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Houston Chronicle: A survivor in the Gulf: Shell’s Mars platform producing more oil than it was when Katrina hit

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
21, 2007, 12:48AM

Shell’s Mars platform MARS PLATFORM, GULF OF MEXICO — It took patience, ingenuity and untold millions of dollars to heal the wounds Hurricane Katrina inflicted on Royal Dutch Shell’s Mars platform, the most prolific oil-producing platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

But nearly a year and a half after the storm pummeled the 36,500-ton structure with 175-mph winds and 80-foot waves that left dead fish and crumpled steel on its decks, the platform has surpassed its pre-Katrina oil production levels.

The biggest step left to restore Mars to its pre-Katrina strength is the return of its drilling rig. Due in April, it will have a new 250-foot derrick atop a repaired 1,000-ton substructure that the storm ripped from its clamps and then slammed back onto the platform.

“The Mars recovery operation is quite a success story,” said Elmer Danenberger, chief of offshore regulatory programs for the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service.

T.J. Senter, Mars’ burly offshore operations manager — essentially the captain of the ship — couldn’t be more proud.

“A huge undertaking,” he said of the painstaking repair.

And how. Mars sustained some of the most eye-popping destruction wrought when hurricanes Katrina and Rita threw their one-two punch at the Gulf’s energy network in 2005.

The storms destroyed 115 of the Gulf’s 4,000 oil and gas platforms and damaged 52 others, the American Petroleum Institute said. It took months for companies to recover in the region that produces one-fourth of the nation’s oil and one-fifth of its natural gas.

Shell spent $300 million fixing its Gulf infrastructure and covering relocation costs for workers who lost their homes and possessions to the storms. The company declined to specify how much of the cost was for Mars alone.

“These people spend half their lives here,” said Charlie Williams, chief scientist of well engineering and production technology for Shell. “The people who fixed this cared about it because it was their home.”

Floyd Landry, Mars’ operations manager, said Shell expected the platform to sustain damage — but the rig crash shocked everyone.

‘That’s a lot of damage’

“It hurt, because you know that’s a lot of damage and we knew it would be a lot of hard work getting it back up. But we started right away,” Landry said.

After three months of planning, two massive cranes mounted on a ship delicately lifted the decidedly not delicate rig substructure from Mars’ deck without damaging a critical gas processing unit. The latticework derrick was long gone and remains on the seafloor 300 feet from the platform.

Mars needed hundreds of welders, riggers, divers and other workers to repair knotted steel and other damage wrought when the rig toppled. Mars can’t house such a crowd, so Shell brought in a “floating hotel” from the North Sea to accommodate 500 people for months of major repair work.

But that structure had never been moored in more than 500 feet of water. Undaunted, Shell designed and installed mooring to anchor it to the seafloor 3,000 feet below next to the platform.

Lastly, Shell repaired two oil and natural gas pipelines 2,700 feet below the surface that transport oil and gas from Mars to shore. Anchors of adrift drilling rigs ripped free from their moors by the storm were dragged along the seafloor and plowed through the pipelines.

Robotic submarines used

A pair of remotely operated robotic submarines that Shell had kept on hand, but never used, replaced the damaged sections of pipe — a first for that kind of repair in such depths.

“We worked around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week from November until startup in May. We continue to this day making final repairs and preparations for the return of the rig,” Senter said.

Before the storm, Mars produced 148,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day and 160 million cubic feet of gas. Now it produces 160,000 barrels of oil and 121 million cubic feet of gas, Senter said.

It has capacity to produce 220,000 barrels, and is partially owned by BP.

Shell’s accomplishment with getting Mars back on line in just nine months with no injuries that required medical attention has made the company a contender for the Offshore Energy Achievement Award for project of the year.

In its third year, the awards program is a little like the Oscars for the exploration, production and offshore oil and gas industry. It’s run by Atlantic Communications, which publishes industry directories and magazines, including Offshore Engineer magazine. Professionals from across the energy spectrum evaluate and vote on nominees.

Awards come in 10 categories, and project of the year is like best picture, said Tiffany Tosh, a spokeswoman for the awards program.

Last year, Chevron won the top award for its Benguela Belize drilling and production platform about 60 miles off Angola in West Africa — using a tower fixed to the seafloor for the first time outside of the Gulf. BP was the first top winner for overcoming problems in placing its Na Kika oil and gas platform in more than 6,000 feet of water about 140 miles southeast of New Orleans.

The other contenders for the 2006 project of the year are an offshore West Africa development by oil services provider Schlumberger and ATP Oil & Gas Corp.’s completion of infrastructure modifications at its Wenlock development in the North Sea despite harsh conditions during a two-week shutdown.

This year’s awards will be announced at a gala on Thursday at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Mars, a $1 billion project, received government approval for construction in 1992, went on line four years later and sits in 3,000 feet of water. It has five decks that sit on a hull the size of a city block with four round steel legs. A dozen tendons secure the floating structure to the seafloor.

Unlike some Gulf structures that are strictly drillers, Mars both drills for and produces oil and natural gas.

The platform was designed to withstand 140-mph winds and crashing waves up to 70 feet high, but Katrina upped the destructive ante. Mars held its ground, so to speak, except for 3-inch steel clamps that did not hold the rig to a concrete slab on the deck.

New and stronger designs

Williams said Shell redesigned clamp systems on all platform rigs to withstand another Katrina. The company also is looking at ways to protect pipeline from wayward anchors.

“The intensity we saw here was unprecedented,” Williams said.

One phenomenon that struck the Mars community was how Ursa, another Shell oil and gas platform that sits in 3,800 feet of water about 7 1/2 miles to the east, emerged unscathed from Katrina.

Despite the distance, Ursa can be seen clearly from Mars on a clear day, as though it were only a mile or two away.

Steve Flack, a utilities team leader for maintenance and upkeep, said no rivalry exists between the crews of Mars and Ursa, which went online in 1999. But then again, post-Katrina repairs opened the door to one-upping the younger neighbor’s fleet of flat-panel TVs.

“When we came back from the storm, our electronics were all destroyed,” Flack said with a grin. “So we got TVs an inch bigger than theirs.”

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