US offshore operators team with Coast Guard, fishermen to guard against terrorist attack

Jan. 24, 2002
The Offshore Operators Committee is working with the US Coast Guard, commercial fishermen, and other industry groups to improve anti-terrorist security for oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico and other US waters.

HOUSTON, Jan. 24 -- The Offshore Operators Committee (OOC) is working with the US Coast Guard, commercial fishermen, and other industry groups to improve anti-terrorist security for oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico and other US waters.

OOC members met in New Orleans last week with Coast Guard officials and fishermen to identify issues of shared concern and to form a steering committee for a cross-industry effort to improve security for offshore facilities.

"The meeting last week was well attended with about 115 people," said Allen Verrett, executive director of OOC. "There was more on the agenda than we could cover at the time, but we did address some issues."

That included concerns raised by "fishermen who derive their livelihood by being able to park their boats under offshore platforms," Verrett told OGJ Online.

Offshore platforms act as artificial reefs that attract fish on the otherwise frequently featureless gulf floor. Both private and commercial fishermen have long harvested the wide variety of sea life attracted to those marine habitats, frequently tying up to the platforms while fishing.

But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on US targets, offshore operators can no longer safely assume that vessels approaching their platforms are on such innocent missions. "Sept. 11 has threatened everything we do in America. We as an industry can be no different," said Verrett.

Even now, he said, operators may not be too concerned about a potential threat "when we see a bunch of fishing rods line up on each side of the vessel as it pulls alongside." However, Verrett said operators have always been "more concerned when we see a diver jump overboard, because once he's in the water we can't see where he's going or what he's doing."

Offshore operators also are concerned about potential dangers to the fishermen who tie up to their platforms. "We worry about using heavy equipment, testing wells, or the possible release of material while they're down there. Some offshore wells produce poisonous hydrogen sulfide," Verrett said.

To enhance the safety of both, he said, "We need to develop a communications protocol for boats when they are approaching an offshore platform, so that the platform operator would have more confidence in judging why that boat is coming alongside."

Verrett said, "We're trying to figure out a method by which fishermen could call before they come out to a platform. The way it is now, the first we know about a boat is when it ties up to our facility to fish."

He said, "We're concerned about how to maintain the safety of our operations without disrupting other industries that also are working offshore. When it comes down to a final choice, however, Verrett said, "Platform operators have three main obligations: One, to protect their people; two, to protect the platform; and three, to produce oil and gas."

He said, "We wouldn't have this problem if we were working off Israel or some European countries, because they never let other vessels come close to offshore platforms." Still, Verrett said, "Communications protocol is only a small part of a bigger security system."

Ever since the first well was drilled out of sight of land in 1947, oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico essentially have been an open target to a military or terrorist attack.

"A third of this nation's domestic energy supply comes from the Gulf of Mexico.," Verrett said. "Someone wouldn't have to knock many offshore platforms or pipelines before operators would start shutting down the others."

Although no one is willing to discuss details publicly, for obvious reasons, apparently all concerned parties have taken steps to improve offshore security since Sept. 11. "The Coast Guard has been doing some things. The Navy has been doing some things. The helicopter companies, the supply boat operators -- everyone is taking measures," Verrett said.

"There's probably no way to guarantee we could prevent a determined terrorist from getting under a platform somehow and blowing it up," he said. "But maybe we can do things that will make our facilities less attractive and less vulnerable so that they'll go somewhere else."

Although there were earlier meetings between industry and federal officials on security issues, Verrett said, "This was our first meeting with a lot of fishermen in an open forum." He said, "I think we provided some interesting facts that the fishermen were not aware of. There are more than 4,000 platforms out in the gulf and 60% of those are unmanned."

Last week's meeting was specifically for offshore operations. "Port authorities were not there, but then the ports are blessed with large land areas that surround and limit access to those areas most vulnerable to terrorist attack. But we're wide open," said Verrett.

As a result of the meeting, he said, "We now have a steering committee in place and some recommendations on who should staff some committees so that all of the stakeholders in offshore security share some input."

Representatives from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries also attended the meeting "and will play a part" in the development of the security program. "They have a cooperative agreement with their counterparts in Mississippi and Texas. We'll rely on them to convey the issues to those states," said Verrett.

Before the group takes further action, Verrett said, "We'll have to digest 12-14 pages of action items and lots of little post-its that came out of last week's meeting."

Although Coast Guard officials have assisted industry in organizing its security effort, Verrett said, "The Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service can't be the core of this effort. We have to do it ourselves."

Formed in the late 1940s, OOC currently has 70 operating and 25 service company members who are engaged in drilling and producing hydrocarbon resources in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, and territorial seas, bays, and estuaries.

OOC is generally regarded as being technically oriented and does not lobby at either the federal or state level. Instead, it works with agencies to develop "good sense" performance-based rules and regulations.