Status of Gulf Oil Pipelines Still Unclear
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
For America's oil industry, you couldn't pick a worse place for a hurricane to hit than the Gulf of Mexico. Offshore wells in the Gulf produce more than a quarter of the oil drilled in the United States. Hurricane Katrina smacked into those wells like a giant fist. Scores of platforms are damaged or just gone. No one knows the state of the underwater pipelines that bring Gulf oil ashore. NPR's Christopher Joyce visited Cameron, Louisiana, where teams are just now going out to see what's left.
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CHRISTOPHER JOYCE reporting:
Cameron is a speck of a town that lies between miles of marshland and the Gulf of Mexico. Usually it's pretty sleepy; not now, though.
Mr. TIM SHANNON (C&C Technologies): We're on board the Brooks McCall, which is a survey vessel. What we're doing at the moment now is we're mobilizing the vessel.
JOYCE: Tim Shannon works for C&C Technologies. They're an international survey company, and they're outfitting a 270-foot boat here in Cameron for a four-week journey assessing the damage to the Gulf's oil and gas fields.
Mr. SHANNON: We've been scrambling. The boat people are scrambling. We're waiting for captains right now for this vessel. We're looking for two captains to come out here.
JOYCE: In the meantime, they're welding on a new winch and hooking up surveying equipment. They'll be going out into the Gulf to `mow the lawn,' he says: dragging sonar and other scanning devices back and forth across the Gulf.
Mr. SHANNON: Mainly we'll be looking at the pipelines. And the main thing is that we want to find out where all the breaks might be. The sooner we can get that fixed, the sooner, hopefully, we'll get our gas prices down.
JOYCE: To understand how long that might take, you have to get a bird's-eye view of what the Gulf's oil network looks like.
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JOYCE: At C&C headquarters in Lafayette, Ralph Coleman rolls out a map of the Gulf. There are thousands of black squares and squiggly purple lines that look like spaghetti right in Katrina's path.
Mr. RALPH COLEMAN (C&C Technologies): This is a chart here depicting the track of Hurricane Katrina. You can see where it comes into the deeper water. We started tracking it out here and tracked it all the way as it goes up into Mississippi.
JOYCE: The squares are platforms that pump up oil or natural gas from under the seabed, then send it through underwater pipelines to shore. There are some 40,000 of them in the Gulf. The spaghetti represents pipelines. They deliver oil to more pipelines on land, which then take it to refineries to be turned into gasoline. Oil companies say Katrina sank or disabled about 50 platforms, though they've only just started surveying. But Thomas Chance, president of C&C, says there are lots more small platforms that are gone as well.
Mr. THOMAS CHANCE (President, C&C Technologies): We know in some shallow-water areas real close to Louisiana some fields are completely gone, fields with hundreds of small platforms. There's nothing there, you know? And this is in eight feet of water. You should see something sticking up, and there's nothing.
JOYCE: And even though most of the platforms in the Gulf are OK, they can't pipe oil until the pipelines are checked. Hurricanes can bury or break pipelines on the seabed with mudslides or whip one around like a child's slinky. As a result, Gulf oil production is now at a trickle, about 10 to 15 percent of normal. Gas production is only slightly higher. Katrina hit at an especially bad time.
Mr. CHANCE: We were stretched before the hurricane, you know, the price of oil being close to $70 a barrel. And, I mean, we're out there and the oil companies are saying, `Go, go, go,' and we're going, going, going; and now you get a hurricane and now, you know, the whole country's kind of panicking, and we're out there doing everything we can before, so now you go from full blast to super-full blast.
JOYCE: But surveyors can't move as fast as they'd like, partly because Katrina actually altered channels along the shore, which makes boat travel unpredictable.
Mr. CHANCE: Areas have shoaled up where, you know, the water depths have changed dramatically in some areas. And if you don't know how deep the water is, you run aground and you bust a prop; and now you got to go in the shipyard and the shipyard is shut down, and, you know, it's a big mess.
JOYCE: Two ports in Louisiana had served the Gulf. Fourchon and Venice are key to keeping the oil flowing. They're deep enough to handle the big boats that resupply platforms with everything from food to multiton pipe casings. According to Keith Nossage(ph) of Anadarko, an oil company based in Houston that uses those ports, they're gone.
Mr. KEITH NOSSAGE (Anadarko): What it is, it's a staging area that gets supplies offshore. And right now, you know, they're doing some preliminary surveys at Fourchon. We seen pictures yesterday where a good portion of it was underwater.
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JOYCE: That means boats have to travel farther from ports unaffected by the hurricane, like Cameron on the Louisiana-Texas border, where C&C's Tim Shannon and his crew are cooking up their first onboard meal in the galley.
Mr. SHANNON: We have collard greens, black-eyed peas, corn bread, roast.
JOYCE: Shannon reckons there'll lots more trips like this one before the Gulf oil fields can be put back together again.
Mr. SHANNON: Personally, I think it's going to take a little time to get this all back together.
JOYCE: What's a little time?
Mr. SHANNON: We'll be surveying for two, three months. It'll take the companies six months to get things in order, then you got to get new pipes put out. You're looking at, my guesstimation, at least a year.
JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News, Lafayette.
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