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    Life on Mars

    As oil companies armed with new technology push farther into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, pressure builds to explore nearer Florida’s coastline.

    [Times photos: Skip O'Rourke]
    Shell's Mars platform is 130 miles south of New Orleans.

    How the Mars TLP (tension leg platform) works


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 5, 2001

    Far offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, where the turbid coastal waters turn a rich, cobalt blue, where pods of sperm whales play and storms can be followed horizon to horizon, the geologists of Shell Oil have planted a towering steel tree.

    Its top rises more than 300 feet above the surface; a trunk of steel tendons descends nearly 3,000 feet to the gulf floor; 20 roots of steel pipe branch outward and sink as deep as 4.5 miles into the Earth's crust.

    In keeping with its otherworldly presence on the open waters of the gulf, Shell calls the rig Mars.

    For many years, through boom and bust, drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico had been confined to the continental shelf, a shallow underwater ledge of land extending 100 miles or so from the shoreline. That's where the Mississippi River dumped the plant and animal materials that, over millions of years, became hydrocarbons -- gas and oil.

    In the freewheeling, good-old-days of the oil business, the shelf sprouted more than 3,900 platforms for drilling and production. But when the domestic oil business crashed in the mid-'80s, the gulf became, to many oilmen, "the dead sea." Money for exploration went elsewhere.

    Then, in the last decade, came a resurrection. Higher prices worldwide and a surge in technology made oil in the Gulf of Mexico a hot prospect again. Today companies like Shell and BP Amoco are pushing into the very deep waters of the gulf -- 5,000 to 10,000 feet and eventually deeper -- looking for the new oil and gas deposits they call "pay."

    And they are finding it.

    At Shell's Mars facility about 130 miles due south of New Orleans, production is already at 200,000 barrels of oil and 200-million cubic feet of natural gas a day. Several other Shell holdings in deep water are producing similar results.

    A few miles to the east, toward the Florida Panhandle, BP Amoco recently announced the biggest find ever in the gulf's deep water. The Crazy Horse site in 6,000 feet of water is projected to contain at least 1-billion barrels of oil.

    James Brown runs the control room on the drilling floor of the Mars tension leg platform.

    "These are significant discoveries even by Middle East standards," said Larry Wooden, an oil geologist and spokesman for Shell.

    Since the beginning of last year, the federal government's Minerals Management Service has recorded a 73 percent increase in the number of rigs drilling in the deeper waters of the gulf, from 26 to 45.

    In energy-dependent Florida, drilling for oil in the gulf has historically been someone else's business, someone else's concern. Oil rigs, when they came to mind at all, brought images of fouled beaches, tar balls and oil-covered birds.

    Whatever the truth of those images, the result has been enough political muscle to confine almost all exploration and production to the gulf's western half.

    That may be changing.

    With industry's new interest in the deeper waters of the gulf has come renewed pressure to explore nearer Florida's coastline.

    In December, barring any last-minute hitches, the MMS will open bidding on Lease 181, a 1.5-million-acre area of deep water south of the Florida Panhandle. The companies keep their cards close to the vest before a lease sale, fearing that any sign of interest will drive up the bid price. But interest in Lease 181 is expected to be strong. After all, the site of the big Crazy Horse strike is just a few lengths of drill pipe away.

    In February, Interior Secretary Gale Norton estimated the area contains 1.25-trillion cubic feet of natural gas, "enough to serve 1-million U.S. families for 15 years," and 185-million barrels of oil, "enough to fuel the automobiles of a million families for nearly six years."

    All told, the National Petroleum Council estimates that the eastern gulf may hold 36.7-trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 5.2-billion barrels of oil.

    A flight to Mars

    Pipelines connected to wells, platforms and towers in the gulf cross marshes and bayous on the Louisiana coast to deliver oil and gas to shore.
    There is life on Mars, and it's good.

    But it's probably not for everyone.

    A trip to Shell's billion-dollar Mars platform, about 160 miles southwest of Pensacola, is a 90-minute helicopter ride from New Orleans.

    The oil and gas industry has been drilling in the gulf for 50 years, and almost 4,000 platforms of various purpose and vintage crowd the Texas and Louisiana coastlines. Most are linked to facilities on shore by a vast spider web of underwater pipe.

    Their numbers decline rapidly as the helicopter heads further offshore, however, and soon the water is empty from horizon to horizon.

    It's not clear why, but oil companies often attach thematic, whimsical names to lease areas and the rigs that work them. Celestial bodies produced Mars and Shell's nearby Ursa rig, for example. In another lease sale, cartoon characters provided the Bullwinkle and Popeye platforms. In another, spices inspired Cardamom and Oregano. Elsewhere, there's Bud and Cognac.

