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THE NEW YORK TIMES: Divers Work the Gulf Floor to Undo What Hurricanes Did

Published: March 1, 2006
ABOARD M.S.V. BOTNICA, in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana, Feb. 22 — Gliding gracefully half a mile below sea level, two robotic submarines are part of an unusual repair job intended to restore much-needed oil resources to the nation's strained energy network. After two months spent digging and cutting and shuffling heavy equipment by remote control, their job should be done by early March.
But the huge task of fixing the country's most important energy hub is far from over. Six months after Hurricane Katrina battered the gulf with 175-mile-an-hour winds and waves higher than eight-story buildings, more than a quarter of the region's oil output is still shut down.
The shortages, amounting to 6 percent of the country's domestic production, have worsened a global picture of razor-thin margins of supply, playing a central part in keeping oil prices around $60 a barrel.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed or damaged 167 offshore platforms and 183 pipelines, shut down production for weeks and pushed prices to their highest levels since the fall of the shah of Iran led to the oil shock of the early 1980's. Nineteen movable well-drilling rigs snapped from their moorings and drifted, some as far as 60 miles.
By contrast, Hurricane Ivan, rated as one of the most severe storms in the gulf when it struck in 2004, destroyed just 7 platforms in shallow waters and damaged another 24 structures and 102 pipelines.
“The storms cut a huge swath over the landscape,” said Allen J. Verret, the president of the Offshore Operators Committee, an industry group. “We were still recovering from Hurricane Ivan when the terrible sisters came.”
Now, he said, “we are all concerned by how long it takes to bring it all back up again.”
Few will openly say so, but oil companies are racing against the clock. In less than four months, the next hurricane season kicks off.
Last year's severe storms forced the United States and its allies to release strategic stocks of petroleum held for emergencies like wars or embargoes. More than 20,000 miles of underwater pipelines and 3,000 offshore platforms were in the path of either storm.
Today in the gulf's offshore region, 362,000 barrels of oil a day, out of a total of 1.5 million barrels, remain shut off, along with 15 percent of the region's natural gas production, or 1.5 billion cubic feet a day.
Restoring production has proved exceptionally arduous because of the storms' impact on communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Oil companies had to deal with workers who had lost their homes, contractors who had lost their equipment and widespread destruction to the region's basic infrastructure.
“All the components of the production system have to be in place” before output can be restored, said Melody Meyer, who heads Chevron's production unit in the Gulf of Mexico.
Shell, the top oil producer in the gulf, estimated the cost at $250 million to $300 million. The company said that three-quarters of its total capacity of 450,000 barrels a day had been returned to production. But one of its biggest structures, Mars, which produced about 140,000 barrels of oil a day before Hurricane Katrina, is not expected to restart until the second half of 2006.
The platform was badly damaged when a drilling rig tumbled over in the storm, shattering equipment, living quarters and the intricate network of electronics and pipes that girdle all platforms. Also, the pair of pipelines that take Mars's oil and natural gas to shore were badly damaged.
With no realistic option of towing the platform back to a shipyard, repairs had to be done at sea. Nearly 500 workers have been living in a floating hotel flanking the platform, linked by a pontoon while they complete the tedious job of refitting and rewiring the structure.
Other major producers, like BP and Chevron, have similarly suffered. Chevron, which lost a major platform during Hurricane Rita, said that its output was back at two-thirds of its prestorm capacity of 300,000 barrels a day. The company indicated that as much as 20,000 barrels of oil a day would probably never be restored. Over all, it put its bill from the storms at $1.4 billion, a figure that includes the estimated lost production.
“We're scrambling for resources, like everybody else,” said John R. Sherwood, the chief executive of Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners, a small oil producer that lost 5 of its 30 shallow-water platforms. “There's a tremendous strain in the service sector, which was stretched anyway because of the high energy prices and has been magnified by the two storms.”
The industry was already facing a shortage of ships and qualified crews, marine technicians and offshore experts before the hurricanes. Divers to inspect the platforms are especially in demand. Special teams had to be brought from Canada.
The work is especially slow when it comes to finding and fixing pipelines in the gulf's shallows, where the water is so opaque that divers have to blindly feel the ground with their hands until they find a missing bit of pipeline.
“It's definitely been nonstop around the clock,” said Craig Reynolds, managing director of Specialty Diving in Hammond, La. For the first time, he has had to place customers on a waiting list of one to two weeks.
The Gulf Coast is by far the most sensitive region for the nation's energy supplies. Refineries in Texas and Louisiana account for nearly half the country's domestic capacity and most of them were affected by the storms.
Today, as much as one million barrels a day of capacity, or 6 percent of the nation's total refining capacity, remains shut down. Most of that should be back by the end of March, according to the Energy Department.
The recent wave of hurricanes has exposed the country's reliance on the region's fragile infrastructure and raised uncomfortable questions about its reliability as America's most critical domestic energy source.
“We haven't done anything to reduce our vulnerability,” said Ted M. Falgout, the director of Port Fourchon, the largest servicing hub for the offshore industry, about 80 miles south of New Orleans. “I hate to think of the next hurricane season.”
The port is a beehive of active cranes, docks and wharfs, with helicopters zooming above, a constant stream of trucks coming in and ships heading out to sea. Everything needed to run an offshore platform, from tissue paper to heavy electric generators, is loaded there.
It took port officials three days to clear the waterway after Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Falgout said. While other ports on the coastline were devastated, Port Fourchon managed to resume operations within days.
In the weeks after the storm, some oil companies used small tankers and barges to take oil to shore, or redirected flows through undamaged pipelines. Even as they repair the damage, most companies continue to explore the depths of the gulf for new reserves.
“They have every incentive to get things restarted,” said Chris C. Oynes, the head of the Gulf of Mexico regional office of the Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department.
At sea about 45 minutes by helicopter from Port Fourchon, the 318-foot-long Botnica — which normally does duty as an icebreaker — is about the last thing you would expect to find in the semitropical gulf waters. While Shell mustered an armada of 24 ships to inspect its equipment in the gulf, it needed a special type of ship, able to stay precisely above a particular spot for weeks on end, while minisubmarines replaced two 85-foot-long sections of pipelines linking Mars to the coast.
“No other vessel was available for the job,” said Mike Coyne, a senior Shell engineer, who oversees the company's 1,500 miles of pipelines in the gulf.
The pipelines, about 100 miles southeast of New Orleans, were crushed when a drilling rig broke free from its moorings during Katrina, dragging along a 12-ton anchor that plowed the sea floor.
Shell's engineers had to come up with novel procedures for a job performed beyond diver depth, and rig new tools so they could be powered by the hydraulic system on the minisubs. The work used remotely operated underwater vehicles for the first time in that kind of repair, and involved dozens of engineers onshore, a step-by-step manual thicker than a New York phone book, and minisubs nicknamed Mil-28 and Mag-77.
“It sounds simple but it's actually quite complicated when you have to do it at 3,000 feet below the sea,” said Frank Glaviano, the head of production for North and South America at Royal Dutch Shell. “It's never been done before.”
On the control deck, the ship's captain seemed torn about his soon-to-end assignment.
“They would really need us right now in Finland,” said Leif Kampe, the captain of the Botnica, which usually slices though 30-foot-thick ice at this time of the year. “But there's more money to be made here.”
And it's warmer. “It's nice,” he added, “being here with the Southern guys.”

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