Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hurricanes, high winds and heavy seas in the Gulf of Mexico

Hurricanes, high winds and heavy seas in the Gulf of Mexico

October 13, 2008 (Computerworld) When Lance Gibson talks about a storm knocking out his systems, he doesn't mean the infamous worm. He might be referring to the latest hurricane to sweep through the Gulf of Mexico or to the lightning accompanying a vicious thunderstorm.

Gibson is the offshore infrastructure communications supervisor for Chevron Corp.'s oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico, overseeing the IT needs of the company's offshore production facilities as well as its onshore support centers.

"Basically, I'm responsible for the entire infrastructure delivery," he says, "from the servers onshore all the way to the microwave, wireless and satellite communications we use for our voice and data communications offshore." We spoke with Gibson in mid-August; joining the conversation was Chevron public affairs representative Qiana Wilson.

A couple of weeks after our conversation, Hurricane Gustav provided a dramatic reminder of the kinds of situations Gibson has to deal with. Chevron and other companies with facilities in the Gulf evacuated their workers and shut down their oil platforms in advance of the threatening storm.

Once Gustav passed, Chevron began assessing its facilities and planning on remobilization of personnel, but Hurricane Ike put an end to that and forced another evacuation. At the time of this writing, Chevron reports that although several of its platforms were toppled by the storms, the company has once again started remobilizing its personnel.

Where are the offshore oil facilities that you support?

Gibson: We support the entire Gulf of Mexico region, from offshore Texas to offshore Alabama, whether our operations are on the OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] or in the deepwater areas of the Gulf of Mexico. That includes all of our offshore production platforms and drilling rigs, as well as our onshore operations that pertain to our Gulf of Mexico business units.

Gulf of Mexico

[Editor's note: The Gulf measures about 1,000 miles east to west and more than 500 miles north to south from Louisiana to the Yucatan Peninsula.]

How many installations are there?

Wilson: We don't like to say how many offshore installations we actually have. But I can tell you that Chevron is the largest leaseholder in the Gulf of Mexico shelf.

How far offshore is the farthest one?

Wilson: Right now, the farthest offshore is [the platform named] Genesis, which is about 150 miles from New Orleans. When Tahiti and Blind Faith come online, they'll be still further out and in deeper water.

NOAA map of oil platforms in Gulf of Mexico
The Gulf of Mexico has around 4,000 active oil and gas platforms. Click to view larger image.

How deep?

Gibson: The water depth can range from 10 feet near the shore all the way to 3,000 or 4,000 feet in the deeper waters. We're constantly moving out deeper.

How many people work on each platform?

Wilson: It varies from platform to platform; we don't really like to divulge that information.

Do you travel around from platform to platform, or are you stationed on land?

Gibson: I'm stationed on land -- my home office is here in Lafayette, Louisiana. My group is primarily stationed on land also.

We take a tiered, or layered, approach to support. We do most of our troubleshooting "on the beach," and if we cannot resolve the problem, then we'll dispatch one of our technicians offshore. But we try to do most of our support from onshore, to save money.

What's the communications setup on the platforms?

Gibson: A typical facility will have a wireless LAN installed, with all your standard network gear -- routers and switches and all that. And then they have microwave and VSAT [Very Small Aperture Terminal] satellite communications systems. But we house our servers on land, in either our Lafayette or Covington [Louisiana] locations.

Chevron's Genesis oil platform
Genesis, currently Chevron's farthest offshore oil platform. Click to view larger image.

What kind of data travels over your network?

Gibson: Mostly your typical business data -- Microsoft Word, Excel, that sort of data. And then we have specific application data -- real-time drilling information, automated monitoring of the status of the platform and so on.

What's the biggest challenge you face?

Gibson: Trying to do wireless communications over water. Moving voice and data via wireless connectivity over water poses a lot of difficulties. The technology is there, but it can be done with greater reliability in other environments than in the tropical environment we have here in the Gulf.

For one thing, the heat is a big concern. All of our systems are in controlled environments, of course, but we have to ensure that those environments are operating on a daily basis. Summer temperatures are in the mid- to upper 90s, and the equipment on the platforms is surrounded by steel, which heats up in the sun and magnifies the effect.

Salt's another issue. When we transport equipment, it's subjected to salt air. The salt attaches itself to the circuitry and corrodes it.

microwave antenna
A microwave antenna on Genesis.
Click to view larger image.

But probably our biggest problems with the environment have to do with [specific weather conditions]. In the spring and fall, we have a lot of issues with fog. The network relies primarily on microwave communications, and weather conditions can disrupt the signal between two physical connection points and cause our networks to fade in and out. Rain, too, can cause fading issues with our backup satellite systems.