    Mars is drilling in the Mississippi Canyon, part of the mountainous sea bottom terrain that begins as water depths increase from about 1,500 feet at the edge of the continental shelf to 10,000 feet and beyond.

    Mars is not a drilling rig in the conventional sense. It works in 3,000 feet of water, far too deep for a fixed steel structure. Instead, it floats. In fact, Mars is registered as a vessel. But its real identity is a TLP, or tension leg platform.

    TLPs are designed to drill in very deep water. They are connected to the bottom by flexible tendons. Although they look stationary, a visitor quickly becomes aware of gentle, side-to-side movement.

    Some vital statistics:

    The hull is made up of four circular steel columns, painted in Shell yellow. Each is 66.5 feet in diameter and 162 feet high. They are connected at their bottoms by four big submerged pontoons.

    Twelve flexible tendons connect the columns to the sea floor, three per corner. Each tendon is a 2,852-foot long tube, 28 inches in diameter with inch-thick walls, connected to pilings in the sea floor.

    The multi-level decking is almost a football field long on each side. It contains modules for crew quarters, drilling, processing and power supply. The whole structure weighs a staggering 36,000 tons.

    Welder Randal Rushing and production operator Carolynne Burns monitor a tank. Mars is home to about 130 people, mostly men.
    Mars came on line in 1996. It sits atop a number of reservoirs, and with its 24 well slots, is slowly draining several thousand acres of oil-engorged sand and rock far beneath the sea bottom.

    It sends the oil and gas it produces every day back to the Louisiana mainland through a grid of pipes on the sea bottom. There it is pumped back underground for storage.

    But Mars, like many modern rigs, is more than well holes. It is also an at-sea processing facility, separating gas, oil and the water that often accompanies them to the surface.

    In addition, nearby wells drilling in even deeper water send oil and gas through miles of pipeline to Mars, and that is processed and piped to shore, too.

    "We're full service. We drill it, produce it, process it," said Floyd Landry, Mars assistant manager.

    Mars is home to about 130 people, more or less, depending on work being done aboard the rig. Most are men, but there are plenty of women around in hard hats and coveralls. "We've had a diverse work force on the rigs for the last 20 years," Landry said.

    There are about 30,000 oil and gas workers in the gulf, almost half of them in production jobs ranging from unskilled to very highly trained.

    They are well paid. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that average earnings in the oil and gas industry were significantly higher than the average for all industries. The private industry average of $442 per week is topped by the $719 earned by all "oil and gas extraction" workers.

    And, because two weeks on duty are followed by two weeks off, rig workers commute from all over the country. Some hold other jobs.

    "We have them from Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, Montana and a few other places, too," Landry said. "They fly in, come to work, then fly back home."

    Helicopters act as a bus line back and forth to the rigs. They come and go from Mars at the rate of 85 visits per month, swapping out crews and bringing supplies.

    Mars is a modern, comfortable facility, designed to make a two-week stay at sea, working and resting in 12-hour shifts, as pleasant as possible.

    Much of the heavy work on a modern rig has been turned over to machines, but there are still times when roustabouts stand in hot drilling muds, trying to loosen massive bolts the old-fashioned way -- with hammers.

    Shell says it does everything it can to build a sense of teamwork and minimize the stress that can come from working in close quarters.

    The food in the company mess hall is first rate. Hungry workers considered their options at a recent lunch: The seafood pasta? Maybe the garlic shrimp? The beef tenderloin tips in burgundy sauce was a "superb" choice, one man pronounced.

    A sideboard nearby was heavy with cakes (cut your own slice, no one's watching) and piles of cookies and snacks. Fresh fruit, too.

    "The food's so good it can be a problem keeping you weight down," Landry said. "Our exercise room gets a lot of use."

    Rooms are well-lighted, and large pieces of artwork hang on hallway walls.

    Incoming wet oil is separated from water, and the "dry" oil is then sent to the Louisiana mainland through a grid of pipes on the sea bottom.

    No drugs or alcohol are allowed on the rig, but there are safe places to smoke. Rooms sleep two to four, and everyone gets his or her own television set -- and satellite control box.

    "No need to have fights over who watches what football game way out here," production foreman Vicki Settles Grimes said.

    All the pricey equipment and creature comforts on Mars would hardly be necessary, however, if not for suddenly smarter oil hunting machines.

