Revisiting the Adventure of Offshore Oil

It may seem that posts on this blog are slowing down, but elsewhere it’s another story.  There are actually four sites to this “family” and one of them, vulcanhammer.info, is being moved to WordPress hosting.  (The other two, vulcanhammer.net and Chet Aero Marine, were moved around the first of the year.)

Moving a site that large is a major task, especially with all the photos and documents.  It’s had to be done pieces; the piece that’s just been completed is Vulcan: the Offshore ExperienceMy brother said that it was the “experience of a lifetime,” and I’m inclined to agree with him.  There’s a lot of history in offshore oil, history that’s not well-known, and that was one of the reasons the series was first put up in 2003.  I want to focus on two aspects in particular: offshore oil as a form of “inner space” and how years in the industry is a cure for much of the conventional wisdom that plagues our “deep state” types and their hangers-on these days.


To its credit, the oil industry likes to recount its history.  There’s an entire museum in Galveston dedicated to the history of offshore oil, and it’s definitely worth the visit.  The involvement of my family business, Vulcan Iron Works, was primarily in the platform installation segment of the business, and for a long time it got the short shrift in the story.  That’s been remedied to some degree, and I think the contribution of the construction side of the industry is getting its due.

It’s easy, with all the really large coastal projects out there, to forget just what a challenge it was to fabricate and build platforms to extract oil offshore.  Onshore oil had advanced technologies such as deep drilling and geophysical exploration methods, and these had spin-offs in the construction industry.  But offshore, with conventional platforms sometimes exceeding 300 m in depth, it was necessary to develop advanced fabrication and installation techniques.  Without the benefits of directional/horizontal drilling and underwater completion, that meant lots of platforms to the surface, and the Gulf of Mexico–on both the American and Mexican sides, I might add–was a busy place in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  These projects helped to advanced the technology of construction in many ways which still benefit construction not only of large onshore and marine projects but also for offshore wind farms.

The Gulf, however, along with Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf, were relatively easy places to build and install platforms compared to the North Sea.  The Europeans “drew the short straws” in finding oil in a place as challenging to do anything as the North Sea, especially in the area between Scotland and Norway where much of the oil was located.  But thanks to their lack of easily accessible onshore oil deposits (before fracking) and the unstable situation in the Middle East, they had little choice.  Facing a harsh environment coupled with a short construction season, another set of new technologies were developed or improved, including gravity platforms, improved safety equipment in marine environments, quick connectors for pile add-ons, finite element analysis for earth structures, and underwater pile driving.

Although most of these technologies are unfamiliar to most people, they contribute to the improved standard of living that many take for granted.  The outer space program contributed to the advance of general technology and science, and so did the “inner space” program of offshore oil.


Bringing up the Europeans leads one to consider the relationship of their governments to the enterprise.  Like most industries in the US, the oil industry operated in the legal framework with a minimum of government direction.  The Minerals Management Service was the chief agency of interest, but otherwise the enterprise was pretty much self-funded and directed.  When countries such as the UK, Norway and the Netherlands got involved, it was a different story.  We’d see their national exhibits at the Offshore Technology Conference, we’d wonder why this was necessary and sometimes thought their method was mad.

But there was method in their madness.  For one thing, as Dr. Adel Rizkalla of McDermott explained to my brother and me in 1980, their idea was to stretch out the extraction of oil and not only prevent overwhelming their economy with the revenue (something we’d soon learn the virtue of the hard way,) but also to offer benefits from that revenue for a longer time and for a great good to the country.  For another, their approach was part and parcel with the European concept of industrial policy.  Implicit in that approach is that the oil industry was of value to the country.  We’d soon find out that this was better than the alternative, a country whose ruling elites believed that the oil industry was an existential threat to them.

Vulcan 3100 hammer installing piles for Exxon’s Hondo platform off of Santa Barbara, California. In 1752 Bishop Erich Pontippidan noted that “The North Sea has a curious property. In addition to its salinity it also possesses oiliness. It is likely that here or there the sea, just as the earth, ejects oil flows, or streams of petroleum, naptha, sulphur, coal tar and other bituminous and oily juices.” Similar things were noted off of California, without the offshore drilling that is supposed to be the sole cause of this.

Offshore oil came into the big picture in the 1960’s, at the same time that the American left first let out the primal scream which has echoed down the halls of history to the present time.  They first tried to put the stall on the leasing process, an on-again, off-again process that only delayed the advance of offshore oil in Louisiana and Texas.  They did manage to keep it out of the rest of the East Coast and eventually got it shut down in California.  The environmental movement was a large part of that; as happened with manufacturing, the oil industry has had to improve its techniques to prevent environmental impact, and that’s another place where the North Sea experience was helpful.

But it was more than the environment that drove the left against the oil industry; it was their other pet peeve, suburbia.  Suburbia wouldn’t exist without oil, not only because of the automobile and commuting, but also because of the economic development that made suburbia possible.  The two were part of a fork that has stuck in the left’s craw for more than half a century, and as the left oozed its way into the nation’s intelligentsia, the potential for the oil industry to hit the wall in the US increased.

Not that there weren’t alternatives.  The most serious was nuclear power, which if it had been implemented on a relative scale to the French, could have solved most of the balance of payments problem and avoided the costly wars we’ve fought in the Middle East.  But that was (and is) unacceptable to most of the environmental community, and in any case would only perpetuate suburbia.

The left’s hope of high prices for a commodity in short supply–the shortness enhanced by their regulatory and legal efforts–never quite panned out; the oil and gas industry has proven more resilient than they thought.  And the forward march of technology, even in the industry’s lean years, has helped.  We got directional drilling and subsea completions, which reduced the cost of offshore oil.  But the biggest game changer has been fracking, which found the left “asleep at the switch” to stop.  It has shifted hydrocarbon based energy towards natural gas, at one time a “luxury” fuel, which is much cleaner to burn.  As a result the need for coal or offshore oil has been reduced, turning the U.S. to become a net fossil fuel energy producer for the first time since the days of the primal scream.

Offshore crews generally worked twelve hour on/twelve hour off for two weeks at a stretch. There was thus some idle time offshore; one favourite pastime was fishing. Derrick barge crews discovered what environmentalists hate to admit: offshore platforms are natural habitats for all kinds of fish and other marine life, which made for good fishing. Welding wire was a favourite type of fishing line, though other materials would get the job done too.

Today we find Europeans following the siren sound against nuclear power and fracking, leaving the wisdom of the past generation behind and embracing yet another American neurosis.  Many of the platforms which helped bring this oil out of the sea floor are being dismantled, their field lives ended; some are left as artificial reefs for fishing, another one of those unintended consequences.  Offshore oil isn’t what it used to be, but it set the stage for better things, and made life good when it was possible, and for that it should be remembered positively.

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