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2017 May 02

Where oil rigs go to die

When a drilling platform is scheduled for destruction, it must go on a thousand-mile final journey to the breaker’s yard. As one rig proved when it crashed on to the rocks of a remote Scottish island, this is always a risky business.

It was night, stormy, and the oil rig Transocean Winner was somewhere in the North Atlantic on 7 August 2016 when her tow-line broke. No crew members were on board. The rig was being dragged by a tugboat called Forward, the tethered vessels charting a course out of Norway that was meant to take them on a month-long journey to Malta. Within the offices of Transocean Ltd, the oil-exploration company that owned the rig, such a journey might have been described with corporate seemliness as an “end-of-life voyage”; but in the saltier language heard offshore, the rig was “going for fucking razorblades” – for scrap, to be dismantled in a shipbreaking yard east of Malta. In that Atlantic storm, several thousand miles from her intended destination, Winner floated free.

The 33-year-old rig had never moved with so little constraint. Winner was huge – 17,000 tonnes, like an elevated Trafalgar Square, complete with a middle derrick as tall as Nelson’s Column, her four legs the shape of castle keeps; all this was borne up in the water on a pair of barge-sized pontoons – and its positioning had always been precisely controlled. While moored, she was held in place by eight heavy anchors. At other times, she was sailed with a pilot at the helm as if she were any other ship. When contracted to drill in the North Sea, as she had been since the 1980s, boring into the bedrock for hidden reservoirs of oil, Winner’s anchors and underwater propellers worked together with her on-board computers to “dynamically position” her – that is, keep her very still. The men and women who formed Winner’s crew – drillers and engineers and geologists and divers and cleaners and cooks, most of them Norwegian – imagined this rig to have a character that would resist such checks. They nicknamed her Svanen, or Swan, because to them she was both elegant and unyielding. Scheduled as she was for destruction, Winner could not have chosen a better moment to bolt.

The master on the tugboat Forward radioed for help. Through a series of exchanges with Transocean, as well as with the British coastguard and Forward’s owners, the Rotterdam-based ALP Maritime, the master explained his situation. Both tugboat and rig had been caught in heavy weather while circumnavigating the Hebrides, sailing a mile and a half off the Scottish islands. It turned into the worst summer storm in the region for years, with winds of 40 knots and waves 10 metres high. Throughout the afternoon of 7 August, Forward and Winner were tossed on a course running parallel with the coast of Lewis, one of the outermost Hebridean islands. For a time it seemed they would be sent on by, still fettered to each other, still Mediterranean-bound. But in the early evening the wind changed direction, and Forward and Winner – or more accurately, Winner and Forward, given that the rig was now acting as a huge metal sail and comfortably tugging her own tugboat – were forced landward. It was around 4am when the master radioed to confirm that the tow-line had snapped.

Winner had, for all of her life, been painted bright orange. The colour had become chipped and rust-stained over time, but was still vivid in daylight, visible for miles. In the storm, the rig disappeared completely. Radar data from those early-morning hours showed Forward moving back and forth in the water off Lewis, as if retracing steps for something misplaced. It was agreed between Transocean, ALP, the coastguard and other emergency authorities that Winner was irretrievable. Everybody would wait until sunrise, and see.

The world has a problem with its oil rigs. There are too many of them, and for the first time since the earliest manufacture of seaborne drilling platforms 50 or 60 years ago, decisions are being made about how and where to get rid of them in number. That there should be a sudden surplus is vexing for those invested in undersea drilling: as recently as 2010 the rigs were thought too few. Back then, had an oil company such as Shell or BP or Marathon wanted to dig down and discover what was lying beneath a particular patch of sea, it wasn’t unusual for them to wait as long as a year until an exploration company such as Transocean or Diamond or Ensco had a rig available to lease to them. It was a time of undersupply. Dozens of new rigs were commissioned, and worldwide orders tripled between 2010 and 2011. But oil rigs take two or three years to build, and by the time these were ready for use, the price of oil had declined sharply, and with it the industry’s hunger to prospect – thus the oversupply. Rigs without contracts to drill were either “cold-stacked” (anchored without crew) to wait for a market recovery, or sold for demolition. More than 40 oil rigs were waved off on end-of-life voyages in 2015, according to data gathered by a Brussels-based maritime NGO called Shipbreaking Platform; up from a single dispensed-with rig, so far as the NGO knew, in 2014....

Whole article you can read here

Source: www.theguardian.com; Tom Lamont

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