Carola Hoyos Life and death decisions on an oil rig

One of the most important jobs on an oil rig is that of ballast control operator. It is an arguably tedious task in good times. But in bad times, it becomes an extremely challenging exercise of keeping hundreds of men alive and tens of thousands of tonnes of steel, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, upright.

In December 2005, I had the chance the step into a simulator at Transocean’s training centre in Aberdeen, Scotland. The facility trains offshore workers heading to the rough, cold, medium-depth waters of the North Sea, rather than those working on the deep water rigs in the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico. On ultra deep water rigs, such as Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon, which exploded last week in the Gulf of Mexico, the ballast control operator’s job is done by dynamic positioning operators. There are other differences too, not least because the training I got was five years ago. But the scenarios I was put through ran the gamut, from Gulf Coast hurricanes to floating icebergs in Arctic waters.

The trip came shortly after Hurricane Katrina whipped through the rigs and platforms of the Gulf of Mexico and highlights the dangers and pressures of the life and death decisions made on a rig in trouble.

This is the story I wrote in 2005:

The distant sound of a helicopter’s rotating blades becomes gradually louder as the floor on which I stand shifts from side to side. The eerie creaking noise of overstretched metal wires raises my stress level and I feel the onset of a headache just as the lights begin to flicker and the screens in front of me go dark. We’ve lost power. The temperature in the small control room in which I am standing rises to uncomfortable in less then a minute. The backup generators sputter to life almost immediately and a dimmer version of the images on the screens returns…however, the airconditioning does not.

A voice from a loudspeaker to my right tells me to call the 200 men working on my oil drilling rig into the mess hall and reminds me that it is my responsibility to get them through this alive.

A thunderous crashing noise directly above my head, followed by a rattle of the control room makes clear the rescue helicopter has lost its battle with the force 12 winds. But there is little time to consider the consequences.

The screen listing the pressure on the rig’s moorings indicates they are groaning under the weight of 400 kips. The feeling is like that of watching someone prepare to flick an elastic band at my face. The figure drops to 34; a mooring has snapped, then another and another. The rig moves dangerously towards the northeast. I can feel it in the control room that shifts beneath my feet and I see it on the small picture of my rig on a screen in front of me.

The floor I stand on tilts about 10 degrees; I lose my balance and grab for the handrail in front of me. The rig has flooded, we are in the process of taking on 240 tons of seawater. It is my job to decide which chambers to fill and which to empty. A wrong decision will likely sink the rig and kill all souls on board.

The most awful noise of all is the scraping, bending, straining of metal as the drill bit rips out of its hole. It is my fault; I should have pulled it out of its hole earlier.

All the moorings have now snapped and my men and I are adrift on a rig in the western part of the Gulf of Mexico just south of New Orleans. We are dredging up pipelines on the sea floor as we go.

“Wait a second, we haven’t had an explosion yet,” says Ken Chapman, laughing.

An alarm and an orange, flashing light go off. Ken is clearly enjoying playing G-d and frightening the energy correspondent trapped in the $1m rig control room simulator of which he holds the controls.

The scenario is that of a rig being hit by Hurricane Katrina, which roared through the Gulf of Mexico at the end of August. But the set is the UK training centre of Transocean, one of the world’s biggest oil drilling companies. My rig control room is a big white box mounted on a crane inside a warehouse in Aberdeen.

But judging by my dilated pupils and damp back, I might as well be hurtling towards a natural gas platform that has had trouble shutting down, setting the scene for a massive explosion – Ken’s next scenario.

“Things could be worse,” he pipes. “Up north you have icebergs. The impact is worse, but you have more time to think about it.”

Oil companies have had several months now to think about just how bad things have been this year. This summer was the worst Hurricane season in history for the Gulf of Mexico, the heart of US oil and gas production.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit four months ago and still nearly 30 per cent of the areas oil production is shut down. Munich Re., the world’s biggest re-insurer, has since pushed the premiums it charges for oil rigs up 400 per cent.

It is one reason Peter Henderson and Ray Allen, co-founders of Pisys, are quietly optimistic their small Scottish software company will receive more orders for the simulator it helped invent. The idea that Transocean needed the big white box first came from a “bunch of marine and drilling guys” who scribbled it on the back of a pack of cigarettes in the cafe on board the Transocean Explorer rig in the North Sea. Pisys won the bid to build the simulator and this year received their first order to recreate it.

The buyer, Petrobras, Brazil’s state energy group, was well-aware of the dangers that can befall rigs when it put in the $2m order in October. In March 2001 the company’s PS-36, working in the deep waters off Brazil’s coast, became the biggest offshore rig ever to sink.

The cause was not just the initial accident, but also the fact that the ballast control room operator made the wrong decisions about how to re-balance the tilting rig, Ken explains.

It is exactly this kind of mistake the simulator – which can mimic any number of possibilities from terrorist attacks to storms – is designed to help avoid.

“The average guy that works on a rig is just an average guy. He’s not good at class room study,” Ken says, tripping over his words as he tries to think of a diplomatic way to phrase his thought.

The average guy, I am told, also often fails his first test on the simulator, just not quite as spectacularly as this correspondent, who ended the day happy to be back at her immobile desk.