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Baton Rouge Advocate: One Shell elsewhere

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Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING
Frontier Drilling employee Jeremiah Larkin, wearing an orange survival suit, emerges from a submersible helicopter simulator at the Shell Robert Training and Conference Center, located east of Hammond. Mark Michaud, a diver with Montrose Safety Training, helps supervise the exercise for industry workers in an enclosed pool setting at the 20-acre training campus, where 30,000 people a year obtain oil and gas industry instruction. In this exercise, trainees were to stay in the simulator seven seconds after it submerged. Said Larkins, a Bastrop resident, ‘It was a long seven seconds.’

Tangipahoa Parish center trains thousands in oil, gas industry

Advocate business writer
Published: Sep 23, 2007

ROBERT — Thunder rumbles and rain pellets the supercharged atmosphere outside.

A British accent adds context to the emergency.

“We’ve got one in the water, two that walked in front of the helicopter,” the remote voice reports from an offshore drilling platform.

Back in an onshore command center, the news launches supervisors into action.

“So you do not have the medic with the fire team?” a supervisor interjects.

“Negative,” reports the British accent. “We still have one person in the water and two missing.”

With an uncannily calm demeanor, Tom Broom steps to a corner of the command booth and speaks in hushed tones.

Not to worry, he says, it’s all simulation.

Professionals from Scotland and England — veterans of North Sea oil calamities — regularly make the trip to Robert, five miles east of Hammond, to drill oil and gas workers in emergency tactics.

Their destination became known colloquially as Camp Robert after Hurricane Katrina, a nickname for the Shell Robert Training and Conference Center that harbors hundreds of oil and gas workers a day.

In the months after the hurricane, until the One Shell Square corporate office in New Orleans reopened in February 2006, Camp Robert in a real sense became One Shell elsewhere, a command center, which kept the oil and gas giant’s operations humming throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Two years later, teeming activity — from helicopter rescues to crane operations, management skills and drilling rig practice — takes place in the forested quietude of a 20-acre campus.

“We bring the best instructors in the world to Robert to instruct our students,” said Broom, operations manager of the center that just turned 20. “We’re designed to emulate an offshore production facility. Our students sleep here. It’s obviously very isolated — like our facilities offshore.”

And the digs at Camp Robert truly mirror their offshore cousins. In an enclosed pavilion, a submersible craft plunges into a pool rippling with choppy water. Students in rescue gear shimmy along an underwater cable to check on their brethren trapped in a would-be helicopter.

Exercises call for such real-life predicaments. Workers, for instance, must gauge how to break out of a downed chopper, climbing over bodies and spending a sufficient amount of time under water to taste the terror of an actual calamity.

Jeremiah Larkins got a mouthful of it.

“It was a long seven seconds,” said the Frontier Drilling employee from Bastrop, after he emerged from the simulator.

“This is life or death,” Broom said, “if you’re unfortunate enough to be in a helicopter crash. This course will save the lives of our employees and other employees if they’re involved in a crash.”

Orange safety gear covers every inch of Larkins, except for his face. The reason? Safety instructors prepare them for multiple harsh environments, even the frigid waters off Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.

In another corner of the campus, four Shell employees and three Algerian oil workers congregate with instructor Jeff Campbell in a setting that simulates a process control room — electronic monitors all around — on an offshore rig.

“We put scenarios in here and they have to learn how to respond to various problems,” Campbell said. “As you drill the hole, you have to control it to keep from having a blowout.”

Under another pavilion, Broom points out a set of orange elastic jumpsuits, filled with air from portable dryers and hanging upside down like ghosts in the gallows. Soon, members of the Helicopter Underwater Egress Training class will be back to don them. Increasingly, life offshore is remote. Not merely in the sense of living conditions — 14 days on, seven days off — but in the sense of technology, too.

Camp Robert plays host to an almost museum-like inventory of petroleum exploration equipment. One of the knockout items is “Rocky,” a massive remote operations vehicle that trolled the depths of the Gulf of Mexico from 1996 to 2004, before retiring to Camp Robert as a training stud.