We also have temperature-inversion problems. With the Mississippi River bringing cold water down from the north and dumping it into the warm water of the Gulf, it causes a lot of temperature inversions [when warmer air sits on top of cooler air]. They distort the microwave frequencies, so the connections drop in and out.

And then there's lightning -- that causes us a lot of trouble on our offshore installations. We've got a steel platform sitting out in the middle of the open ocean, so it attracts lightning. If you're not properly grounded -- and grounding equipment to a facility and then grounding the facility itself is definitely a challenge -- you can lose your equipment entirely.

Is the wave motion a problem?

Gibson: For our shelf platforms, that's not really a concern. Those are fixed-leg platforms -- they're sitting on the sea floor. But our deepwater facilities are primarily floaters, and microwave communications need a fixed line of sight. We have been able to establish microwave communications using a floating facility, but it does have its issues.

There's a new technology we're looking at deploying that we hope will help fix these issues. It uses a stabilized antenna mount that will actually move with the platform. It's an approach that's already used in VSAT communications. Cruise liners, for example, have stabilized units that stay locked onto the satellite no matter how the boat is moving. This would act in the same manner -- as the platform moves, the mount for the microwave dish would compensate and hold its line of sight with whatever it's shooting to.

stabilized VSAT antenna inside a radome
A radome, or weatherproof enclosure for radar antennas, protects a stabilized VSAT antenna on Genesis.

What about the hurricanes?

Gibson: Hurricanes are events that pass through and in a few days, they're gone. Sometimes they wreak havoc, and sometimes they don't. But they're weather events that pass through, unlike the other, ongoing issues.

When we have weather events, whether it's a major hurricane or a simple thunderstorm, we just have to wait for them to move out of the way so we can get back out there to assess what just happened to us. First, we have to see if the platform still exists. Then, the high winds -- even from a thunderstorm -- may have blown the microwave antennas right off the platform, or just blown them out of alignment to the next platform. We might have to go back out and reposition the dish.

Hurricane Ike satellite image
Clouds from the recent Hurricane Ike fill the Gulf of Mexico; rainfall data is superimposed.
Click to view larger image.

When that happens, do you have to go out and physically inspect each one, or is there another way to determine what the problem is?

Gibson: That's a tough question. It all depends on the platform. If the platform has a backup communications system, typically a satellite system, we're able to see the platform and make some assessment of what just happened to the primary communications. Naturally, you want to make just one trip with all the right equipment.

But not all platforms have satellite backups. So if there are still personnel out there, we'll rely on them to tell us -- we'll ask them to go look at it and try to describe what it looks like, so we can make some determination and then make a trip out.

How are they communicating with you if all the communications are out?

Gibson: We still have other ways. We have a very extensive two-way radio system, so they may be talking to the platform next to them, and that platform's relaying the information to us. We also have handheld satellite phones, and we're able to get in touch with the field that way.

So what's your work schedule like?

Gibson: We are a 24/7/365 support group. Our industry does not go to sleep -- our production facilities still flow oil and gas at night, and our drilling operations are drilling 24 hours a day. So we have to be readily available to support their needs during any crisis they might have, at any time.

We typically work a normal workday, but we have folks on call after hours. And we officially work a 40-hour week, but I'd say 50 to 60 hours is more of a typical week for me or most of the people in our IT group.

I don't think that's going to come as a surprise to Computerworld readers.

Qiana Wilson: We do offer 9/80 compressed workweeks. In other words, if you choose to, you can work nine hours a day and have every other Friday off.

Gibson: So in a two-week period, you work nine days rather than 10 days. It should be a worldwide standard. Four tens would be even better.

Wilson: I'm working on that.

Monitoring software for Genesis
Oil platform monitoring software.
Click to view larger image.

How long have you had your position?

Gibson: I've been in this position for four years, but I've worked in IT with Chevron for 27 years. Actually, 27 years ago, it really wasn't IT. I'm a former Tenneco employee, and when Chevron acquired us in the '80s, we were just touching on information technology.

At the time, we were concerned more with the geological and geophysical support roles, so I was in more of a data management position. I moved from data management to applications support and programming, and from there into the infrastructure roles.

What's the most outrageous thing that's happened to you in this job?

Gibson: I would have to say the 2005 hurricane season. We were just coming out of the 2004 season, with a few bad ones in Ivan and Dennis. Then the '05 season started early, in July.

