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MMS Readies for Coming Hurricane Season

With just two weeks to go before hurricane season begins, some of the top brass for the U.S. Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS) shared a podium last week in Houston with representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Petroleum Institute (API) to offer their take on preparations under way to ensure minimal disruptions if a major storm enters the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) this year.

Hurricane season officially opens June 1, but government officials have borrowed the Boy Scout motto to "be prepared" ahead of any storms in the GOM, where most of the domestic offshore oil and natural gas infrastructure is located.

"Energy production from the Gulf is vital to our nation's energy supply, and it's imperative that MMS continues our strong emphasis on preparations to reduce the risk of an extended disruption of energy production from the Gulf," MMS Deputy Director Walter Cruickshank told reporters. "By working with all involved parties, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the API and the oil and gas industry, MMS remains steadfast in our goal to improve the protection of oil and gas production in the Gulf from disruptions during this hurricane season."

The MMS has upgraded its oversight programs for the offshore system, but its efforts took on new meaning during the devastating hurricane season in 2005, when the infamous hurricanes Katrina and Rita -- along with a slew of other strong storms -- sliced through the heart of U.S. offshore energy infrastructure. That year nearly 75% of the GOM's offshore facilities were damaged, MMS noted.

However, MMS officials pointed out some of the positives: there were no significant oil spills from wells, no evidence that oil from Outer Continental Shelf facilities reached shore or impacted birds or mammals and all offshore personnel were evacuated safely.

"We are much better prepared than we were three years ago," said Cruickshank. With extensive planning and the help of the oil and gas industry, "the aim now is to further improve performance this year."

Ahead of the 2007 hurricane season, MMS issued guidance documents for offshore operators that focus on enhanced design standards, and it unveiled a new website page dedicated to tracking hurricane information. Another set of design standards and assessment criteria for new and existing GOM infrastructure, which was incorporated from API standards, took effect Thursday. The new criteria, which were published by MMS in early April, are expected to increase platform "survivability" during intense storms (see NGI, April 21).

"Incorporating these new criteria into the final rule will improve the protection of critical oil and gas infrastructure and allow oil and gas operators to restore production sooner following an hurricane event," said Cruickshank.

The MMS already has identified 65 offshore structures that it considers "high-consequence" facilities because of their location, function or proximity to other infrastructure. The agency is requiring the offshore operators to assess the structures and strengthen them if needed. Plans also are in place to shift flows of gas and oil if there is structural damage to subsea pipelines. Oil would be transported via barges; gas would be rerouted to other pipelines.

Operators of the high-consequence facilities have until June 1 to submit an assessment of whether their offshore structures meet the new MMS standards, said Lars Herbst, regional director of the MMS GOM Region.

If an identified facilities does not meet the MMS assessment criteria, Herbst said, the operators have to submit a mitigation plan by June 1. In general, he noted, older platforms are "more likely" to need mitigation plans.

"The Gulf of Mexico is a very mature oil and gas province, so we have facilities that have been put in from the 1950s all the way through today," said Herbst. Design criteria for GOM structures have changed "every time there is a learning event..."

Also new this year is the addition of a Coast Guard official to the MMS "continuation of operations" committee. The Coast Guard, which is in charge of maritime law enforcement, will help coordinate safety activities during storms. In addition, MMS said it is now better prepared to temporarily shift its operations from New Orleans to Houston if necessary -- something it had to do in 2005.

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