ALAMINOS CANYON BLOCK 857, GULF OF MEXICO — The 160 workers on Shell's Perdido oil platform have access to a free restaurant, gym and movie theater.
Their laundry and meals are taken care of and they get paid pretty well — about $60,000 a year for a young roughneck, $90,000 for a young engineer and $150,000 for a supervisor. Plus they get a two-week vacation every two weeks.
The catch? They toil on this floating oil factory in 12 hour shifts for 14 days straight. Their rooms are tiny — just enough space for a pair of bunk beds, one desk and some lockers. And there is definitely no getting away from work: They are 200 miles from shore and there is nothing on the horizon in all directions.
The clanking, buzzing machine they live on rises 30 stories out of the water and weighs 50 million tons. It uses new and unproven technologies to coax oil out of a tricky and important geologic formation in the Gulf of Mexico. One well is in the deepest water ever, 9,627 feet.
If they can't get Perdido to work right and have to stop the oil and natural gas from flowing, their company loses $5 million per day in revenue. If they lose control of it, their lives are at stake.
The job drives some people crazy.
"A lot of people have trouble," says Louis Lemoine, a drilling foreman from Alexandria, La. who has been working offshore for 41 years. "You can't go anywhere."
But the ones who stick to it say they love it.
Alison Whitt, a 22-year-old engineer just out of college says: "At the end of 14 days here I'm ready to go home, but at the end of 14 days (off) I'm ready to come back."
Workers compare it to having a second family. The isolation, the intensity of working so many hours straight and the danger breed closeness uncommon in most jobs.
Most people don't eat three meals a day with their co-workers, or share small bunk rooms with them.
There are movie nights and video game tournaments. There's even a nurse who nags workers to get their cholesterol and blood pressure tested. There are also flare-ups between workers who are tired, and tired of being cooped up with each other for so long. "It's just like home," Lemoine says. "Spats. Rumors. Gossip."
The sense of camaraderie — as well as the tension — has been intensified for all Gulf oil workers since 11 died in the explosion of the oil rig controlled by BP in April of 2010. That disaster led to the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
Chris Smith, Perdido's operations manager, says there's been a "chronic sense of unease" among workers ever since.
The Perdido workers, like many in the oil industry outside of BP, say their culture and processes were focused on safety long before BP's disaster. They say they would have avoided such an accident.
But they know that Shell workers have died in accidents, too, and they are reminded of the fact during a tedious, 90-minute safety session they must sit through when they arrive at Perdido. As if the dangers of deepwater drilling needed reinforcing, lifeboats hang from the platform and sharks can be seen prowling the waters beneath it.
Perdido gathers oil and natural gas from wells drilled in its vicinity, many by an on-board rig that drills down into the sea floor and then horizontally into oil reservoirs. The oil and gas is then sent via undersea pipeline to terminals and refineries on the Gulf coast.
The platform also has desalination machines to make fresh water, power generators, air conditioners, a giant kitchen, laundry facilities and TV hookups. If something breaks, engineers on board fix it. The cable guy isn't coming to Perdido to adjust anyone's picture.
Perdido workers come from Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and as far away as Michigan and Alaska to get to work. They board a helicopter at an airport in Galveston, Texas, for the two-hour ride to the platform.
All work for two weeks
When the helicopter touches down, it's all work for two weeks. The schedule compresses a full year's work into six months. But that makes for nice stretches of vacation.
Todd Coulon, a Shell veteran of 23 years from Barataria, La., a bayou town 30 miles south of New Orleans, says the two weeks off each month allow him to get chores and home projects done. That allows him to have "real weekends" during which he can spend time with his three kids, watch LSU and Saints football games and fish.
When it's time to work, the focus is clear: Keep the oil and gas flowing. The device on the platform that transfers the oil and gas to pipelines is called the "Lease Automated Custody Transfer Unit" but workers have a nickname for it: the cash register.
At each change in shift there is a meeting in the platform's common room. The foremen from the outgoing shift brief the foremen from the incoming shift on how the platform and the rig performed, the maintenance activities planned, the equipment and supplies that are arriving by boat, the latest weather forecast and any safety problems.
Foremen wear camouflage baseball caps, recline in office chairs and murmur in polite southern accents of different shades, from a deep Mississippi drawl to Southern Louisiana creole.
A recent meeting started with a safety report from a foreman who reported missing earplugs, cracked coatings, hoses in the wrong place that created a tripping hazard, a hand rail missing a pin and a helmet blown off the head of a worker and into the sea by a gust of wind.
Even heavier winds were coming, so the cranes had to be put in their "cradles" and drilling would likely have to be suspended. Maintenance work was slotted into the schedule.
Production rates from the day before were discussed, along with goals for the next day.
Some of the equipment Shell designed to separate oil and natural gas on the sea floor before pumping it up to the platform hasn't worked as well as hoped. Technicians have been adjusting equipment, changing procedures, and installing new equipment over several months to try to fix the problem. Finally, it seems to be working.
After more than a year of steady operation, Perdido has only recently hit its monthly production targets.
Perdido is producing the equivalent of 60,000 barrels of oil and natural gas a day from six wells. Eventually, the platform will produce 100,000 barrels per day from 35 wells drilled in a 30-mile radius around the platform.
At today's prices, that means revenue of more than $1.8 billion per year.
The challenge is to balance the pressure to keep the oil flowing with the pressure to keep workers safe.
Coulon ended a recent meeting by telling workers to be safe and look after each other. He didn't need to remind them that not too long ago 11 people doing the same kind of work never made it home for their two week break to see their families, fish and get stuff done around the house.
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