Severe Weather and Drilling Operations
Severe weather of any type can have an impact on drilling operations, both offshore and onshore. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting an above-normal hurricane season in the Atlantic for 2021. AccuWeather is predicting an increase over the national average for tornadoes. Severe weather can be unpredictable and hard to accurately track. While many continue to try to return to a normal life after Covid-19, preparations for this severe weather season may seem daunting. The same can be said for those working on offshore and onshore drilling rigs.
Today, most drilling operators in areas of severe weather utilize and invest in real time weather and forecast data and on-site weather radars. When severe weather hits, drilling operators face not only safety concerns for their personnel but financial concerns for their operations, prioritizing the protection of personnel first, and then securing the well and other equipment. Evacuations are costly and if faced with evacuation, loss of equipment and production revenue is likely to follow which also causes the costs to add up fast.
Most drilling operations will set up a line of communication for responsibility during severe weather and implement action plans that are reviewed and revised regularly. Most drilling rigs must be tested for wind load ratings, working alarm systems, and must provide an inventory of equipment with defects. Many times, rigs will prepare for severe weather by securing nonessential equipment and removing equipment that increases risks of hazards and damage. Securing the rig requires laying down the drill pipe, filling the hole with drilling fluid, clearing the floor of tongs or other loose tools, closing the BOP and locking down all manual locks, and if time permits, laying down the derrick. Electrical equipment must also be disconnected, and engines must be shut down. This full process may take upwards of 48 hours.
The Gulf of Mexico has warm water, nice views, and is generally a nice place to be. However, during hurricane season, the Gulf can be a harsh environment for drilling rig operations. Gulf of Mexico hurricanes produces 100 mph winds and 12-foot storm surges. Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita damaged 52 offshore platforms and destroyed another 115.
After Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf, many drilling operators worked to devise more accurate plans for relocation, evacuations, and shutdowns. Rig and platform height is critical for protection with 91 feet above sea level being the normal standard now. Platforms are also now designed to withstand several thousand pounds per square inch of pressure from winds and waves. Often times with offshore rigs, evacuation procedures are initiated in advance of the storm intensifying to a tropical storm and planning may begin several days in advance of the storm system hitting.
Early evacuation and cooperative efforts also assist when personnel are back on land, where evacuations for other citizens may already be underway, causing clogged highways and other travel constraints. Even with planning and procedures, many times the equipment will be damaged, if not destroyed. But with proper emergency planning, the personnel that stepped onto the platform will also step off and safely prepare for the storm to come from the shore.
Much of the onshore drilling operations in the United States take place in tornado alley, that area that stretches from Texas up to Nebraska. This particular area is home to intense lightning strikes, large hail stones, straight-line winds, and tornadoes. In addition, the type of storm system that normally creates severe weather in the plains is much more difficult to predict than with hurricanes as these storms can pop up suddenly.
Planning and preparing for severe weather with onshore drilling requires detailed planning and efficient execution. Many times, rigs must be secured and personnel must be prepared to evacuate with little warning. Even with detailed emergency plans in place, severe weather in the places can be unpredictable and in contrast to the nationally alerted hurricanes found in the Gulf, many onshore rigs rely on local weather updates and information which can change in a split second. While offshore rigs focus on evacuation plans that allow time for the transport, many onshore are faced with staying in place as attempts to evacuate may prove to be more hazardous.
Some companies have invested in mobile storm shelters, or portable safe rooms, to protects personnel when storms hit without warning. Other companies have used rig rooms, like the doghouse or changing room, as shelters by reinforcing them to withstand up to F5 tornadoes and anchoring the structures as a part of the rig move process.
Interpreting and predicting weather patterns is complex and challenging. Many times, planning for severe weather in the oil patch requires extensive planning ahead. As the saying goes, weather is a great metaphor for life: sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, and there’s nothing much you can do about it but carry an umbrella.
As the industry continues to grow towards the use of accurate and precise tools to help coordinate safe evacuations and minimize damage and costs during severe weather outbreaks, umbrellas are just the tip of the iceberg for drilling rigs. Although the science behind severe weather is not always accurate, new technology is constantly being tested and introduced to help stabilize rigs and drilling companies continue to develop and deploy action plans and procedures to help prepare for mother nature’s unforeseen events.