When I told a girlfriend I was going out on a Shell oil rig she scrunched up her face and quizzically asked why. If you ask people where they buy their gasoline, they will rattle off the name of their local gasoline station. Most people don’t think about where petroleum comes from that they are putting in their cars.
I’m the type of person that likes to know how stuff is created. Some people are okay with thinking that eggs come from the grocery store, not me, I have to own my own French Black Copper Maran chickens and figure out how hard it is to create chocolate brown organic free-range antibiotic-free eggs. I know that you can buy a dozen eggs for a couple of bucks, but if I were to sell my eggs, I would need to sell them at $5 a dozen just to break even on actual money spent.
James Bond and Shell V-Power Nitro+
“Breakfast was Bond’s favorite meal of the day. The single egg, in the dark blue egg-cup with a gold ring round the top, was boiled for three and a third minutes. It was a very fresh, speckled brown egg from French Marans hens.”
― Ian Fleming, From Russia With Love
Shell gasoline with V-Power Nitro +, simply called V-Power, is on the same scale as a Maran egg from Marans, France, but like many people, unless you know better, you will buy the cheapest eggs or gasoline. Vivek Raja Raj Mohan is a Fuels Scientist at Shell Global Solutions. Raj Mohan showed me the difference that Shell V-Power makes on a valve compared to its competitors. He basically performed a car colonoscopy, allowing me to see the gunk, aka carbon deposits, on a valve that didn’t eat V-Power Nitro+ for breakfast. Carbon build-up on the valve and stem reduces and disturbs air and fuel flow into the cylinder. If you knew how much work went into creating one gallon of gasoline, you would be embarrassed at how little you pay for a gallon of gasoline. If you knew how much went into making V-Power Nitro keep your car engine cleaner and running smoother, you would spend the extra money.
Shell’s Auger Oil Rig
In 1994 Auger was the world’s first tension leg platform (TLP), operating about 150 miles off the coast of the US Gulf of Mexico. Auger was the first deep-water oil rig capable of floating in the water, moored to the seafloor over 2,700 below sea level, and has since been replicated around the world.
To get to Shell’s oil rig my videographer, Stretch, and I, had to fly in a helicopter for 1.5 hours over the open sea. It’s the same ride all employees on Shell’s Auger oil rig makes every two weeks. One and a half hours sitting in coach seats with thirty-six other employees, buckled in a four-point safety harness with a life jacket on the helicopter. No smartphones are allowed, each person wears noise-canceling headphones where everyone can hear each other, but more importantly, they can listen to the Captain of the helicopter in case there is an emergency, and the helicopter needs to ditch, the term used if a helicopter goes down in the water. And you thought your commute was hell.
The employees on the helicopter aren’t just waiting for instructions if the helicopter starts to go down. Every single person that goes out to Shell’s Auger oil rig, and any other Shell oil rig offshore, have to be certified every four years in Tropical Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (THUET). It’s the same certification Stretch, and I got the day before we were scheduled to go out on the oil rig. No pressure there!
Tropical Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (THUET)
Safety seems to be overzealous at Shell Oil Company. I say seems because I didn’t live through the Piper Alpha North Sea disaster. Our water instructor, Derek Joyner, is part of the Falck safety services that will certify us at the Shell Robert Training. Joyner is a no-nonsense even-tempered professional real-world instructor. His one job is to make sure you are certified to know what to do if your helicopter ditches on the way to or from the Shell oil rig. You will not get in his way. Kindly, but strongly he will make sure that you succeed.
Shell opened the Robert Training Center almost 30 years ago to teach safety. Joyner talks about the spiral to disaster, the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster in July 1988 that lost 167 lives and sixty-one survivors that lived to tell how they survived. Some of the same things those people did to stay alive will be taught to us. Everything taught at this training center run by Shell is simulated to the same specifications as a helicopter. The goal is to have zero incidents – ever.
Doing our paperwork, some of the questions we were asked if we were Claustrophobic, Acrophobic, or Hydrophobic. Joyner keeps talking as we fill out papers and take notes. He tells us that if we think about oil rigs at all, it is usually when hurricanes are gaining steam, around a category 4-5. Joyner tells us that storms are bad, but 50-60 foot swells, 100 miles per hour winds happen even more frequently. Shell Oil can prepare for the hurricanes, taking actions to shut down the rig, before, during and after a storm. No boat is allowed to come within 500 meters of a platform, during bad weather that goes up to 1,000 meters. We are partly enjoying the stories and partly lingering; knowing what comes next is real-world training in the water.
Brace, Locate – get out!
