New Interior secretary makes first offshore rig visit

NEW ORLEANS — U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is no stranger to the oil patch, but until Friday, her exposure was limited to land.

The new perspective came courtesy of the Cabinet official’s visit to an Ensco semi-submersible drilling rig and Chevron’s Blind Faith production platform in the Gulf of Mexico — the kind of facilities that were off limits to women when Jewell worked for Mobil Oil three decades ago.

“I’ve never been on an offshore rig,” Jewell observed Friday after donning a hard hat and gloves on Chevron’s platform 160 miles from New Orleans. “When I was in the oil business, they didn’t let women offshore.”

Now, Jewell is in charge of regulating the industry.

It’s a remarkable transformation for the mechanical engineer turned Interior secretary who now oversees energy development on 1.7 billion acres of federal waters. Along the way, she has been the CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., and spent 19 years in the commercial banking industry, including a stint as an energy analyst.

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Friday, she got an up-close view of federal regulators conducting offshore inspections at oil production and drilling facilities.

At the Blind Faith platform, where Chevron is producing 20,000 barrels of oil each day from four wells buried beneath 6,500 feet of water, Jewell showed her pipeline expertise by asking about the slope of the seabed and posing technical question about the flow of oil and gas through the metal chambers.

“This is natural flowing?” she asked one platform worker. And to another: Are you using gas-lift technology to get hydrocarbons out of the reservoir?

Jewell turned an inquisitive eye not just to the technology on the rig, but also regulations that govern it. For instance, she questioned Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement director James Watson on the process for repealing outdated regulations.

BlindFaithMap

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On board the Ensco rig, which is boring a delineation well for LLOG Exploration Co. some 120 miles from New Orleans, she asked workers what the industry wants from the safety bureau.

The plea from Joe Leimkuhler, LLOG’s vice president of drilling, was for more: more staff and more speed in examining permit applications, especially as Gulf development picks up and newly built rigs enter the region.

Jewell noted financial constraints are limiting resources, including the across-the-board cut known as sequestration.

She and Watson also acknowledged regulators face the same challenges industry does in recruiting highly skilled specialists to join their ranks.

Steven Brady, Ensco’s senior vice president of western hemisphere, noted that drilling engineers are now expected to have deep knowledge of hydraulics and a host of other specialties.

“We are struggling to find enough technical people to come into this business,” Brady told Jewell. “It has changed a lot from the days you and I started in this job.”

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All around her, Jewell saw evidence of the transformation — in automated processes, arrays of computer monitors and even the massive, electronic iron roughneck twisting apart 30-foot lengths of drill pipe — a messy, dangerous job once handled manually.

“The biggest difference is the use of technology. Everything is done with electronic actuations, everything is controlled at a computer monitor,” Jewell said. “The two men sitting in the (drilling shack) today — you were not going to be out there controlling a rig without getting completely splattered with oil and drilling mud and everything else in the days I worked on rigs.”

On the Blind Faith platform — named for an Eric Clapton band — a Chevron worker tasked with monitoring marine traffic described a harrowing incident where an unmarked, unresponsive tugboat sailed near the facility, prompting the crew to start emergency shut-in procedures.

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But Jewell had only to look around for more reminders of the perils at sea. Workers on Blind Faith carried flammable gas detectors as visitors walked on board the gently rocking platform. Red fire extinguishers and chemical safety stations dot the deck.

Back on land, after an hour-long helicopter ride through cloudy skies, Jewell said she was struck by the “tremendous respect” offshore operators and contractors have for federal inspectors boarding their facilities.

“I think the operators know they play an important role, and there’s also an important separation. They’re there to do a job,” she said. “Being inspected is not always the most fun thing . . . and yet there’s clear respect for the work that’s being done.”

Similarly, Jewell said she saw signs of inspectors using common sense, where insignificant, minor infractions might merit just a warning.

“You could find a little violation, but if it’s inadvertent you just tell them about it, you don’t write it up,” she said. “I was happy to see common sense applied.”