    Bringing a 'dead sea' back to life

    Three-dimensional seismic technology, super-sensitive satellites that can spot oil from space, and "smart" drills that turn corners are making a new frontier out of an old one.

    It's no secret that large quantities of oil and gas are under the gulf's deeper water.

    But it isn't waiting in convenient pools, ready to be sucked to the surface like soda through a straw. It is under great pressure from the weight of the world above, often thousands of pounds per square inch. If a drill pipe can break into a deposit, the field will tend to drain itself. It almost never drains fully, however. Movement of material will usually plug the well before that happens.

    "We hope for 40 to 50 percent recovery," said Larry Wooden of Shell's Houston headquarters. "Sometimes we get as little as 5 or 10 percent."

    To find these deposits, and determine if they can be reached with a drill bit, geologists conduct seismic surveys. Sound waves are sent into the ground and the echoes are carefully analyzed for information on the layering of the soil and salt below.

    Until recently, geologists studied maps that displayed soil data in two dimensions -- top to bottom, left to right, as on a sheet of paper.

    In the last decade, a huge leap in computing power allowed geologists to add a third dimension to their maps: depth. The result is a far more complete picture of what a deposit looks like, and therefore better decisions on where to drill.

    "We don't hit as many dry holes," said Miles Barrett, Shell's manager of subsurface data.

    Seen in 3D sound echoes, the underground world is a lightless landscape of towering mud volcanos and vast blobs, or "domes" of salt. Tucked away within this labyrinth are pockets of yellow and red, oil and gas, some small, some huge, some worth the effort at recovery, some not -- at least not yet.

    All this is not to say the gulf has surrendered all its secrets.

    Even 3D seismic is often thwarted by the salt domes, which absorb and distort sound waves as they pass through. Salt is also hard to drill, and so some deposits just can't be reached.

    It's also true that, as good as it is, 3D seismic does not actually find oil or gas. Rather, it identifies geologic formations likely to contain oil or gas. The result is that roughly a third of even the most likely deposits turn out to be dry holes, despite how attractive they look in 3D.

    Nevertheless, since the 1980s, the cost of discovering a barrel of oil has dropped from $20 to less than $5, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

    In 1989 only 5 percent of the wells drilled in the gulf used 3D seismic. By 1996, that figure had climbed to 80 percent and is higher today.

    Drilling has changed dramatically, too.

    Modern rigs drill a number of wells that spread out like tree roots, targeting one deposit or another. Shell's Mars facility has room for 24 and just completed its 20th.

    The advantages of horizontal or "directional" drilling are obvious: A rig does not have to be placed in a sensitive environment, but instead can begin the well some distance away and approach the deposit from underground.

    Directional drilling also allows geologists to target hard-to-reach deposits beneath or between salt domes, and to get more oil from deposits only partially drained by conventional vertical drilling.

    To navigate around corners thousands of feet beneath the surface, drillers must know exactly where their drill bit is. Modern bits are linked by computer cable to the surface, allowing the drilling foreman to steer the well toward the targeted deposit.

    In the future, technology will push even further.

    Three-dimensional seismic surveys will be replaced by 4D -- time lapse imaging in which geologists will be able to watch a reservoir's contents move as a field is drained. Geologists expect this to be useful when heat or steam are added to wells to help the oil drain more freely.

    Floor hands Joseph Brown, left, and Danny Martin watch the drilling operation after adding more pipe into the rig. Much of the heavy work on modern rigs has been turned over to machines.
    Those troublesome salt domes that frustrate seismic waves may yield to new underground mapping techniques based on how salt resists electricity.

    Apparently exhausted wells might yield more gas or oil when "fractured." In this process, fluids are injected into an old well at high pressure, breaking open a sealed up formation and freeing more gas or oil to move up a wellpipe.

    For now, however, Shell's Mars rig is one of a handful of drilling and processing operations that mark the industry's best and brightest -- and cleanest -- efforts. It's an industry centerpiece.

    Not all the rigs, platforms, pipelines and equipment are as clean or efficient. And although a rig drilling in the Lease Area 181 is likely to be a modern operation similar to Mars, its not clear what later years would bring.

    In other areas of the gulf, smaller companies are re-working the wells left behind by larger companies, and although the federal government monitors their work, their environmental records have received less public scrutiny.

    For now, however, on Mars, work is going well. Brent Grubbs is called "captain" of the rig. He is in charge of operations, and says he is proud of Mars' thus far strong safety and environmental record.

    "We are better trained than ever before, we have better equipment and we have better data," he said. "We are safer than ever."

    - David Ballingrud covers science. He can be reached at 727-893-8245 or at

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