Finding ways to make the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) offshore oil and natural infrastructure more resilient during hurricanes has been on the minds of many in the energy industry over the course of the past year. Now, BP plc has come up with a $100 million plan to build the first-ever undersea fiber-optic cable linking oil and gas platforms. It would improve communications and could eventually alleviate some shut ins.

By the end of this year, BP hopes to begin laying cable in waters as deep as 6,000 feet between Freeport or Corpus Christi, TX, and Pascagoula, MS. The cable network wold hook into a system that would be monitored from BP’s Houston headquarters. The massive network could be up and running as early as next summer, according to Kenny Lang, vice president of BP’s GOM operations.

The “main thing,” said Lang, is to monitor the health of a facility during a storm. However, communications are especially difficult at the most critical times. Producers and oil service companies operating offshore typically use satellite and microwave links to communicate with deepwater facilities. However, those links can be poor during fairly mild weather and are usually out during heavy storms. The fiber-optic cable would be virtually untouched by weather, proving more resilient and allowing more accurate data transmission, according to Lang.

Among other things, the system will allow BP and others to monitor how much a particular storm has impacted infrastructure by comparing post-storm calculations to pre-storm calculations. BP would own the network, but it would lease some of the bandwidth to other companies that wanted to link their offshore platforms to it. Lang said several producers have expressed an interest in the system, including Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron Corp.

The BP executive envisions a time in the not-to-distant future when personnel could be evacuated from the offshore before a storm hits, but platforms would continue to fully operate. Lang noted that today “the last person to leave turns the lights off.” However, by monitoring platforms onshore, BP would be aware of when the platform was safe to board, and post-storm preparations could be done onshore.

Another step the producer has taken to prepare for this hurricane season included moving one of its older rigs to a less storm-prone area of the GOM. Lang said the move was undertaken to lower the risk of it becoming unmoored and slamming into a newer, semi-submersible platform. Collisions, he said, can result in costs of $500 million or more.

Many newly interconnected pipelines make it less likely that a single damaged line would cut off oil and gas production, said Lang. Post-Katrina, BP had to shut in all of its production in the GOM for a period because it had no workable pipeline to transport product to shore.

BP has begun repairs on a damaged oil platform offshore Louisiana, which has been leaking oil off and on for several months — a victim of Hurricane Katrina. The platform, located about 18 miles offshore, had been releasing a few barrels of oil from time to time and then remaining dormant for weeks and months. However, earlier this month, about 25 bbl were released at one time. BP estimated about 93 bbl of oil have leaked from an undersea valve on its Grand Isle Block 47 at a site where its Platform C was located. The company expects the repair to take only a few days.

BP spokesman Hugh Depland said the 25 bbl release on Aug. 15 was cleaned up by two vessels that had been used to monitor the site. Once it was cleaned, he said, a visual inspection during a helicopter flight found no evidence of oil in the water.

In all, BP estimated it has spent about $100 million this year alone to decommission some of the 15 platforms lost or severely damaged by last year’s storms. It also has plugged or repaired about 62 wells. The London-based major expects to spend another $100 million by the end of the year to decommission some remaining platforms and wells damaged.

The U.S. Coast Guard is monitoring about 24 damaged pipelines and platforms for leaks, according to Lt. Commander David Beck of Morgan City, LA. Beck said none of the sites have had releases large enough to threaten a shoreline, and only four or five have leaked intermittently.

“Grand Isle 47 was not the worst, but it’s now at the top of our monitoring list,” Beck said of the BP site.

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