Energy giants hunker down on verge of hurricane season

05 31, 2013 by Houston Chronicle

Saturday won't be just another day for energy companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico.

It's the start of the Atlantic hurricane season, kicking off six months of nail-biting as companies watch the weather forecasts to decide whether to shut in wells and pull their people off platforms.

BP, the largest oil and gas producer in the deep-water Gulf last year, offered a glimpse into its hurricane planning Thursday.

BP operates four production platforms in the Gulf - Thunder Horse, Atlantis, Mad Dog and Na Kika - and holds interest in three non-operated hubs: Mars, Ursa and Great White, all 140 miles or farther from shore.

"That brings challenges" during hurricane season, said Steve Benson, area operations manager for BP's Atlantis platform.

Each platform is like a small city, and the company can't wait until the storm's path is obvious to decide what to do.

"Our job is to anticipate … the strength of a storm and what actions we need to undertake," Benson said.

That job takes place in a third-floor conference room on the BP campus in West Houston, which Benson said becomes the crisis room when a storm is brewing.

He's there, as is the company's chief meteorologist, W. Edward Bracken, along with representatives from the different platforms and related contract operations.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week predicted between 13 and 20 named storms this year, seven to 11 of which will become hurricanes.

Once a tropical storm is brewing, Bracken determines which model is most likely to be accurate and how strong the storm is likely to be when it reaches key sites, as well as what the company can expect when it reaches onshore assets.

Predicting intensity is still difficult.

"We can never be very confident in intensity forecasts, so we always assume it will be more intense than forecast," Bracken said.

Benson said preparations to secure the platform start five to seven days before a storm is expected to hit.

Next is evacuating nonessential personnel, usually 20 percent to 30 percent of those on the platform.

After that, work to shut in the well begins, a process that takes several days.

He said it can happen more quickly, but doing it more methodically helps when workers restart the well.

Shutting down production remotely is technically possible, Benson said, but BP still does it the old-fashioned way.

"I wouldn't want to get on a plane if the pilot was in Las Vegas like a drone pilot," he said. "It's more than just flipping a switch."

"It's a very busy time in that last 24 hours."

Once the well is shut in, the remaining workers are evacuated by helicopter and boat.

That's usually 800 to 1,500 people and takes three days, Benson said.

He said he didn't have an estimate on the total cost of preparing for a storm and restarting production afterward.

"We don't have any choice," he said. "It's not cheap."

Evacuation costs alone are probably $1 million or more, one way, he said, "but we've got to get our people out."