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Shell Won't Bet the Forecast for Hurricane Season

Forecasts predicting the number and intensity of hurricanes predicted to affect the United States abound every year, but a Shell Exploration and Production (E&P) executive said Monday that a long-term forecast "bluntly, has nothing to do with our preparations."

What does matter are the lessons learned from previous storms and how to take what is learned to keep personnel safe and infrastructure secure, said Frank Glaviano, vice president of Production Americas for Shell E&P. He and Tom Smith, president of Shell Oil Products U.S., briefed reporters about the company's preparations for this hurricane season, which officially began on Monday.

Shell's full-time hurricane incident response team (HIRT) already has conducted drills and is "ready to go" for the season, Glaviano said. HIRT personnel support Shell's offshore aviation, communications, drilling rigs, producing rigs and construction activities, and the team comes together whenever a storm is "brewing somewhere in the Atlantic."

In every case, the priorities are the same.

"We don't bet the forecast," Glaviano told reporters. "We all know there are limitations to forecasts...but we never put our people at harm...It has resulted in some locations being evacuated that didn't have to be, but we didn't regret that."

Shell's second priority is environmental protection, which involves securing the assets, protecting them from damage and protecting the region from spills. Specific procedures vary for each drilling and production area.

For Shell and other producers that operate in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), things have changed since last year, when hurricanes Ike and Gustav blew across the region. And those changes come on top of the many things implemented since 2005, when hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated offshore and onshore facilities.

"What's different from last year is that we now have more people offshore, which means more activity," said Glaviano. This year Shell has 1,800 people working offshore; last year there were 1,600. The company added more resources in response, and it now has 11 helicopters in its fleet, with eight more on retainer if needed. Each helicopter is capable of ferrying up to 15 people.

"We also have greater distances," he said. The Perdido Development, in which Shell holds a 35% stake and operates on behalf of partners BP plc (27.5%) and Chevron Corp. (37.5%), is located 200 miles from Houston in an isolated sector of the GOM (see Daily GPI, March 17). The facility is in the deepest waters of any such facility in the world at 3,000 feet, Glaviano noted.

"It's a long flight, the longest we have," he said of the Perdido facility. And because Perdido and other deepwater platforms are being constructed and operated in regions that are hours from shore, HIRT sometimes has to make an early call about whether to shut in a facility to ensure that all personnel can be brought to shore ahead of any storm.

New robotics technology developed in the past few years also is making a difference in preparing for storms and taking care of repairs that may be needed.

"Many divers cannot work on deepwater pipes," said Glaviano. For instance, Perdido is in 3,000 feet of water. Shell's Mars platform, also in the deepwater, was toppled four years ago, and both of its oil and natural gas lines were damaged. With the help of contractors, Shell developed robotics to repair pipelines, and it now has a supply of spare parts for future storms.

Before the 2005 storms, oil and gas platforms were typically secured with eight anchors. Today they are likely secured with 12 or 16 anchors, said Glaviano. The result: last year's hurricanes caused a huge amount of damage, but offshore infrastructure mostly remained moored, he noted.

It is "impossible to completely avoid" damage to some things, he said, especially pipes that may be swept up if the ocean bottom gives way during a storm. However, "we're better prepared to repair pipe damage than we were in 2005," Glaviano said.

Smith noted that Shell does more than evaluate whether a storm is forecast to be a Category Two or Three. For instance, Hurricane Ike was a Category Two storm when it made landfall near Galveston, TX, but it was a "very broad span that covered a wide area. That can have as much of an impact or more on supply than a Category Three with a tighter focus," he said.

"That said, we learn from each prior storm, and we do what we can do to minimize that disruption. There are certain things, when Mother Nature comes calling, that we are not able to do," Smith told reporters.

To ensure that the public is aware of what's going on, Shell will be using Twitter to communicate with media about shut-ins and evacuation plans (see Daily GPI, May 22).

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