Offshore industry prepares for hurricane season

HOUSTON — Meteorologists are predicting a mild hurricane season, but oil and gas companies with offshore operations are preparing carefully nonetheless.

ImpactWeather, a Houston-based private weather forecaster that serves the industry, predicts nine named storms in the Atlantic this season, including four hurricanes. AccuWeather, another private weather provider, projects 10 named storms and five hurricanes. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration makes its forecast next week.

Chris Hebert, ImpactWeather’s lead hurricane forecaster, said while those broad seasonal forecasts generate headlines, they don’t matter much to the oil and gas industry. “For the most part, for the private industry, the forecast is a curiosity,” Hebert said. “There’s nothing different they do. It just takes that one hurricane coming into the Gulf,” he said, to do serious damage.

On Thursday, Hebert’s company hosted officials from the oil and gas sector at a symposium to discuss preparations for the upcoming hurricane season, which begins June 1.

Industry officials in attendance said their companies have been reviewing emergency plans to make sure they know exactly what they’ll do in case they have to evacuate an offshore platform that falls within a storm’s path. Last year, Hebert said,  only one hurricane entered the Gulf of Mexico — Hurricane Ingrid — so there were few if any platform evacuations.

The decision to evacuate an offshore facility is serious, and complicated by the fact that forecasts of storms’ paths contain at least some uncertainty. Unnecessary evacuations can cost man hours and money, but failure to evacuate when it’s necessary can cost lives.

Hurricane preparedness is also becoming more difficult as oil and gas producers move farther from the coast to deeper water, increasing the amount of time it takes to launch and complete an evacuation. In the industry, the amount of time required to evacuate a platform is known as a “t-time,” and in some cases, it can be four or five days, Hebert said.

“The further offshore you go, the longer it takes to evacuate,” Hebert said. “It’s a big logistics problem.”

Helicopter companies that serve offshore facilities sometimes refuse to fly at night for safety reasons, so evacuations often must begin long before a hurricane strike is imminent, since it may take many round trips to remove all the workers. Because evacuations take so long, Hebert said, many operators have to plan evacuations before a storm is even named.

As hurricane season approaches,  companies working offshore are locking in helicopter contracts, making plans for hotel rooms that could house displaced workers and reviewing the carefully planned sequence of steps they’ll take if they see a hurricane on a possible collision course with an offshore platform. Those preparations, Hebert said, are critical. “When a wave hits a platform, the wave doesn’t bend” Hebert said. “It destroys.”