Post-WWII offshore technologies advanced petroleum exploration and production.
The modern U.S. offshore oil and natural gas industry began in 1938 when Pure Oil and Superior Oil companies built a freestanding drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico in 1938. Soon after World War II, Kerr-McGee drilled the first well out of sight of land as offshore exploration began demanding many new technologies — and highly skilled oceangoing roughnecks.
Kerr-McGee’s Kermac No. 16 began drilling on September 10, 1947, in continental shelf waters only 20 feet deep. The biggest hurricane of the season arrived a week later. The offshore platform withstood winds of 140 mph — one of its many historic milestones in advancing offshore technology.
The pursuit of offshore oil demanded technological innovation as exploration led to deeper and more inhospitable waters. Offshore divers faced new challenges, including one hazard called “stabbing in” a drill bit at the well. “Because re-inserting a drill pipe from a moving, heaving barge into the subsea wellhead was a difficult maneuver, each time a worn bit had to be replaced, a diver had to be called,” noted Underwater magazine in a May 2000 article.
“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.’”
Modern deep sea roughneck technology spares divers this dangerous task, reported Christopher Swann, author of The History of Oilfield Diving, 2007. 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, Louisiana, to adapt space suits designed for Nasa astronaut John Glenn to deep sea 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.
In 1948, Shell Oil Company and others pioneered the use of underwater television cameras for survey, inspection, and repair work. The Navy also developed deep sea technologies for submarine rescue. Technologies for underwater robots began to evolve.
By the early 1960s, Hughes Aircraft Company had built the first marine “Manipulator Operated Robot” — MOBOT — for Shell Oil Company. The underwater robot used sonar and television cameras for navigation, propellers for propulsion, and an umbilical cable for control. For more about MOBOT, see ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench.
Despite state-of-the-art robotics, offshore petroleum industry and scientific needs for manned deep sea diving continued.
Not long after Hughes Aircraft created MOBOT, a young engineer began working for the company in California. Ken Cowens’ first project was to analyze the sapphire dome at the front of a missile field at speeds of up to Mach 3. He would spend decades in cryogenics work related to heat transfer, and later use the knowledge to develop deep-diving technologies. Meanwhile, his wife artist JoAnn Cowans, painted award-winning oilfield scenes of Southern California.
After leaving Hughes Aircraft in the 1960s, Cowans formed the offshore technology company Kinergetics Inc., with offices in Tarzana, Californian, and Aberdeen, Scotland. Patented sub-sea products included a “Cryogenic Scuba,” followed by habitat environmental control systems, underwater television systems, and diving safety equipment. Among the latter was the “Stranded Bell Diver Survival System,” a life-prolonging survival means for a cold hyperbolic environment. Kinergetics also did an advanced project with astronaut-aquanaut Scott Carpenter.
Early Technologies and CUSS
Along California’s coastline, the need for skilled divers (man or mechanical) began as petroleum exploration followed known oilfields offshore. Drilling contractors developed special platforms and constructed drilling piers. But Pacific Ocean depths quickly dropped very deep close to the shoreline.
Until remotely operating devices were invented, drilling in depths of 200 feet and beyond required the endurance and capabilities of experienced hard-hat divers.
Production methods and equipment would demand new technologies invented by offshore pioneers — including a diver’s suit patented by escape artist Harry Houdini.
In the early days West Coast petroleum exploration, skilled Albacore divers found new opportunities oilfield were pursued around numerous California oil seeps, especially at Santa Barbara. The geologic region there has remained active because of the movement of the San Andreas and other faults. The numerous oil seeps led to discovery of the Los Angeles City oilfield in 1892.
Faced with developing new and expensive offshore technologies, in 1948, Continental Oil Company (today’s Conoco-Phillips) partnered with Union Oil, Shell Oil and Superior Oil in a joint venture – using company initials to form the CUSS Group.
The CUSS objective was to pursue deep-water drilling — and for the first time develop motion-restricted drilling ships. The first conversion effort was the Submarex, a converted U.S. Navy submarine chaser. This advanced vessel was followed in 1956 by the CUSS I, built from a World War II barge, was 260 feet long and had a 48 -foot beam.
CUSS I pioneered the use of underwater television cameras to assist in survey, inspection and repair work. In 1965, the vessel drilled a well in 635 feet of water, setting and cementing multiple strings of casing without using divers. But most offshore petroleum work still required traditional hard-hat divers.
Highly advanced at the time, CUSS I used four steering propellers and six mooring buoys to hold the ship in position. During this same period, the U.S. Navy was developing its own deep sea technology for both submarine rescue and Cold War antisubmarine purposes.
Tethered to a mother ship by umbilical cables, remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) in 1963 helped find the the nuclear attack submarine USS Thresher, which had sunk with all hands during deep a diving test. The recovery vessel included a 95-foot derrick amidships over a diamond shaped sea opening, still known today as a “moon pool.”
Tapping into the prolific oilfields that extended offshore from popular California beaches brought strict state regulations.
“With leasing from the state of California to explore and produce oil and gas, well control and the ability to run multiple strings of casing became mandatory and required a totally new, unproven technology,” explained the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) in a 1987 study.
“The first floating drilling rig to use subsea well control was the Western Explorer owned by Chevron, which spudded its first well in 1955 in the Santa Barbara Channel,” the society noted. Other offshore drilling rigs and production platform innovations followed. Petroleum engineers, concerned about the marine environment, developed technologies to allow drilling in the roughest weather.
Even with state-of-the-art robotics, offshore petroleum industry and scientific needs for manned deep sea diving continue.
Modern atmospheric diving systems enclose the operator at one-atmosphere pressure, regardless of depth, thereby eliminating the necessity for decompression. 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.
More than 4,500 offshore petroleum platforms supply 25 percent of the United States’ production of natural gas and 10 percent of its oil. An industry-government partnership use offshore structures no longer producing to form the world’s largest artificial reef complex.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Deep Sea Roughnecks.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/offshore-history/deep-sea-roughnecks. Last Updated: January 21, 2021. Original Published Date: January 13, 2011.