Offshore at 60: deeper through the decades

The headline for an article in Offshore in 1957 reads, "Deepwater Mobile Unit for Abu Dhabi."


Depth of coverage has increased as industry has moved further offshore

Joseph A. Pratt
University of Houston

The headline for an article in Offshore in 1957 reads, "Deepwater Mobile Unit for Abu Dhabi." "Deepwater" for this state-of-the-art drilling unit was 80 ft. The article reminds us that the move from the onshore operations out to depths of 80-100 ft marked the first definition of deepwater, and this feat was as demanding for those using the tools and the technologies of the early years offshore as was the redefinition of deepwater in the early 21st century.

Eighty feet had to mastered before 800 could be; 800 before 8,000. Increases in water depths as well as harsher conditions required the extension of existing technology and the development of new technology. One prominent engineer who entered the industry in this era recalls that "we were less afraid of failure then." With little to go on except their own "intuitive design and entrepreneurial spirit," offshore pioneers had to be bold. They attacked new challenges by analyzing the fundamental problem to be addressed, not by making marginal adjustments in existing technology. Their pioneering work laid the foundation for many of the developments that followed.

Offshore will look back at the history of these pioneers and those who followed as part of the celebration of it 60th anniversary in 2014. Drawing on articles from past issues and interviews of members of the Offshore Energy Center's Hall of Fame, the magazine plans a series of features on the evolution of the industry. This is fitting. Offshore has been joined at the hip to the industry since the publication of its first issue in 1954, when a sustained boom began in the Gulf of Mexico marking the coming of age of offshore oil and gas. The magazine and its industry have grown up together in the past 60 years.

The offshore industry was not born in 1954 or even in 1947, the date of the often celebrated "first out-of-sight-of-land" platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Long before the 1950s, wells had been drilled and oil produced off of piers, in lakes and bays around the world, and even in the open waters of the Gulf. More than 70 platforms had been built in the shallow waters of the Gulf before 1954, but a lull in drilling in the early 1950s pending the resolution of the ownership of public lands left offshore companies chomping at the bit. When the tidelands controversy was finally resolved, the race out into the Gulf was on.

John H. Latham, the founder ofOffshore, came out of the gate fast. A former land agent for Texas Eastern who wrote western fiction on the side, Latham set up offices for his new magazine in Conroe, some forty miles north of Houston. Its front cover proclaimed "First in Field, Offshore, The Marine Offshore Operations Journal." Latham overcame his Conroe-sized budget with his passion to chronicle the excitement of offshore expansion. He counted 45 publications that covered oil and gas, but "not a single one was overly interested in what was going on offshore—the thing was simply explosive."

The magazine quickly caught on; after only three issues it was in the black. Three years later, it listed more than 150 advertisers eager to develop oil and gas production or to sell services and supplies to those who did. A staff of 11 packedOffshore with news of current events, special sections on pipelines and shipyards, and an array of regular departments and feature stories. Each month's issue included comprehensive lists of drilling units and platforms active in the Gulf along with regular reporting on the stock values of key companies. Readers welcomed the enthusiasm of the magazine, which captured the tone of the initial boom in the Gulf of Mexico.

Offshore connected the various parts of the emerging industry. Its readers could keep up with key events, investments, technical innovations, and growth in scale in a surging industry. The magazine was a combination of a bulletin board, a gallery for photographs, and a place to read about technical innovations in laymen's language.

There was much to report. In the 1950s, the industry faced fundamental challenges that we can still recognize in new forms 60 years later. Movement into deeper water required the creation of truly mobile drilling rigs capable of safe and efficient exploration in different depths and conditions. Equipment to build and install production platforms and offshore pipelines had to be developed. An array of companies had to expand to provide services and supplies to the booming industry. Numerous design questions had to be solved to hasten the search for lower costs and greater production.

This quest had a clear focus: deeper.Offshore did its part by adding depth to its reporting. It expanded coverage of international projects, technical break-throughs, and government policies. With the passage of time, the magazine hustled to increase the complexity and the variety of information it provided to its industry.

Tools developed to go deeper changed dramatically over time. Offshore pioneer Jay Weidler lived through the coming of computers to offshore design. He recalls the far-reaching impacts of the move from slide rules and "Big Chief tablets into data bases within computers." With computers, Weidler and other designers could reduce the weight and thus the cost of metal platforms while also increasing confidence in their structural integrity. Early computations were made on giant mainframe computers of the aerospace program, but during his career Weidler witnessed the development of desk top computers capable of making similar calculations. High- powered computers had their most visible impact on 3D seismic, but they also transformed many other aspects of offshore design and operations. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine current deepwater operations without the application of modern computing.

Well before computers, the offshore industry had to develop truly mobile drilling rigs capable of operations in deeper waters. Earlier offshore exploration had been conducted from piers, permanent platforms, and then small platforms with converted LSTs from World War II surplus as tenders. None could be extended to deeper waters. The search for alternatives yielded several competing approaches as submersible drilling units, jackups, semisubmersibles, and early drillships took to the seas to explore for oil. George H.W. Bush, an offshore pioneer who specialized in jackups, characterized these early years in offshore drilling as "Low technology, huge risks."

Offshore reported regularly on both the technology and the risks. It highlighted new designs for mobile drilling rigs and the companies that made them while also covering the recurring accidents—at times with fatalities—that plagued offshore drillers. It proved hard to build powerful and dependable drilling rigs that also were seaworthy vessels. As accidents mounted, insurance companies joined industry leaders to improve safety by requiring that qualified captains command these "vessels" as they floated out to locations. This and other advances in safety paved the way for the subsequent growth of mobile drilling units of the scale and complexity needed for thousands of feet of water. Modern mobile units in comparison to their early predecessors look like a 747 compared to the Wright Brothers' airplane.

