North Sea oil platforms: Hard work, strict safety and inventive fun

Dec 08, 2003 01:00 AM

by Doug Mellgren

Out here, far from the Norwegian coast, life is extreme for workers of the lonely offshore oil platforms that send tendrils deep into the ocean floor to harvest the black gold that has made this Nordic country enviably rich. Imagine relaxing in the comfortable lobby of a plush hotel, warmth and quiet abounding. Then, step outside the steel doors to experience the full fury of a raging North Sea on every side.
Such mind-bending contrasts are part of daily life for workers on offshore petroleum platforms like the Sleipner A. Offshore petroleum raised Norway from one of Europe's poorest nations a century ago to one of the world's richest. The Nordic country of 4.5 mm is the world's third-largest oil exporter, pumping 3 mm bpd.

And that doesn't count the vast natural gas production from platforms like the Sleipner, in 80 meters (260 feet) of water, some 240 km (150 miles) off the Norwegian coast. The Sleipner A is a combined accommodations, production and processing platform.People live aboard as it produces and processes natural gas for European markets.
It is a key crossroads for pipelines to Europe, and off limits to all but authorized visitors. For the roughly 160 people who work here, just the commute for their two-week shift is an adventure. It starts with a strict security check at the heliport near the western city of Stavanger, and then workers don a rubbery, orange survival suit and ear protectors for the hour-long flight aboard a Super Puma helicopter.

On a recent foray to Sleipner A, the chopper landed with a disquieting sideways slide onto a helicopter pad on the platform deck, which is 60 by 140 meters (192 by 448 feet) and 210 meters (672 feet) high. Crews clutched their helmets as they raced away from the downdraft of the still-swirling helicopter blades.
Cranes noisily lifted containers brought by supply ships waiting far below. Huge smokestacks produced little smoke and turbines used gas to provide electricity for the platform, enough to supply a cityof 50,000 people.
However, once inside the eight-story hotel section, or in the processing plant -- which looks like any land-based processing plant -- it's easy to forget that this platform is in one of the world's most ill-tempered oceans.

Operations manager Torlief Moe, 52, recalled the storm of '94, when winds of 220 kph (136 mph) blew fiercely and waves as high as 22 meters (70 feet) slammed into the underside of the platform.
"But I was pretty sure she would stand it," he said. The Sleipner was named for the eight-legged horse of Norse mythology that was Odin's personal steed. That was unwittingly prophetic. "Sleipner does have eight legs," smiled catering assistant Brit French, 35, repeating a platform joke.

Its first four legs sank in 1991 during the final construction because of a design flaw and are still under 200 meters (640 feet) of water near Stavanger. No one was injured. The crew believes that the accident means the four new legs, finished in record time for a 1993 start-up, mustbe indestructible. The four legs -- huge concrete columns -- hold the 34,840-platform above the ocean.
“If there is any (platform) I feel safe on, it is this one," said Sleipner A manager Edvin Ytredal, 49. "I don't know how many hundreds of percent safety margins have been built in."

Working and living around enough natural gas to blow up a small city makes safety a constant issue. The first greeting, even before "welcome aboard," is: "You're in lifeboat (a number). It's that way. Here is a map."
In an emergency, crews would race to their assigned 70-person, covered, free-fall lifeboat for, if needed, a gut-wrenching drop to the ocean. Accidents do happen. According to the petroleum directorate, two people were killed on Norwegian offshore installations last year, both hit by falling objects. Norway's worst offshore accident was the March 1980 capsizing of the Alexander Kielland platform in the North Sea's Ekofisk field, killing 123 of the 212 people aboard.

Under the Sleipner, natural gas comes from wells drilled as far as 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) into the seabed, as well as from connected platforms, sub-sea wells, and pipelines. Sleipner A can process about 22.6 mm cm (768 mm cf) per day, purifying it for the gas supply pipelines of Europe. There is so much pipe that operations manager Moe faltered when asked how many km (miles) of it there are on the platform. He didn't know, but offered "There are 22,000 valves."
Outside, flash photography is banned, because countless sensors could "see" a flash as fire and shut down production, costing millions. Use of drugs or alcohol, or even having a cigarette lighter (there is a box for leaving them behind at the mainland heliport), is enough for a permanent one-way ticket home.

And those with offshore jobs wouldn't want that. The average annual pay for an offshore worker was 481,200 kroner ($ 67,775) in 2002, or 55 % over the average for land based industrial workers, according to the state agency Statistics Norway. Apart from the pay, shift rotations of two weeks on, two weeks off, two weeks on and then one month off mean each crewman gets more than seven months off each year.
"I think it is important to have the free time to spend with my children. And the pay is good," said French, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. "They are used to it. Sometimes they ask, "Mommy, aren't you going to work soon?"'

And there is plenty of work, with 12-hour shifts and a variety of tasks. French routinely changes from her catering uniform to bright orange overalls for her turn as a "helicopter guide" leading newly arrived crews from the helipad. There is still time for fine dining, relaxation, and fun before retiring to what seem like downsized hotel rooms, with small beds, televisions, desks and bathrooms.
"We have all hotel functions on board," said Ytredal. Apart from that, there is a nurse, a chapel with visiting clergy, solariums, weight rooms, pool tables, ping pong, a sauna, laundry, movies, and hobby rooms. And golf.

Golf? On an offshore oil platform? Off duty crews set up miniature golf courses in carpeted hallways of the accommodations section and "a month ago, there was a green card course out on the deck," said French. Food on Norwegian offshore platforms is so tempting that workers fear growing "The North Sea Muscle." That's what they call a pot belly.
"The food is great, but after a while you miss the day-to-day meals," said Einar Sudland, a drilling rig mechanic from the southern town of Farsund. It was his wedding anniversary. A downside of offshore work is separation from loved ones, something Norwegians have accepted as seafarers since Viking times.
“When you are gone at Christmas... it can be hard for the kids," said Sudland, whose boys are ages 3 1/2 and 7. "And if there are problems at home, it is hard to be out here."

He was sitting in the lounge area, with sofas and deep chairs, green plastic plants, bookshelves, newspaper racks and matchboxes, since smoking is allowed there but lighters are not. On one table was a giant unfinished puzzle of the World Trade Centre started around Sept. 11, 2003 in memory of the terror attacks.
"The people here reflect society in general, although there are certain criteria," said Ytredal, the platform manager. Crew members must be physically fit, in good health and between the ages of 18 and 60. As on land, the laws of supply and demand apply on this community at sea.
Crews on standby ships far below the platform decks often don't see land, stores or newsstands for weeks. The platform crew, on the other hand, can long for the fresh fish out of reach below them. So deals are struck.
"Sometimes we trade fresh newspapers for fresh mackerel," said French.

Source: The Associated Press
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