To shut down or not to shut down…That is the question

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offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of MexicoFar from Shakespeare’s existential oratory that famously characterized the opening of Hamlet, the question of shutting down, or evacuating an offshore rig in the face of severe weather is one that carries enormous consequences. In addition to the logistical challenges of aligning evacuation methods (aircraft or boat), there are the costs associated with lost production time. Additional questions must be answered pertaining to evacuation of all personnel, or only non-essential personnel. The weight of these decisions makes many of us glad not to be the one making them, yet hundreds of safety and management staffs on offshore rigs face this challenge at this time of year. Welcome to hurricane season, please pass the headache meds.

When Disturbance 33 and Tropical Storm Erin made their way toward the Gulf of Mexico last weekend, potentially threatening every operation in their way, several companies began to evacuate non-essential personnel. Both Marathon Oil Corporation and BP set their plans in motion on Thursday, Aug. 15, removing mainly housekeeping and mess hall staff. The following day, Petrobras took one step further and confirmed a total production shut-in, according to Rigzone.

An onshore observer might question why such extensive – and expensive – action was taken when the storms did not guarantee a direct hit to these installations. We were certainly never talking about Category 3-strength winds or storm surge at any point in the discussion. As unpredictable as weather patterns in the Gulf are, rig operators take every threat seriously, especially as we enter into the busiest part of hurricane season.

Helicopter park on oil rigOn average, one offshore rig will require at least five to seven days lead time to safely evacuate and properly shutdown operations prior to a potential impact. ImpactWeather Meteorologist and Hurricane Expert Chris Hebert says that in many cases, oil and gas companies have to start evacuations when there is just a mention of a disturbance, in order to protect their personnel and assets from a storm and the possibility that it could strengthen.

This decision matrix highlights the fine line that rig operators must walk when productivity and profitability are at stake. To shut down and suffer downtime, or not shut down and risk property damage or worse, death, is a question that plagues these decision-makers.

Every hurricane season, ImpactWeather’s operations staff supply our offshore clients with real-time data to aid those clients in making the best decision possible. We’re keenly aware of what’s at stake for operators in the Gulf of Mexico. The “Better Safe Than Sorry” mantra is one that is relevant to these situations, but these decisions are not that simple.  Loss to the bottom line, damage to assets and injuries to personnel are all hovering over the person who has to make the shut-down call.

With each storm, we learn lessons. With each advancement in technology, we can better serve our clients. With each hurricane season, we appreciate the weight of these decisions on the person, or people making them. Increasing oil and gas production in the Gulf means more rigs, more staff and more headaches during hurricane season.  There is no fool-proof formula for answering the question of shutting down or evacuating. Being armed with the best information is the most critical component.

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