure, from fortified mooring systems to using advanced materials that resist harsh conditions.
Safety protocols are stringent and comprehensive. They take into account the requirement for clearing debris, confirming structural integrity, and ensuring the safety of operational systems before work resumes after a hurricane.
On the policy front, regulatory bodies enforce strict safety measures and insist on operators’ detailed hurricane preparedness plans. One of the significant policy changes came after the near-disaster involving the Globetrotter II. In response, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) implemented new rules for future hurricane seasons.
Among these new policies is the concept of “T-Time” reports. These reports, required by BSEE, demand offshore drilling companies to declare the time necessary for evacuation ahead of a tropical storm or hurricane. Furthermore, operators in the Gulf of Mexico must now provide ongoing updates to BSEE about the progress of well shut-ins. This process of evacuation involves disconnecting Lower Marine Riser Packages (LMRPs) and maneuvering away from the storm’s path. It is imperative that companies stay in contact with BSEE when human life is in jeopardy, but unfortunately, the industry has not used the resources the way that they should when tragedy is imminent.
Looking to the Future: Is it Enough?
Despite substantial advancements in safety protocols and technology, we must stop and ask, “Is it enough?” The industry needs to keep improving and evolving in its approach to safety. Past hurricanes must serve as stark reminders of the high stakes at play, pushing the industry to relentlessly enhance safety measures, refine hurricane preparedness strategies, and protect maritime workers’ lives above all.
Arnold & Itkin has built a strong nationwide reputation for fighting for the rights of those hurt and wronged. The firm is a recognized leader in maritime law, stepping up for offshore workers in some of the biggest disasters in history, like the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the El Faro tragedy. They’ve taken on huge corporations and come out on top, winning over $15 billion for their clients all over the United States. At the heart of it all, they’re committed to helping people get back on their feet after serious accidents and injuries, helping them recover and provide for their families. No matter what.
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