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LIFE ON AN OIL RIG : Manning the oil platforms 17 miles out to sea--it’s a job demanding special skills, personalities

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Every Thursday at noon, Ed Huben finishes his 5-hour commute from his home near San Luis Obispo by swinging to work on the end of a rope.

That maneuver begins a weeklong shift, all of which Huben spends atop a Gordian knot of pipes, machinery and electronics that could, if allowed to get out of control, blow Huben and his co-workers into tiny pieces.

It doesn’t, though, because Huben and his co-workers make sure it doesn’t. They are responsible for overseeing, in alternating 7-day shifts, the operation of the largest oil-producing complex off Orange County’s coast: tandem offshore platforms, known as Ellen and Elly, that are operated by Shell Western Exploration & Production Inc.

Round the clock, 365 days a year, hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil flow up to the platforms, up from the huge natural reservoir beneath county coastal waters that is called the Beta Field by oil workers.

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Getting at that oil requires that the workers live and work in an environment that demands specialized skill, vigilance, a serene nature and the ability to exist 24 hours a day on a structure, alternately dizzying and claustrophobic, that often looks and feels like a joint creation of Captain Nemo and Houdini.

It also requires the ability to imitate Tarzan at least twice a week. Because the crews arrive at Ellen by boat--after a 45-minute trip from Long Beach--they use one of several knotted ropes that dangle above one of the lower platform catwalks to make the short swing from the boat deck to the catwalk. It is, the workers said, the quickest and easiest way to travel the last leg of their journey.

Once on the platform, the workers fan out to varied jobs that compel them to work, eat, sleep and play in an islandlike isolation a tantalizing 17 miles off the county’s coast, within sight of the Newport Center high-rises. They are surrounded by deep ocean in federal waters, yet they are on a static structure supported by several submarine legs that plunge 265 feet to the bottom of the ocean, making the platforms immobile islands.

Consequently, the 40,000-square-foot, 13,400-ton Ellen and the 55,000-square-foot, 10,600-ton Elly (all platforms in the Beta Field have names beginning with the letter E ) are actually highly sophisticated buildings. A trip around them on foot, however, feels more like a stroll on an oil tanker or a submarine.

“Every little space out here is used to its absolute potential,” Huben said. “Everything is so eminently practical that this place has a kind of beauty of its own. And you’re finding out new things all the time, things on the platform that you haven’t noticed before. I’ve been out here for 6 1/2 years, and there was still stuff I was discovering out here after 5 years.”

Huben presides over the electronic nerve center of the complex, a room on Elly whose walls are covered with switches, gauges and other devices that monitor each stage of the path the oil takes--from the time it enters the platform through a series of drilling connectors, to the time it leaves for Long Beach through a 16-inch pipe.

Huben makes sure that almost 1,200 separate safety devices are monitored constantly and inspected each month. Because of such instrumentation, which automatically controls much of the platforms’ operation, the entire complex can be run by a 20-man crew and three supervisors.

Job descriptions, therefore, tend toward the technical rather than the physical. The workers like it that way.

“You’re more of a technician out here than a roustabout,” said Brian Kachelhoffer, 28, whose specialty is instrumentation.

“We’re not like the old days, where you found guys working in the oil fields whose voice DB (decibel level) was higher than their IQ,” said Jack Hannemann, 45, an electrician.

“We’re new oil versus old oil,” said Jim Vandivort, 39, also an electrician.

Not to say that they don’t occasionally work up a sweat. On Ellen, where the oil is collected (drilling has ended at the Shell complex), it is 90 feet from the catwalk just above the sea to the building atop the structure that contains offices, galley and living quarters. The only way to get from one level to another is to climb or descend a series of stairs. There is no elevator. Arrangements are similar on Elly, which is reached via a 200-foot catwalk from Ellen.

The workers said agility isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to a job on the platforms--although a quick tour of the facilities will convince any visitor that it is no place for someone with acrophobia. Many of the stairs wind up the outside of the structures in such a way that the platform is on one side of the stair while a lot of air--and a long drop to the sea--is on the other.

Still, said Don Knuppel, the production foreman for Shell’s platforms, “these guys are the cream of the crop--we don’t send just anybody out here.”

The workers, Huben said, tend to behave on the job and off it with a mixture of gregariousness and independence.

“Even though there are several of us out here,” he said, “I think one of the things that counts very heavily is that everyone is capable of performing certain duties alone, sometimes under adverse weather conditions, since the vast majority of our equipment is outdoors.

“And you definitely have to have a sense of humor, because (that provides) one of the few (releases from the routine) you have.”

Huben said he has been forced to take shelter when 80-m.p.h. winds have lashed the platforms and has had to unload boats in high seas. But still the oil kept flowing.

“That’s not to say that everything always works like a Swiss watch,” he said. “Things break from time to time. But they don’t disintegrate on you.”

Often, adverse conditions are difficult for the crews’ families to bear, he said. “Guys have left over the years whose families couldn’t take the strain. Those of us who are married have a tremendous amount of confidence in our spouses, though. They really have to do everything at home while we’re gone.”

The average job tenure on Shell’s Beta Field platforms, Knuppel said, is about 7 years--which, he added, reflects a fair measure of job satisfaction, because the facilities have been operating only since 1980.

The pay ranges from $22,500 for beginning unskilled workers to $33,800 for experienced workers who have acquired several skills on the job, Huben said.

