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A Gulf in Communications: Staying Connected When the Weather Turns

As temperatures continue to climb in the US, the arrival of Summer comes as a welcome reprise from the Winter of COVID-19. But the balmy weather brings another, all-too-familiar threat: Hurricanes. The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season officially began on June 1 (and runs through November 30) and NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center has already warned communities up and down the eastern seaboard and in and around the Gulf of Mexico to expect “above normal” storm activity this year.

NOAA experts predict, with 70% confidence, that there will be 13 to 20 tropical storms (winds of 39 mph or higher) in 2021, 6 to 10 of which will likely develop into hurricanes (wind speeds greater than 73 mph). One particularly worrying trend in recent decades is the significant increase in frequency of CAT 3-5 events per season, and the exponential damage that these major hurricanes, with wind speeds exceeding 111 mph, can cause. According to NOAA, we can expect between 3 and 5 of these cyclonic monsters before December.

The costs of extreme weather, year after year, is staggering. The Office for Coastal Management suggests that, since 1980, tropical cyclones have resulted in $945.9 billion of damage—an average of almost $21.5 billion per event—and 6,593 deaths. 2018 and 2019 alone ran up a combined bill of $136 billion. And, in case you forgot, 2020 was a record year for storm activity, racking up 30 named storms in total. No wonder authorities are anxious.

IMPACTS BELOW THE SURFACE

Most damage tends to be, in the first instance at least, attributed to the devastation caused when a significant hurricane makes landfall—loss of life, homes destroyed, downed infrastructure, etc. However, a storm also takes a toll long before interacting with land; while coastal residents and businesses scramble to board up and hunker down, essential offshore industries often take the brunt. Losses incurred to offshore energy production, and activities that rely on critical infrastructure below the waterline, can be costly.

Take Hurricane Laura, for example, which in late August 2020 became the strongest hurricane on record to make landfall in Louisiana. But Laura was already causing havoc 48 hours before she slammed into Pelican State shoreline. Reportedly, the storm reduced crude oil production in the Federal Offshore Gulf of Mexico by an estimated 14.4 million barrels over a span of 15 days, forcing the evacuation of 310 offshore platforms. With no personnel to manage operations, crude oil production was halted, or “shut in” to use the correct industry terminology. On August 25th shut-ins reached a daily high of 1.56 million barrels—a reduction of 84% in the region’s average daily crude oil production in 2019.

The general protocol is this: Once there is clear evidence that a storm will jeopardize operations (and put people in harm’s way), operators take steps to secure rigs and equipment and, if necessary, evacuate employees. Older, fixed anchor rigs tend to be the most vulnerable. Due to lessons of the past, today there is a range of platform types—Compliant Towers, Tension-Leg-Platforms (TLPs), Semi-Submersible Platforms, Spar Platforms Operators, and Floating Production, Storage and Offloading Systems (FPSOs)—engineered to withstand significant lateral deflection and extreme seasonal forces. Once a storm has passed, and before crew can return to the platform, operators must inspect for damage. This inspection may be days or even weeks after the storm has passed. All being well, production resumes within days of inspection. If there is structural damage to platforms or pipelines, onsite repairs are ordered (rigs are generally returned to port). Either way, if a storm is severe enough, production may remain offline for weeks, if not months. Suffice to say, hurricane season can be a period of sustained turbulence.

COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY

Experience in the Gulf of Mexico has demonstrated the substantial costs caused by a delay in start-up of production following a storm, as well as the significant added value that early notification of platform damage. Robust and reliable communications between shore and platform allow for continuous video and sensor data to be transmitted to shore, providing a real-time update on platform conditions. This data can facilitate the post-storm inspection, allowing for the early return of crew and the resumption of production. In the event of platform damage, early identification of the type and extent of the damage can allow repair plans to be initiated, even while the storm is raging.

Most platform communication is still achieved by satellite or microwave systems, both of which rely on exposed antennas, usually located at a high point on the platform, and therefore inherently vulnerable to storm damage. Platforms that have implemented fiber optic communication have demonstrated that this medium is resistant to storm damage and that the reduction in lost production due to shut-in pending inspection can go a long way to offsetting the cost of fiber communications. This is of special importance as the number and severity of storms increases with the expectation of multiple storm related shut downs each year now being the new reality.

THE NEED FOR FUTURE INVESTMENTS

Despite the clear advantages of fiber optics, the level of specific investment in communications infrastructure for offshore oil and gas production assets has always been dependent on the overall performance of those assets. Therefore, the roller coaster oil price of the 2010s meant that in the years pre-2014 there was a growing hunger for developing fiber optic communications in the GoM, but this appetite quickly waned as prices plummeted from $110 a barrel in 2014 to $26 in 2016.

But today, in a new decade of offshore planning and remote operational capabilities (and harsh storm activity), further interest in submarine cable infrastructure can be expected. Indeed, Tampnet’s recent acquisition of BP’s 1,200-km GoM fiber network is a clear indication of this, as well as a 300-km expansion project to deep water assets. Tampnet says it will pair the fiber assets with a 4G/5G LTE wireless network that will support sensor networks and other elements of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Ocean Specialists has extensive experience of managing subsea network development projects in the GoM, from planning through design, procurement and installation. In addition to network development, cable operations and maintenance support, OSI work with oil and gas producers to engineer seabed-based monitoring systems that provide operators with essential environmental data needed to both adhere to regulatory compliance (for passive acoustic monitoring and marine mammal detection) and support sensor systems equipped to harvest critical oceanic data.

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