As the season progressed and built up into the Katrina/Rita-class hurricanes, we lost better than 90% of our communications infrastructure offshore. We lost our main office in New Orleans, and we lost a lot of the communications that went into that city.

Hurricane Rita's path and rainfall accumulation
Hurricane Rita's 2005 path and rainfall accumulation. Click to view larger image.

[Editor's note: See Timoney Group's Google Map of the Gulf oil platforms that were damaged or destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.]

Reconnecting our facilities and reestablishing communications took us all the way into the early part of 2007. We had to stop working on other optimization efforts we had going on just to focus on re-establishing communications to our environment offshore. It was definitely a big challenge for this group -- in fact, we're just really coming out of it now.

What's the biggest thing you've learned from your work?

Gibson: I would say it's the constant change in the oil industry. We're always looking to make ourselves more efficient. We're constantly moving out further and further into deeper water, so we're always having to look for technology to adapt to those environments. There's just no room for complacency. We have to be able to adapt and adjust.

The other thing I've learned is that in IT, you tend to want to chase technology a lot because you like the new gadgets. But the oil industry is the wrong place to chase technology. We need good, stable communications and infrastructure so we can keep our business operating. Chevron prides itself on being a very technological company. We don't lead, but we follow very closely.

Jake Widman is freelance writer in San Francisco.


Seminar addresses businesses preparing for disasters

GREEN BAY — Some businesses owners don’t believe a disastrous event will happen to them and their business.

And, while many equate disasters to earthquakes, hurricanes and terrorist attacks, disasters come in many forms. Fires, floods and tornados are the most common events in this part of the country, but the Ellison Bay gas explosion was a reminder of the unseen hazards present in every-day life.

The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the Door County Health Department are holding a regional emergency preparedness conference on Nov. 14, at the Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor.

“Survival Against the Odds: Business Disaster Planning” will give business owners the tools to guide them through the recovery process.

Surveys show, 30 percent of businesses are not prepared for the unexpected. Nearly 60 percent of businesses say they have plans, but only 41 percent of them have even tested them.

Participants will learn from Lisa Pentony, Wisconsin pandemic influenza expert, what the chances are for a flu pandemic.

Don Miller from Infinity Technology will give an update on how to keep business records safe.

Lenora Borchardt, president of Emergency Planning, Training & Exercise Consulting (EPTEC), will conduct an interactive workshop teaching participants how to do emergency continuity planning.

Fear of Thunderstorms: Three Simple Ways To Overcome Your Phobia Of Thunderstorms

We’ve all experienced thunderstorms in our lives. Some people find the loud noises and flashes of light exhilarating - heck, there are even storm chasers out there - but quite a lot of other people are disturbed and worried, even scared, of thunderstorms.

If you’re in the second group and have a phobia about thunderstorms, what can you do to help overcome your fear?

1. Learn to relax

This likely won’t be something you’d start learning at the peak of a thunderstorm, the deep noise of thunder echoes all around. But when you’re not in the middle of a thunderstorm, start to learn how to relax yourself. Weirdly, it takes effort to relax properly (most likely because our modern way of life does its level best to make sure we don’t ever relax). But with a little bit of practice, you’ll soon re-learn the trick of being able to relax whenever you want to. If that’s not an option at the moment, put your favorite music on your MP3 player, draw the curtains and concentrate on the music instead of nature’s display outside your home.

2. Face your fear

Ouch! This probably sounds difficult to do. But our fear usually isn’t rational, so when you greet your fear in person, you’re very likely to find your fear turns around and runs away. If your fear takes the form of a nagging voice in your head, don’t forget that it’s not a real voice - you’re creating it. So have fun with it rather than being scared by it. Change the voice so it sounds like a cartoon mouse. Spray paint it like a teenage graffiti artist would. Anything to make fun of the fear you’re creating. Sounds daft? Try it and see how well it works!

3. Get some help

Maybe a work colleague or a trusted friend to talk to - vocalizing our fears often helps expose them for the imposters they are. Or get hold of a hypnosis fear of thunderstorms MP3, specially designed to help you. These tracks work very well and are easily affordable. Get your instant download of a hypnosis for thunderstorms track here.


Warming likely to affect fishing, shipping industries

A tug guides a freighter to a Maumee River dock, where shipping is dependent on frequent dredging of the channel.

Walleye and yellow perch - the backbone of the Great Lakes region's multibillion dollar recreation and tourism industry - will likely be harder to catch as the lakes warm.

Algae will proliferate, sucking more oxygen from the water. Walleye and yellow perch are two cool-water species that likely will be out-competed for food by warm-water fish. Lake trout and brook trout are two others.

