Gulf Rigs and Refineries Face Cleanup

If the experience with Hurricane Ivan is any guide, oil companies will have to deal with a fair amount of damage in the wake of Katrina. Ivan turned the pipelines on the sea floor into spaghetti and damaged some platforms. Environmental damage was minimal.

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The Gulf Coast is the heart of the domestic oil and gas industry. A year ago Hurricane Ivan, which was also a Category 4 storm when it hit, barrelled through the area. Giant waves struck oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. And along the ocean floor mud slides moved steel pipelines sometimes thousands of feet. There were, however, were no big oil spills. As NPR's David Kestenbaum reports, oil companies are expecting the same thing with Katrina.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

At night in parts of the Gulf of Mexico you can see lights, some many miles off shore. They are platforms pumping natural gas or oil out of the sea floor. These things are built to withstand hurricanes, and often they do. John Christiansen is a spokesman with the energy company Kerr-McGee.

Mr. JOHN CHRISTIANSEN (Kerr-McGee Spokesman): The Neptune facility, which actually is the one that's just south of Mobile, Alabama, and the eye of Ivan passed right over the top of that. Neptune fared very well. It had some superficial damage, but it was still intact, and it was in fairly good shape when we returned to it.

KESTENBAUM: People live and work out on the platform. Christiansen says their employees have been evacuated, about 110 people, and the facilities have been shut down. That means the well on the sea floor gets shut off at the source, and the pipes above get closed off to prevent leaks. Platforms in shallow water rest on supports that go down into the mud, but in deeper water they have to float. They're tethered to the ocean bottom by long cables, often made of steel. They look like giant spider legs and can stretch for a mile. They're attached to giant anchors, and the anchors aren't supposed to move, but during Ivan some did. Dan Orange is CEO of a consulting company called AOA Geophysics.

Mr. DAN ORANGE (AOA Geophysics, CEO): One of the anchors was dragged along the sea floor and effectively beheaded a well that had been abandoned down there. But it had been shut in, so there wasn't any environmental damage. But then that facility floated around the Gulf of Mexico and did essentially a do-si-do around another platform, until it came back to close to where it started. But it--if you want to envision over $500 million of equipment floating around, being pushed by the weather, that would be a good mental image.

KESTENBAUM: To prevent damage from waves, the platforms often tower 50 feet above the water. That's a lot of clearance, but during Ivan one platform felt the wave 88 feet high.

Mr. ORANGE: That's a hell of a wave, and it packs a wallop. And when it hits a flat piece of steel, it'll fold it over like a taco.

KESTENBAUM: Ivan also caused extensive damage on the sea floor. Mud slides moved around hundreds of miles of pipeline.

Mr. ORANGE: The best description I heard was from somebody at a major oil company who described the sea floor south of the Mississippi Delta as 20 miles of spaghetti. And the way they put it to me is they went out to go look for their pipeline, and they found a pipeline where theirs was supposed to be, but the problem was it wasn't their pipeline.

KESTENBAUM: One moved over three miles. And for one company the repair bill came to over $40 million. The mud also wiped out an entire pumping platform. When people went to check on it, it was just gone. Still, Orange sees Ivan as an engineering and safety success story.

Mr. ORANGE: The force of that storm was so intense it caused many, many, many millions of dollars of damage. But there was nobody killed off-shore, there were no injuries, and all of the environmental issues that, you know, would keep any of us awake at night and worrying about things, like an oil spill--none of that happened.

KESTENBAUM: Companies say they hope to send helicopters out tonight or tomorrow to see what Katrina has done. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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