The first couple of water events were easy, learning the basics of mustering, and how to put our gear on correctly. We ease the anxiety by laughing at each other in our hard hats and making jokes about looking like Michael Dukakis in a helmet in a tank, and maybe we should run for President. We knew the hardest part was upon us; a rectangular box that simulated the fuselage of the helicopter was hoisted down to the top of the water in the swimming pool. We were inside the fuselage, buckled in just like we would be if the helicopter had crashed and landed on the top of the ocean. We learn how to break open the windows of the helicopter, and the order in which we move out of the helicopter into a life raft. At this point, we’re not even getting wet, but that is because the helicopter was able to land on the top of the water, just like Sully did when he landed in the Hudson River and all the people walked out onto the wings to safety.
I scuba dive, Stretch hasn’t scuba dived, though we both swim. I calm myself by telling myself that I am Pisces, that I’m part fish, that I can swim the length of the pool underwater. It’s just about that time that Joyner tells us that the next step is the fuselage going underwater, but it doesn’t roll. I remember that he has told us that if we can hold our breath underwater to half the time when we hit the water, and half it again once we go underwater. He was right. As soon as we hit the water I could feel myself getting anxious, and then the fuselage started filling with water. As instructed, I locate my exit with one hand and put the other hand on my safety belt. As the water fills up, I get ready to take a breath. Anxiety hits me. Am I going to take the breath too quickly? If I take it too late, that will be just as bad. I take the breath as the water hits my neck and quickly covers my face. I try to knock out the window, hit it again, and again. I finally get it dislodged. I turn my safety belt, pull my arms through the harness and head out the window. I’m almost out of breath as I get to the top of the water.
The next phase is the hardest, and the one that requires the most deliberate calm. The fuselage goes underwater and rolls twice. I know it was hard to get the window out before, and now I worry about being disoriented. I steady myself; one thing at a time, brace, locate. I make it out of the helicopter. The rest of the day is spent on making the steps rituals so that it becomes as simple as remembering to put your seatbelt on every time you get in the car. It’s a ritual that allows you deliberate calm when an emergency situation happens.
It was a bucket list day when we all got the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organization (OPITO) certificate from Falck training service. The six of us were ready to go party and celebrate, but we were informed that we could only have one drink because we were going on the oil rig the next day and you couldn’t fly out to the platform hungover.
We met up with Donal Rajasingam, General Manager Shell Exploration & Production Company Asset Manager, Western Gulf of Mexico, for dinner. I joked with him about the fact that we couldn’t have more than one drink, “one of the things that bother the employees on Shell’s oil rigs are the way they are portrayed on television. These are hard-working men and women. They are on the rig for two weeks and then go back to their family for two weeks.” Okay, let me get this straight, when you’re on the rig you can’t drink, you can’t have a smartphone, and you’re out there for two weeks straight? And you have to pass THUET every four years just to be able to go out there? Yeah, you wouldn’t sell many tickets to that movie.
Sitting on a bomb
Rajasingam spends a lot of time in the Gulf of Mexico, and he knows the numbers, “there are about 2,400 oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, Shell operates nine production hubs, all in deep water. The vast production of oil comes from deep water. About thirty percent of oil production in the United States comes from the Gulf of Mexico.” He is right. It was seven years ago that the BP-operated Macondo Prospect resulted in eleven dead and over 200 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico making it the biggest environmental oil disaster in history. It took almost three months to stop the bleeding of oil into the Gulf and it put a shadow over BP’s reputation.
We are in the well bay of Shell’s Auger oil rig. The vertical pipes are risers connected to wells that are 20,000-30,000 feet below the mud line, or the bottom of the ocean. The depth depends on the depth of the reservoir. Rajasingam shows me the wellheads, where the oil comes up and goes into the processing center so that the oil can be separated from the natural gas and the water. The oil will be sent through a section of the 4,700 miles of pipeline that lay on the bottom of the Gulf so that it can be refined into gasoline, diesel, lubricants, chemicals and more. Shell’s Auger oil rig brings up about 53,000 barrels of oil a day.
Michael Volz Shell Oil Co offshore installation manager took us down to the control room and explained what the computer operators were doing, what the numbers meant. There was a picture of the Auger platform on the wall, and you could see the pipelines connecting it to refineries onshore.
If you think of the pipelines on the bottom of the Gulf as train tracks, you get an idea of how they are run. If one refinery is down, the computer shuts down one track and opens another, sending the oil to another refinery. The technology behind the entire system is unfathomable. The fact that it can be put together in deep water is a testament to what we can do when we have the science, technology and the will.
Rajasingam said it himself, “we are on a bomb, it is our values as a people and a company to keep our people safe and to keep our communities safe. You have to treat this with respect. You have to get that right. Making money as a company doesn’t mean anything if you can’t do safety. The safer you are as a company, the less damage you do to the environment the more the society is going to trust you.”
Next, we got to see what the oil looked like as it came up from beneath the Sea. That’s easy to explain; it looked like gunk. It looked like oil in a car that had not been changed for 25,000 miles. A worker with industrial gloves, a full-body suit and goggles twisted a knob in a sink and filled a mason jar full of the gunk. In fifteen seconds the jar went from being almost full to 1/4 full because all the natural gas had floated away. Remember, oil stays as a liquid, natural gas is less dense than air and will rise wherever there is a place for it to leak. You can see why they are always testing for leaks because you can’t see the natural gas float away until it is too late.