“This is the future of the deepwater,” Broom said, walking around Rocky and pointing out features of the submersible, controls that allow it to go deep to the Gulf floor and make adjustments on “Christmas trees,” the uppermost producing and monitoring portion of wellheads.

With remote vehicles like Rocky, a communications “umbilical cord” connects the vehicle to an oil platform control room, where operators can direct it to adjust valves and solve other problems, Broom said.

A business decision

Throughout the facility, Shell instructors spice their training environment with a sense of fun: an instrumentation teaching lab is known as the “Crawfish Hole” and not far away is the Lagniappe Room — a practical, communications-equipped conference room that served as the nerve center for Shell executives after Katrina.

On the second anniversary of the hurricane, Shell executive Frank Glaviano and his wife, Marie, visited the campus and dined in the café known — as the offshore versions are known — as the galley.

Shell recently chose to invest further in a pair of 30,000-square-foot buildings — a conference facility for meetings of up to 400 and a residential building that will sleep 96 offshore trainees, boosting total overnight capacity to about 136. And a new facility entrance being built from La. 445 will give visitors better access from Interstate 10.

“It wasn’t a difficult (investment) decision,” said Glaviano, who’s vice president of production for Shell’s Americas region. “It was a business decision. We basically justified it on the money we could make … and it’s also the money we don’t spend by sending people to hotels. But we feel having people on the campus is safer. You can do things in the evening hours to build teamwork. We feel like it’s a better way to do it.”

In recent years, Shell decided to open the training center to non-Shell personnel — something that helped lower costs while encouraging safe practices across the industry. Though training of Shell customers is foremost, there’s nothing so proprietary that it can’t be shared with other firms, Glaviano said.

“We’re extremely proud of the job Tom and his team have done to make it a world-class facility,” he said. “Our global training division (Shell Learning & Development) has really taken notice of what the Robert center has done. They want to use it as a U.S. hub for training.”

In the past year, Camp Robert mustered 30,000 people for training exercises, about 70 percent of them Shell employees. But there’s capacity to handle many more, Broom said.

Hurricane Katrina and a partnership with LSU are other drivers of the expansion.

“The whole experience,” Shell spokesman Frederic Palmer said of Katrina, “demonstrated to us the value of the facility, from ongoing business strategies to the case of any future storm.”

Meanwhile, Camp Robert’s profile within and beyond Shell’s ranks continues to grow, with all paths eventually leading to the galley of Executive Steward Dana Boylan and his Sontheimer Offshore Catering Co. staff.

On the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, fried chicken took center stage on galley plates, a symbol of normality at the offshore replica campus.

“Oh Lord,” Boylan said, pondering how much had been consumed at the meal. “200-some pounds of chicken, close to it.”

A Mobile, Ala., resident and veteran of offshore cooking environments, Boylan confesses that trainees are free to head to town for meals, a challenge for which he’s prepared.

“I know there’s three days we don’t lose no customers,” he said. “Steak day, chicken day and seafood day.”

In a visceral sense, the galley blends what’s best about the Robert center, Broom said.

“It’s not the office, it’s not the field,” he said. “It’s a place where both can be comfortable. Every day, you see these incredible reunions.”

Shell Robert

What: A 20-acre conference and training center, primarily for the oil and gas industry

Where: On Obee Stevens Road, off U.S. 190 in Robert

Annual trainees: About 30,000 people a year

Milestone: Recently marked the 20th anniversary of its founding as a comprehensive site for offshore oil rig training; prior to 1987, training was delivered at actual oilfields scattered along the coast

Current project: In a $12.5 million expansion, Shell is adding a pair of 30,000-square-foot facilities to boost meeting and lodging space beginning in early to mid-2008

Contact: (985) 543-1200

Advocate staff photo below by TRAVIS SPRADLINGDrilling instructor Jeff Campbell, center, taps class members Tim Meyer, left, of the federal Minerals Management Service and Remy Daigneaul, a Shell offshore supervisor, to demonstrate how a class uses the drilling rig floor simulator in a well-control class at Shell’s Robert Training and Conference Center. The class included several students from Algeria in Africa, and Shell encourages other companies to train their oil and gas field and office workers at the center. In the past year, about 30 percent of the people training at the center were non-Shell personnel.

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