The fog was heavy at the New Orleans airport. Sitting low and dense. Giving 5:30 am an eerie feel. We were a bit sleepy, but excited about this once in a lifetime trip to see up close and personal an off-shore deep-water oil and gas production rig. Back at MIT, I had taken a class on energy where we visited a coal power plant, a nuclear plant, and a wind site. Combined with my direct experience with helping build a solar-powered vehicle, this trip to the oil rig was about to complete my personal experiences with the range of how we power and run our lives in today’s world.
After waiting for a few hours, letting the sun burn off the fog, our group of ten (including two representatives from ConocoPhillips) was ready to board the helicopter and start our hour and a half ride out to Magnolia.
Who were we? We were a group of philanthropists and consultants who are interested in minimizing the harmful effects of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. We spend our days figuring out how to pass tighter fuel efficiency policies or support re-designed cities to be friendlier toward biking, walking, or taking public transit. We were there to get a sense of the immense scale of the oil industry. We were duly humbled.
The night before we had seen a map showing the huge number of off-shore oil wells that dot the Gulf of Mexico. Around 4,000 in total. It looked quite crowded. As we left shore, however, the sea showed its vastness. Close to shore you could see several rigs, sometimes a few near each other, but after ten minutes of flying you had to wait for a while before another might come into view. You get the feeling that when on a rig, it is a bit lonely. And it reminds you of the safety videos you watched twice before getting on the helicopter – the one that showed you how to hold onto the window with one hand and onto your seatbelt with the other if you were going down into the sea. You happily wear your life vest, which reminds you of another trip across (or down) an ocean, sailing from Newport via Bermuda to Saint Martin in a 44 foot sail boat. But that is another story.
The 1.5 hour ride to Magnolia offered our group the chance to pepper our ConocoPhillips hosts with all kinds of questions about the rig, about offshore drilling, about schedules, about statistics, about money. How far off shore is the rig? (around 165 miles) How deep is the water? (around 4,700 feet) How does the rig stay put? (with tension legs anchored to the sea floor – it is, in fact, the deepest tension leg oil platform that exists, as of 2013) How deep do the wells go underground? (over 15,000 feet) How long do people stay on the rig? (two weeks on, two weeks off) What is the capacity of Magnolia? (currently producing around 5,500 barrels of oil per day, though its capacity is much higher around 50,000 barrels of oil per day) How much did it cost to build? (around one billion dollars and it took 10 years) [Doing the math, these statistics mean that the rig was paid off already and earned roughly $100 million a year in profit at the time]
When we finally arrived, the sheer size of the platform began to sink in. The helipad was five stories above the main level, perched above living the quarters for the 22 operating staff, dining facilities, meeting rooms, and workout area. The stairs getting down (and all around) the rig were skinny (you wanted to make sure and hold on to the rail) – but the coolest part was that they were metal and open so that you could see the ocean below – way below. Later we saw that below the gentle waves there were huge jellyfish and shoals of even bigger barracuda that liked to swim around the rig.
After attending the safety orientation, eating lunch, donning fire-resistant suits and hard hats, and checking out our assigned muster area and life boats (primary and backup), we were ready for a full tour of the rig. It was impressive. Percy was our expert guide, who had been on Magnolia since it launched ~2004, and had 25 years of off-shore experience. There were the two (redundant) control rooms monitoring the production flows and levels, temperatures and pressures, with multiple levels of potential warnings to make sure things were running smoothly. Up came a mixture of oil and gas through pipelines from six wells – and the connection to each well was flexible, so the rig could move in the waves quite a bit and things would be okay. The oil and gas was separated in multiple stages, water removed, and the two streams were pressurized to start their way through two pipelines on the sea floor, eventually making the way to land. There was the ‘pig’ launching setup to put in cleaners for the underwater pipes. We even got to go 85 feet underwater in the yellow supports to see the many pumps that can move massive amounts of sea water to balance the rig, especially useful when there is a drilling platform installed above. The mechanical engineer in me was happy.
So why were we there? What was a group of folks who are focused on reducing oil use globally going to learn? From my view, I saw the ingenuity and creativity of man to meet the needs that society has. Right now that means that if there is a demand for oil, we can be extremely creative in going to the ends of the earth or depths of the sea to get it. The economics of it all are extremely powerful. Though there are concerns about safety and environmental protection from spills and blowouts, over time and through increased regulations, many systems can be put in place to (mostly) address these concerns. However, these rules and regulations do not stop oil production.
The good news is that this same ingenuity and creativity can be applied to other areas, addressing the ‘newer’ concerns of carbon dioxide emissions. We have to reduce our demand and consumption of oil. Improving efficiency of cars, creating electric vehicles, improving cities so we don’t have to drive as much…these are all ideas that need time to be realized, but they are real options. As a society we can be extremely innovative and put in the effort to make it happen. But we need to get going now.