We were allowed to video different parts of the rig, but only after there had been a gas test to make sure that there were no gas, or fumes, in the air. Apparently, gas fumes and static electricity don’t mix. Even after we were approved to video, we were not allowed to move and video, which was just fine with me; one wrong step and I’d be swimming with the fish. I might be Pisces, but I’m a warm fresh-water Pisces! I think of our THUET trainer, Derek Joyner telling us that you can’t die from hypothermia. Joyner can tell me I won’t die from hypothermia all he wants, but if I’m in the ocean and my heart stops I’m claiming hypothermia. In fact, I’ll have it put on my tombstone; She died from hypothermia. She was right, She’s dead, but she was right. I digress…
The next stop is to witness the drilling of a new well. Matt Bodie, Drilling foreman for Shell’s Auger oil rig, takes me through what he calls plug and abandonment; basically, his crew is plugging a 21-year old well 5,900 feet below. I envision a concrete cork molded into the top of the well, sealing it off. Shell already has a new well, A15, scoped out and it is planned to produce 10,000 barrels of oil a day. Think about how much gasoline you use a year. One barrel of oil makes 42 gallons of gasoline. That’s 420,000 gallons of gasoline a day from one well. That amount of gas is enough to fill less than 600 cars for a year if they drive 15,000 miles in a car that gets 20 miles per gallon.
If any of you have ever thought that oil riggers make a lot of money, think again. How much would they have to pay you to leave your family for two weeks at a time, work twelve-hour days, not drink – at all! – And no smartphone? These people live on the oil rig for two weeks with no physical access to their families. Two weeks on, two weeks off; actually sixteen days on because, as I was told by more than one rigger, the first day you get back on land you sleep…in your own bed without any swaying. The last day on land you are packing up again and getting yourself ready to go back to sea for two weeks. There is no amount of money that you could pay me to live like this, but every two weeks 150 men and women do just that. I might be able to get used to everything in this paragraph, except for the constant swaying of the rig. That I couldn’t do. After four hours on the rig, I was ready to get back on terra firma.
From the Rig to the Race
This story could stop here, and I would have memories for a lifetime, but it doesn’t. We stepped off Captain Nicholson’s AW139 helicopter and went right to New Orlean’s airport, back to Austin, Texas to the Circuit of the Americas (COTA). The Circuit of the Americas is in Austin, Texas and is the only Formula 1 Grand Prix race held in the United States. The next day was Saturday, pole day for the Formula 1 drivers and we were rooting for the Ferrari team.
Formula 1 – that one percent of the formula that makes the difference
There are many sponsors in a Formula One race, but there are very few that have had the length and depth of sponsorship as Scuderia Ferrari and Shell Oil Company. It was Enzo Ferrari himself that worked with Shell Oil Company in his first race in the 1920s and Shell has been working with Ferrari ever since. This collaboration isn’t just a money sponsorship, where you pay a fee to have your logo on the side of the car. In one of the most competitive and challenging global races, Shell Oil Company has fifty employees that make gasoline specifically for Ferrari’s Formula One drivers. While ninety-nine percent of the compounds in the gasoline is the same as the V-Power you will put in your car, from the rig to the road, it’s that one percent that makes the difference from the rig to the race. The secret sauce is so secret that they would only let us record in audio in the formula room at the COTA Ferrari paddock.
Shell Motorsport Innovation Manager Guy Lovett and his group create molecules from Shell fuels and lubricants that deliver 25% of the total performance gain to the Scuderia Ferrari power. Optimizing the fuel means Scuderia Ferrari can go over half a second a lap faster with the same amount of fuel. It also meant that Sebastian Vettel had the fastest lap in the race and the second-fastest qualifying for grid position. It was exhilarating to watch Vettel beat Hamilton to the corner and lead the first couple of laps. Alas, in the end, all the King’s horses and all the V-Power Nitro+ couldn’t beat Hamilton.
Sebastian Vettel came in second on the podium’s Formula One Championship, while Ferrari teammate Kimi The Ice Man Raikkonen came in third. The rig to race will continue for Shell Motorsports and Scuderia Ferrari.
This article isn’t about getting off the dependence of oil. Even if we switched to electric vehicles right now, we would still have over 300,000,000 internal combustion engine vehicles that use gasoline or diesel on the road. Even if we switched to all-electric vehicles right away, we have to produce electricity.
This article is about understanding where our energy comes from and the amount of thought, and safety to our environment, that goes into acquiring that product. Knowing what it takes on a well-to-wheel production is essential in identifying how we can shape our future.
You can start by buying a dozen organic Marans eggs and a gallon of Shell V-Power Nitro+ gasoline. Pay the extra and get the best.