Deep Sea Roughnecks
Kerr-McGee Corp., founded in 1926, made petroleum history in 1947 by drilling 10 miles off the Louisiana coast. Although Kermac 16 was a milestone in offshore drilling technology, the water was only 20 feet deep.
Unlike the Gulf of Mexico with its continental shelf, the West Coast gets very deep, very quickly. Drilling in depths of 200 feet and beyond – now common in the Gulf – once required the endurance and capabilities of experienced hard-hat divers.
The dangers of deep sea diving prompted famed escape artist Harry Houdini to patent a quick release mechanism to help divers quickly extricate themselves from their cumbersome suits.
Albacore divers found new opportunities when petroleum exploration began off the California coast near Santa Barbara. In 1948, Shell Oil Co. joined Continental Oil Co. (today’s ConocoPhillips), Union Oil Co. and Superior Oil Co. in a joint venture – the CUSS Group.
The CUSS objective was to pursue deepwater drilling — and for the first time develop motion-restricted drilling ships. The first effort was the Submarex, a converted U.S. Navy submarine chaser.
Submarex was followed in 1956 by the CUSS I, which used four steering propellers and six mooring buoys to hold the ship in position. A 95-foot derrick sat amidships over a diamond shaped opening, which is still known today as a “moon pool.” Deep below, hard-hat divers faced new challenges.
“Because re-inserting a drill pipe from a moving, heaving barge into the subsea wellhead was a difficult maneuver, each time a worn drill bit had to be replaced, a diver had to be called,” notes a trade magazine.
“The hard-hat diver effected the ‘stab-in’ by straddling the top of the 24-inch hole between his legs, physically pulling the drill string over the target and at just the right moment instructing the drill floor, 250 feet overhead, to ‘let go.’” (Underwater magazine, May 2000)
“Stabbing in” was another hazard in the pursuit of oil and gas. Modern technology spares divers this dangerous task, notes Christopher Swann, author of The History of Oilfield Diving, 2007.
The pursuit of offshore oil inevitably demanded technological innovation as exploration led to even deeper and more inhospitable waters.
Instead of air, divers began breathing mixtures of helium and oxygen during deep descents and carefully managed decompression ascents.
Saturation diving and decompression chambers were developed to further increase bottom times and improve safety. With deep saturation diving, every 100 feet of depth required 24 hours of decompression and like today, time was money.
The extreme cold of deep water prompted Taylor Diving & Salvage of Belle Chasse, La., to adapt space suits designed for astronaut John Glenn to diving. Hot water pumped down from the surface and through dive suit tubing extended bottom times. Taylor also developed an underwater welding habitat pressurized with nitrogen that greatly facilitated the critical business of laying pipeline, tie-ins and repairs.
Even with state-of-the-art robotics, offshore petroleum industry and scientific needs for manned deep sea diving continue. Atmospheric Diving Systems enclose the operator at one-atmosphere pressure, regardless of depth, thereby eliminating the necessity for decompression.
Today, the “Hardsuit 2000” with 16 rotary joints and two thrusters for mobility, bears little resemblance to its traditional hard-hat ancestors. The suit can operate at depths up to 2,000 feet and remain for six hours on the bottom with no decompression required.
Pursuit of offshore oil and natural gas continues to generate new technologies just as it has in the past. Innovators and underwater roughnecks will continue to push both science and industry to new and deeper frontiers.
Visit these links to learn more about early offshore petroleum history, remotely operated underwater vehicles and the Minerals Management Service Rigs to Reefs program.
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