And permanent production platforms from the early 1950s look like the old tourist courts of that era compared to the high-rise hotels used today to produce oil and gas far out in the open sea. In a paper in 1962, offshore pioneer Griff Lee provided an overview of the advances in platform design, construction, and installation in the boom years of the 1950s. After summarizing the changes that had pushed the industry out to 200 ft, he speculated about what would be needed to extend operations to 400 ft. He noted that this was not the practical limit of platform construction before concluding with the optimism embraced by the offshore industry throughout its history: "When platforms in deeper water are needed and can be economically justified, they will be built." Twenty years later in 1982, Lee's presentation at the International Congress on the Behavior of Offshore Structures (BOSS) conference described the design and recent installation of three fixed metal platforms in water depths over 800 ft, and he concluded that the industry had "the capabilities to extend construction into deeper water and to more severe conditions as the search for oil continues."

He was right in 1982 as he had been in 1962, but it was becoming clear that the design of production platforms was entering an era of widespread innovations somewhat similar to that experienced by mobile drilling units decades earlier. Much higher oil prices, the increasingly difficult quest for non-OPEC oil in harsh environments such as the North Sea, and the inventiveness of the human mind sparked an ongoing revolution in platform design. TLPs, semisubmersibles, subsea manifolds, concrete platforms, and FPSOs evolved to move production into deeper water. These different approaches at times could be seen side-by-side and even in combination in the same fields as companies sought to find the best production platforms for different locations.

Hurricanes posed special risks in the Gulf of Mexico for fixed platforms, which could not be moved to avoid storms. In the 1950s new companies arose to provide helicopter transportation to and from offshore rigs, including the evacuation of workers from the projected path of severe storms. Before the era of weather satellites, private weather forecasting services supplied specialized and timely data to offshore companies. Despite path-breaking research by individual companies, however, systematic data about the potential impact of hurricanes on wave, wind, and soil offshore remained in short supply well into the 1970s. Before that time, many companies took "calculated risks" based on the faulty assumption that a 25-year storm was the worst they would face and that with luck the impact of the storm would be "over by your platform, not mine."

Three severe storms caused extensive damage in the Gulf from 1964 to 1969, finally forcing the industry to take the risks posed by hurricanes more seriously. Earlier estimates of the maximum height of hurricane-driven waves in the Gulf had ranged from 20 to 40 ft, but Shell measured 70-75 ft waves during Hurricane Camille in 1969. A consensus emerged that erring on the side of safety made more sense than losing platforms in future hurricanes, and the industry came together to create an API Hurricane Committee to fill gaps in knowledge about the impact of severe storms and define best practices in the design and construction of platforms.

Other innovations in offshore operations took place on a more human scale. Billy Pugh, who had gone to sea all of his life, heard a president of Bethlehem Steel brag in the 1950s that "we have conquered the sea with this jackup barge" and thought, "Oh, man, he hasn't been to sea much." In the early years offshore, a common means of transferring workers from boats up onto rig floors high above the water was a 2-in. pipe with a bridle on it and a cargo net draped over it. After watching workers jump onto this treacherous contraption "like a bunch of monkeys," Pugh developed an idea for a simpler, safer personnel net. When two workers died while being transferred off a drilling rig, Pugh received a call asking him to come out to the rig and build a prototype of his device. Using the materials at hand, he constructed a transfer net that evolved into the new standard in safety around the world.

Advances in the offshore industry resulted from contributions of people on the ground as well as from scientists and engineers. Pioneering geologist Milo Backus recalls that significant "technological developments have come from groups of people" and adds that "the importance of the guy out in the field and what he contributes to the technology is very often understated and overlooked." Because individual companies could not move deeper offshore without the specialized services, supplies, knowledge, and experience of other companies, an offshore fraternity grew. Thousands of people from hundreds of companies sought solutions to the same basic problems at the edges of existing technology, and over time their cumulative efforts pushed the industry deeper.

Reflecting on his pioneering efforts in offshore drilling, Bruce Collipp offered a simple summary: "We conquered what we understood at the time." Each era and each operating environment presented new problems, or at least new forms of old problems. Griff Lee noted that the concept of "deepwater" always remained "a little past what we can do today." As people like Collipp and Lee tackled the problems at hand, they remained keenly aware of the work of those who came before them and of the long-term challenges facing the industry.

Echoing this sentiments were comments from a special issueOffshore published in 1979 to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The opening editorial concludes that "While all the technical problems are not yet solved, nor are they likely to be completely conquered, sufficient work has been done that confidence can remain strong." A reflective article by Leonard LeBlanc, then the news editor, observes that offshore developments had "taken place only on the perimeters of the world's oceans and the industry is barely out of its infancy."

Events since 1979 certainly support his observation. From the 1980s forward the offshore industry has matured; it has reached a scale and technical sophistication that is stunning—even to those of us who have watched it evolve over the last 60 years. In contemplating what the future of the industry might hold, it is both enlightening and entertaining to remember what was required of industry pioneers to bring the industry to its current state.

The author

1401offprattJoseph A. Pratt is NEH-Cullen Professor of History and Business at the University of Houston's main campus. Dr. Pratt is a leading historian of the petroleum industry, and has been a consultant for the PBS mini-series on the oil industry, The Prize, and for the American Experience documentary on the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. He has conducted several hundred interviews of offshore engineers and executives for the Offshore Energy Center's Hall of Fame oral history project.
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