Sunday, March 14, 2010

Offshore History - "Offshore Pioneers"

I've been on the hunt for a good history of the offshore industry. So far, I haven't found a really good one.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power
The Prize is probably, overall, the best history of the oil industry. There are some omissions and minor errors, but from a story-telling standpoint, it can't be beat. It also doesn't really concentrate on offshore.

Oil 101
Oil 101 by Morgan Downey is probably the best from a pure factual and bias standpoint. Morgan Downey was an oil trader on Wall Street who had a very good grasp of the technical aspects of the oil industry. It's very dispassionate in its presentation and it's very, very thorough with a good chapter on Exploration and Production that takes up half the book. The problem with the book is its halfway a reference manual, so it's not much on narrative.

While hunting around I came upon a history of Brown & Root (B&R):

Offshore Pioneers: Brown & Root and the History of Offshore Oil and Gas
Offshore Pioneers: Brown & Root and the History of Offshore Oil and Gas
It took a little while to find a copy, because it's be out of print for about 10 years. The book was put together by 3 history professors who got funding from Brown and Root, but it's openly disclosed in the forward, so you have a heads up about the bias. It's very pro-B&R, obviously, but the advantage of that is they got access to so many key people. It's not a 100% whitewashing of history, but what I like is even if they would whitewash some of the B&R history, they had no qualms about dumping on the competition.

For example, Shell's Cognac platform was built in '77-'78 by New Orleans-based J. Ray McDermott. It was a HUGE milestone in offshore engineering at the time. It was a fixed structure in over 1,000 feet of water that cost $250 million to build and weighed 59,000 tons.

Well, one of the things that's talked about in the book was that B&R built a two platforms for Union Oil in almost as deep water (~955 feet vs. 1,025 feet for Cognac) that each cost less than $90 million. B&R was better able to calculate the forces and their interactions and could thus shave down the weight of the tower down to 26,000 tons.

In a little jab at Shell, the platforms were named Cervaza and Cervaza Light (Garden Banks Blocks 160 & 158). You see, Cognac is expensive and beer is, well, not... Engineer humor... Hardy har har...

The two best chapters in the book weren't really about B&R at all, though. They were about Project Mohole and Taylor Diving.

Project Mohole was an attempt to use an offshore drilling vessel in 15,000 feet of water to drill through another 25,000 feet of the earth's crust to the Mohorovičić discontinuity, collecting core samples the whole way down, and recover a piece of the Earth's mantle. Keep in mind, when Project Mohole was initiated, the deepest offshore well at that time was in only 200 feet of water. The project required taking existing technology and pushing it forward not just evolutionarily, but by leaps and bounds.

Today's most advanced Polycrystaline Drill Bits are direct descendants of the drill bit developed in the Phase I test. In that test, the drillship stayed in place with dynamic positioning, drilled an initial hole, and (through much trial and error) re-entered the original hole, and captured samples from a subsurface column of basalt. A drill bit studded with thousands of tiny diamonds was necessary to cut through the basalt, which was like drilling through hundreds of feet of steel.

Project Mohole suffered a series of major cost overruns and was always a target of political sniping. Eventually, the project was axed, mostly to pay for the Vietnam War. Imagine what sort of contributions to petroleum engineering, geology, and geophysics might have been made if it wasn't axed to pay for a pointless war...

As it was, prospects like BP's Tiber & Exxon's Blackbeard wouldn't be happening at this time without the jolt that Project Mohole gave to deepwater drilling. While things were a little better back then, private companies HATE spending money on R&D, especially on things where the usefulness-horizon isn't in X-many quarters.

The other chapter I really liked was about Taylor Diving. If it's related to human beings breathing or working under water, it was developed either by the US Navy or Taylor.

The funniest thing is how Taylor Diving got its start. It was started by three guys. Two of them were Navy veterans and the third, Jean Valz, was a veteran of the French Resistance. In 1959, L. E. Minor, the head of engineering for B&R, was out drinking on Bourbon Street and stopped in Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, one of his favorite watering holes. Moonlighting as a piano player was Jean Valz. The two struck up a conversation and by the end of the year, most of B&R's diving work was subbed out to Taylor. Both companies would later be bought by Halliburton.

Taylor Diving, as time went on, conducted research into underwater welding and saturation diving at their test facility in Belle Chasse, LA. They could simulate dives past 1,000 feet and could play around with air mixtures and welding filler rods and everything, all under close supervision by doctors.

Offshore Pioneers is good at filling in the details and dates for a lot of things I've heard of randomly working in the oil business, but not in a thorough, systematic way. I'm still on the hunt for one all-encompassing offshore history, though.



good stuff.

i'm sure you have taken some crew boats and choppers to work.

any storys in book form you know about that would be a great read for me.

thanks in advance and congrats on the begining on the next part of your life.

trust me on this one.

marragie is fucking awesome.

Peripatetic Engineer said...

Here's a small piece

Peripatetic Engineer said...

You neglect to mention that for a few brief shining years, New Orleans was the center of the offshore oil industry and the innovations that made it possible. It was the HQ of ODECO who developed the first truly mobile offshore drilling unit, the "Mr Charlie", now in Morgan City. The North Sea folks were trained by Coon Asses and you could go anywhere in the world and hear Cajun French.

That wet pot diving chamber was state of the art - and it was in lowly Belle Chasse.

Those were heady days. I miss them.

Clay said...

I'm working on this one and while I don't want to ruin a future post, I'll say that it's very, very good:
"The Offshore Imperative"

More offshore history (courtesy P.E.):


John, you're absolutely right. New Orleans was the center of the global offshore industry. All of the early important engineering, geological, and geophysical discoveries and breakthroughs were made in New Orleans. NOLA was in the big time, but got whacked hard by the oil bust of the 80's.

Appleita said...

Don't know if you read this book. It's an all encompassing history of offshore diving. Incredible work.

"The History of Oilfield Diving ~ An Industrial Adventure"
by Christopher Swann

E. Valz

Diamond Drill Bits said...

you're absolutely right. New Orleans was the center of the global offshore industry..