Oil and Gas Industry Battens Down the Hatches for 2008 Hurricane Season

June 1 marked the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season, a dangerous, high-risk five-month stretch for any company operating in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane preparedness is essential to the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico, a fact underscored by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which in 2005 caused widespread destruction throughout the region and seriously threatened oil production. Across the industry, preparedness is the watchword.

This is especially true given that the weather experts agree that the 2008 season will be one of normal or above normal hurricane activity, a warning underscored by the early arrival of Tropical Storm Arthur, the first named storm of the season, on May 31. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cautions that there is a 65% probability of an above-average season, with a 25% possibility of a near-normal season. Therefore, there is a 90% probability that the season will be at least of near-normal hurricane activity. A typical season has 11 named storms, of which six are hurricanes. The 2008 study indicates a 60 to 70% chance of 12 to 16 named storms, including six to nine hurricanes, of which two to five are severe (class 3, 4 or 5).

Colorado State University's prestigious hurricane research department estimates that 2008 will have 15 named storms and eight hurricanes, of which four are expected to be severe.

Leading experts Philip J. Klotzbach and William M. Gray of CSU provide further data, warning of a 44% probability of a major hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle westward to Brownsville. This is a dramatic increase on the average landfall probability for the same area, which was 30% over the last century. Klotzbach and Gray also indicate that there is an above-average risk of landfall in the Caribbean.

Warnings of increased hurricane activity are underscored by the damage wrought in 2005 by the back-to-back Class 5 hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The two storms combined to damage about 75% of the offshore facilities in the GOM. The U.S. Mineral Management Services (MMS) estimates that 115 of 4,000 platforms were destroyed, with an additional 52 damaged. Approximately 535 pipeline segments were damaged, and the oil production in the GOM came to a nearly complete stand-still. However, thanks to careful safety considerations, there were no significant oil spills and no evidence of oil from OCS facilities reaching the shore. Most importantly, all personnel were safely evacuated.

"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," said MMS Deputy Director Walter Cruickshank.

While 2008 may be a year of heightened hurricane activity, hurricane preparedness has increased dramatically since the devastation of Katrina and Rita. New MMS guidance documents increased design standards, and an MMS-launched website is dedicated to disseminating hurricane tracking information. Since 2007, MMS has incorporated three American Petroleum Institute (API) bulletins on increasing design standards and well-assessment criteria for both new and existing structures, measures to increase safety and survivability during hurricane conditions and cause less damage to platforms. The new generation of oil platforms are able to withstand severe hurricanes, and continued implementation of subsea equipment allow companies to avoid many of the problems associated with inclement weather.

Across the industry, firms are ramping up safety measures and preparing for an active year. "We update response plans, train personnel [and] initiate ongoing hurricane activity monitoring," said ExxonMobil spokesperson Margaret Ross of pre-season preparation.

"Our primary concern is the safety of our employees and contractors," Anadarko spokesperson John Christiansen agreed. "We monitor the weather very closely in the Gulf of Mexico and will evacuate our platforms and drilling operations as soon as we perceive there may be a threat to their safety."

In addition, he spoke of construction safety, saying that several of Anadarko's platforms have survived direct hits from category four and five hurricanes.

Enterprise Products Partners representative Rick Rainey echoed this boast of platform solidity, pointing out that Enterprise's newest platforms "can […] withstand Category 5 hurricane winds."

Ultimately, for all the sophisticated methods of detection, severe weather involves a large element of chance. Through careful weather pattern study, detailed safety precautions, and new technological advances men and women throughout the oil and gas industry are making sure that, when the hurricanes do hit, tragedy will be safely avoided.