And the issue that scientists now view as the No. 1 threat to the ecological balance of the lakes - invasive species - will likely get worse as shipping seasons are extended and more exotic fish adaptable to warmer water enter the lakes.

The devastation, though, could be overshadowed by what happens to the shipping industry if lake levels become chronically lower, as predicted under the current regime of climate-change scenarios.

The two issues could work in tandem to wreak havoc on the region's economy.

Lake levels have risen and fallen in 30-year cycles since at least 1860, records show, but a study last fall issued by 75 area scientists from nearly 50 government, business, academic, and public-interest groups claimed warming and evaporation trends could cause Lake Erie water levels to drop 3.28 feet to 6.56 feet by 2066.

The estimates were based on findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's most prestigious group of climatologists.

A subsequent paper that appeared in Environmental Science & Technology suggested Lake Erie and Lake Ontario water levels will become largely dependent on the rainfall they pick up from additional hurricanes and tropical storms. More violent weather is anticipated as the climate warms. Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron are too far north to pick up substantial amounts of rain from storms, the report stated.

Every inch lake levels fall affects the shipping industry and its economy by millions of dollars a year. That's especially true in Toledo, the most heavily dredged harbor in the Great Lakes.

"I don't think there has been much thought put into it by anybody," said Scott Thieme, chief of the U.S. Corps of Engineers' Great Lakes hydraulics and hydrology office.

He said he's aware of forecasts for water-level declines and perplexed why the government hasn't taken the issue more seriously, given what's at stake.

A big enough drop in water could even affect the future of the U.S.-Canada tunnel between Detroit and Windsor, he said.

Even now, the Corps of Engineers spends $20 million a year to dredge 4 million cubic yards of sediment from all Great Lakes harbors and channels, the equivalent of 400,000 truckloads of soil.

Nearly a quarter of all Great Lakes dredging occurs in the Toledo area. The 800,000 to 900,000 cubic yards of silt removed from the Toledo shipping channel in a typical summer is about three times as much as that taken from Cleveland-area waters.

The silt is mostly northwest Ohio farm soil that was blown or carried into the Maumee River by rain.

The solution isn't simply more dredging.

The Corps of Engineers is struggling to find places to put dredged silt from the Toledo shipping channel.

About two-thirds of it is redeposited in Lake Erie, a practice that Michigan and Ohio have been trying to get the federal government to phase out since the 1980s. The states say open-lake dumping hurts the region's fishing industry by muddying the water. But nobody has offered plans to build a confined disposal facility on land, either, because of the projected $200 million cost.

There is a bigger problem in the Detroit River, where only so much more dredging can occur before hitting bedrock. The river bottom was blasted in the 1920s and 1930s for a shipping channel. Blasting it deeper today would be a multibillion dollar project.

Toledo is one of several harbors with pipelines beneath their shipping channels. The lines carry chemical products, natural gas, as well as electrical, phone, and fiber optic cables. The cost of relocating those would be astronomical.

Even if relocating pipelines and blasting deeper through the Detroit River bedrock became viable, there "would be an awful lot of concern and resistance for environmental issues that there weren't years ago," Mr. Thieme said.

The Great Lakes region accounts for 70 percent of the nation's steelmaking capacity, 70 percent of its automobile production, and 55 percent of all heavy manufacturing. But it hasn't been moving cargo for such manufacturing as efficiently as it could.

Three of every four vessels leave their docks "light loaded" because of the lack of channel depth, according to testimony delivered to the House subcommittee on Energy and Water Development last year by James Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers' Association.

The 63 U.S.-flagged vessels represented by the association leave behind more than 8,000 tons of cargo per trip for every inch of lost channel depth.

Eight thousand tons of iron ore is enough to build 6,000 vehicles. Eight thousand tons of coal is enough to produce three hours of electricity for the Detroit metro area. And in the housing industry, 8,000 tons of limestone is enough to build 24 homes, according to Mr. Weakley's testimony.

"We might not lose the Port of Toledo, but it would need to accommodate wider ships or be bypassed," said Frank Quinn, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hydrologist who has studied lake levels since the 1960s.

EMSA Assists in Spanish Oil Recovery Operations

Source: EMSA

In the late evening on Friday 10th October, after two ships ran aground and spilled oil in heavy weather off southern Spain, the Spanish authorities requested the assistance of EMSA. As a result, the EMSA contracted vessel Bahia Tres, which is operated by Mureoil and operates in Algeciras Bay, was converted into an oil recovery vessel within hours and put at the disposal of Spanish maritime safety organisation SASEMAR.

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