U.S. offshore oil study not done as storm season nears

HOUSTON Tue May 19, 2009 5:48pm EDT

The Petronius oil platform is seen from the air, located 100 miles (161 km) off the coast of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico June 3, 2008. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

The Petronius oil platform is seen from the air, located 100 miles (161 km) off the coast of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico June 3, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

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HOUSTON (Reuters) - Study of the hurricane fitness of 92 key Gulf of Mexico oil platforms, begun a year ago, is not finished as the 2009 storm season nears, U.S. Minerals Management Service officials said Tuesday.

The work is taking longer than expected, MMS Gulf Region Director Lars Herbst told a briefing on preparations for the upcoming season, which begins June 1 and ends November 30.

"Review of those is complicated," MMS Gulf of Mexico Regional Supervisor for Field Operations Mike Saucier said. "Hopefully, we should have it completed, at least most of them, by the end of this year."

Nevertheless, MMS expects to be better prepared than ever for hurricane season, and is not letting down its guard despite forecasts of a milder season than in 2008, when two strong storms caused heavy damage in the Gulf, Herbst said.

"We've had forecasts predicting low seasons in the past, and we've had very strong seasons," Herbst said. "We hope for a calm season, but as always we're going to be as prepared as possible."

The centerpiece of measures taken is a new requirement for better information during storms on the location of mobile drilling rigs, which in the past have drifted off location and damaged undersea pipelines.

MMS is requiring redundant global positioning systems and access to real-time location data on both jackup rigs that crank legs down to the seabottom and floaters that moor at a drilling location, officials said.

The goal is to plot any movements that occur on a map, assess risks and react appropriately during a storm, MMS said.

Agency officials also are imposing stronger standards for setup of jackup rigs during hurricane season, and will deny permits until the season is over if risk appears unacceptable.

"I'm not foreseeing a lot of denials for jackup rig locations," said Lance Labiche, an engineer in MMS' field operations division. "What this is going to provide is better soils data, which is lacking right now," he said.

More likely than permit denial is requirement that companies take steps to strengthen jackup rig setup where conditions warrant, Labiche said.

Work assessing the 92 key platforms began in October 2007 when MMS asked industry to do evaluations in light of new research estimating storm risks in the Gulf.

Key platforms are those that produce a lot of oil and gas or are located at key pipeline junctions. The new so-called "metocean" data - short for meteorological and oceanographic data - raised wave-height risk during storms.

By June 1, 2008, companies submitted reports on the adequacy of key platforms to withstand the higher wave estimates and steps taken to make them stronger, if necessary.

MMS personnel have been evaluating those reports since then and about 20 percent of the work has been finished, Saucier said. "A lot of the data that comes in is subjective," he said. "It takes quite a bit of time."

(Editing by Christian Wiessner)

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