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Houston Chronicle: Storm watch: Shell to put weather sensors on platforms

Feb. 13, 2008, 1:06PM
Houston Chronicle Copyright 2008

As hurricanes pass through the Gulf of Mexico in coming years, seven Shell Oil Co. offshore platforms will have eyes on the storms.

The U.S. arm of The Hague-based Royal Dutch Shell has joined hands with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to place sensors, transmitters and backup power systems on some of Shell’s offshore Gulf installations to gather real-time information about storms as they blow through the basin.

“That’s unprecedented,” said John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil.

“It’s not just evacuation and shutdown that’s important. It’s knowing the trajectory of the storm and where it’s headed,” he said. “The more information we know from offshore, the more we can prepare for onshore consequences. And over the longer term, it can help us better design platforms and onshore facilities by having more knowledge about how nature works.”

Hofmeister said the deal emerged when he and retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., NOAA administrator, attended a conference on Gulf issues in Corpus Christi in the spring of 2006, after hurricanes Katrina, Rita and other storms wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast and offshore installations in 2005. They agreed to work together on gaining more information about storms, Hofmeister said.

Lautenbacher said NOAA has its own buoys outfitted with sensors in the Gulf that can take a “midlevel” pounding, but they’re costly and can’t cover as much area as they would on a platform.

He said private companies often try to sell NOAA weather information, but the agency has to be able to verify the data to use it. The data gathered by the sensors placed on the platforms will be NOAA data, alleviating that concern.

One of the installations that will be outfitted with the device is Mars, Shell’s platform 130 miles southeast of New Orleans that was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Other installations included in the project are Brutus, 165 miles southwest of New Orleans; Auger, 214 miles southwest of New Orleans; Ram Powell, 125 miles southeast of New Orleans; and three others closer to the Texas and Louisiana coasts.

“NOAA is in the hurricane business, and Shell is in the hurricane experience business,” Hofmeister said. “Let’s not just depend on fortune. Let’s see if we can use real information in real time to help us over the longer term.”

Federal regulations require deepwater oil and gas platform operators to gather and transmit observations of ocean current profiles to NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center.

Shell and NOAA are surpassing those requirements with equipment that will gain more data intended to better characterize, understand and predict severe weather.

Specifically, the sensors will gather meteorological and oceanographic information to help with hurricane research, forecasting and management of coastal resources from shrimping businesses to beaches, Lautenbacher said. That information includes wave height and direction, strength of currents and the level of heat in the water, which can indicate how much energy can be drawn into a storm.

The sensors, with backup power, will keep working after companies evacuate personnel from platforms and shut down operations as storms approach.

“Even when the platforms are evacuated, we’re going to be able to get continuous information through our satellite channel on oceanographic and atmospheric conditions,” Lautenbacher said.

Shell will acquire and begin installing the devices for the $1 million project this spring. Completion likely will take until late 2009, to allow for testing of the sensors and training of Shell personnel who will operate them. NOAA will manage the data and share it with the National Weather Service, NOAA’s National Hurricane Center and the public.

Data also will be shared with other companies that operate Gulf infrastructure, and NOAA will provide technical expertise in high-frequency radar and inspect the devices.

Lautenbacher said if deemed a success, the partnership could spread with sensors being installed on platforms run by other companies.

“It’s a model for future types of agreements that allow us to get data from platforms that are not ours,” he said.

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