Crews said they like the work, mainly because it allows them to be with their families for a week at a time. “I can actually see my kids growing up,” Kachelhoffer said. “I can be their playmate. And I can also see how hard it is to care for kids.”

For Hannemann, his week off tends to divide itself into thirds: “I kind of kick back for the first 2 days. Then for the next 2 days I catch up on things with my family or on work around the house. The last days I take care of any other business that needs to be taken care of, and then I come back here.”

When he does, he faces seven consecutive 12-hour shifts, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. (or the reverse if he is one of the four crew members working the night shift). And he faces living quarters that are, for the most part, smaller and sparser than even the most Spartan college dorm rooms, on Ellen’s upper deck.

However, crew members said they also make frequent use of the weight room on Elly and the recreation room on Ellen, which includes pool and table-tennis tables, a TV room with a VCR and a dart board. Hannemann said he jogs around the complex for half an hour or more three times a week.

Cabin fever, the workers said, is non-existent. The nearby Orange County shore is no more compelling for them, Hannemann said, “than if you were sitting in an office anywhere and wishing you were off work.”

The daily events around which life on the complex seems to revolve are meals. “We’ve had a couple of bad cooks over the years,” Huben said, “but they haven’t lasted long. The cook has to please everybody all the time.”

Fortunately, he said, Don Lewis, the crew’s current cook, has done that. While Louisiana cooking is Lewis’ specialty, Hannemann answered instantly when asked about the crew’s favorite food.

“Mexican,” he said. “Anything Mexican. It’s so good that my wife gets mad at me when I ask her, ‘Why can’t you fix it like that?’ ”

Even with all the attempts to create a homey atmosphere, the workers know--if sometimes only subliminally--that they are sitting atop a potentially highly dangerous piece of complex apparatus that processes about 16,000 barrels of oil each day and is powered by huge turbines that produce enough electricity to light a small city.

Huben compared the workers’ attitudes toward the dangers to his former job: New York City police officer. “It’s like being a policeman, in that there’s always that element in the back of your mind that tells you that you may not make it home at the end of your shift,” he said. “It inbreeds a little extra caution on your part.

“But here, you’re in control of everything in your environment. You’re facing a known enemy.”

And, Kachelhoffer said, if a major malfunction occurs in any apparatus, there are red knobs placed strategically around the complex that, when pulled, can shut down the entire operation in less than 3 minutes.

Such stringent safety measures have not satisfied longtime opponents of oil drilling off the county coast, however. Environmentalists, politicians, local residents and others have said for more than a decade that offshore drilling contributes to air pollution, upsets the ocean’s ecosystem and constitutes a visual blight. They have argued for a ban on further exploration and drilling.

Such platforms as Ellen and Elly, however, are among the newer platforms off the California coast, “and the record that those platforms have achieved is pretty impressive,” said Bob Getts, the public affairs officer for the Los Angeles-based Western Oil & Gas Assn.

A higher level of technology and safety equipment has reduced the likelihood of an oil spill such as the one that occurred at a platform off Santa Barbara in 1969, Getts said.

Also, turbines driven by natural gas, which supply electricity for Ellen and Elly, have greatly reduced the amount of air pollution from the days when the earlier platforms were powered by diesel generators, he added.

A new federal lease sale of oil sites off the county’s coast is scheduled for some time in 1990, Getts said.

There has never been a major malfunction of the Ellen-Elly complex or an oil spill since it has been in operation, Kachelhoffer said, although crew members got a scare immediately after the Mexico City earthquake when they were warned that a tsunami generated by the quake might hit the platforms.

“That was about the biggest scare we’ve had out there,” he said. “We were wondering about it and waiting for it to hit, but it never materialized. We were going to stay aboard until there was a visual sighting in San Diego, but it turned out to be only a 2-foot wave.”

Vandivort said, “We’re taught that the last thing we want to do is go in the water. And we look out for our brothers.”

The platforms, he said, can withstand extremely high seas and earthquakes of intensities up to 8.0. And, he added, if an explosion or unmanageable fire occurs, the entire crew can escape from the complex in a self-righting escape capsule that is diesel-powered and can sail through flaming oil after being lowered into the sea.

When the crew uses the capsule for something, he said, “people really look at us strangely when they’re out there in their yachts, and we’re puttin’ around in this thing.”

Dire thoughts seldom occur to the workers, however. Vandivort said crew members look forward to sunny weather, when they can dangle a fishing line over the side and perhaps land a migrating yellowtail. They think of the days when whales and dolphins swim past, and when the lower catwalk is covered with sea lions sunning themselves.

“I’ve seen this whole deck just piled with seals,” Vandivort said. “And they know how to climb up the stairs. One year, one little baby made it all the way up to the galley level.”

Also, Huben said, practical jokes are rampant.

“You’ll have a bad day,” he said, “and someone will play a practical joke on you to lighten things up. Cornflakes or croutons in your bed, for instance. And you inevitably get (squirted with a hose) on your birthday.”

Still, the life is cramped, isolated and complex. The workers, however, agreed that their ultimate aim was not. Through wind and lightning and earthquakes and tsunami scares and high seas and equipment breakdowns and endless safety checks and drills, each crew member, Kachelhoffer said, remains single-minded about the job.

“Our whole objective,” he said, straight-faced, “is to do the job and get home in one piece.”


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