VISITING AN OFFSHORE OIL RIG
March 3, 2010
“Mr. Charlie,” the first movable offshore oil rig, is located in Morgan City, LA. where we stopped to visit. Doc LaBorde worked in Morgan City for Kerr McKee Oil Industries. It was 1952, offshore drilling had begun in 1945. LaBorde observed that for every new well, a new drill had to be built. He wondered if it was possible to build a movable drill to take from well to well? Kerr McKee wasn’t interested. He quit and went to work on the idea. LaBorde passed the suggestion by the small Murphy Oil Company in Arkansas whose ramrod Charles Murphy, was known as “Mr. Charlie.” He helped finance it and LaBorde named the rig for him.
LaBorde took it to New Orleans for Shell Oil in 1954, and the danged thing worked, much to everyone’s surprise. The whole oil industry had someone out watching Mr. Charlie’s debut. It changed the oil industry forever.
Mr. Charlie drilled offshore wells continuously until it was retired in 1986. Mr. Charlie now serves as a rig museum and training station for young well drillers and toolpushers. Rig workers are transported out to the well, work 12 hour shifts (no days off) for 14 days before they are returned to land, home, family, stores, movies, etc. Isolation is a special consideration that will only be worth it to a handful of people.
On site, next to the drilling rig, sits this production station (below) that replaces the drilling rig so it can move on to the next job. From this platform the pumps keep the crude moving into pipelines to shore or to tanks on barges, or to holding tanks in specially built oil tankers.
The 32 foot long pipes are racked right next to the drill head. They are threaded onto the drill and screwed together. As the drill drives them into the ground, another is added an so on.
Virgil Allen, our very knowledgeable tour guide demonstrates the drill position, and explained thoroughly how it worked.
After the pipe is threaded onto the drill head, this huge wrench clamps it tight. On older rigs like Charlie, most of these tools were operated manually. Newer rigs are computerized and one man can operate most of the drilling functions from behind a glass wall. I was surprised to learn that the oil companies who own the leases rent the drilling rigs. Some rent for $80,000 to a million dollars a day which means that rig must be put to good use while they have it. The rig companies plan to extend the working time from 14 days out to 21 with so many automated tasks. Its experimental, to see if they can still maintain a good human safety record, keep production humming and lower their transportation costs. Plus, the pipes will be 45 feet long, rather than 32 feet.
Another aspect of oil drilling is a special “mud”. An onshore plant grinds rock to a fine powder. It is then mixed with mi-gel, detergent, chloride and other chemicals and water to produce a mud that keeps the drill from getting too hot, it controls the flow, helps slow pressure and has number of other functions. This mud is used to bring up all the metal filings or any foreign substance that results from drilling. It is screened, packaged and returned to shore so the process is safe and environmentally sound. All waste is returned to shore. Nothing gets dumped into the ocean. The mud room above also helps ballast the rig in the center with its weight. I learned a lot about oil drilling in a very real way.
On the human side, the rig has a slew of washing machines to wash their dirty clothing at the end of each shift. It has a recreation room with television and a cafeteria that serves the crew 4 meals a day. Once clean-up is finished, the workers can make sandwiches, snack on ice cream or anything they like. Seafood is served on Friday, Steak on Sat. All you can eat. Good food is compensation for living on an oil rig. A rig like Mister Charlie used a staff of about 180 people to run things on the rig, transport, and support services on land. On the newer rigs, people are fewer but the sophistication is mind boggling.