Covert Operations

A few months ago, I was banned from Qatar Petroleum offshore jobs. It was a relief and I felt accomplished in a way, as if being banned is a right of passage in the life of a field engineer. Yesterday, my manager informed me he would be “sneaking” me to QP offshore to help a fellow engineer friend with his job. I am pretending to be a spy, having penetrated the organization illegally. I’m hiding out inside the wireline unit, and letting my colleague deal with all the headache.

Together, we arrived at the heliport and received an Ebola screening. On the symptoms part of the questionnaire, I indicated:

[YES] Lethargy

[Yes] Other: sadness

Clearly, no one reads the questionnaire…. I had my temperature taken and proceeded through the check in and helicopter briefing process like any other day. We flew to one rig, waited for about 30 minutes there, then took a boat over to the next rig. This is the first time since 2012 I have taken a personnel basket on and off of a rig. Having snuck my phone offshore, I commemorated the occasion with some photos.

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This is the QP rig which I have infiltrated.

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The personnel basket to lift us to the rig. It seems that I am not able to rotate images which are sideways on my phone…In any case, it is a nice day in the Persian Gulf.

Black Eyed Beans

The bag of peanuts almost got stuck in the vending machine. We had been waiting in the heliport for over two hours now and I was hungry. Today, I flew offshore to a Chinese rig. The oil company is Chinese, as is the drilling company. I’d heard many stories from my colleagues who previously visited this rig. From trainee engineers to veterans, the feedback seemed the same, “That rig is a mess.”

I haven’t been this curious or excited to make an offshore job in a while. Some of my preconceived ideas before I got here were…

  • What if they joke about America’s debt? I don’t think I’d know how to handle that…
  • Everything will be crappy and break.
  • Maybe I will see a robot.
  • I should be on the look-out for knock-off safety gear.
  • I hope the rig is colored red.
  • There’s going to be authentic Chinese food!

Some myth busters about the peculiar Chinese rig…

  • No one gives a shit that I’m American. And they certainly do not ‘joke’
  • The Chinese are SO nice.
  • One’s level of English can be noted by how hard he does or does not squint while listening to you. Speak to the poker faces.
  • No robots.
  • What they call “Fish” is ACTUALLY “Calamari”
  • The menu item “Black Eyed Beans” is neither black eyed peas nor black beans, but rather peas and carrots.
  • The drilling company wears red. The oil company wears yellow.

The daily supervisors meeting takes place in the evenings after dinner. The meeting room looks more or less like this:

ChineseMeetingBut instead of Mr Obama, Madam Clinton and friends on the left, there are a bunch of oilfield service hands. On the right, it pretty much looks the same except they are wearing yellow. We go through the room one by one, with each person addressing their upcoming activities and needs or concerns with anyone else on the rig. Once it comes time for the client supervisors to speak, they all turn and talk to each other in Mandarin. After a few minutes, the meeting is dismissed. They know all our concerns, yet we know none of theirs. Everyone smiles and stands, thanking each other as they walk out of the room.

Galley Wars: Unless the Chef’s Special is a Burrito….

As mentioned, I get special treatment on this rig. It’s awkward, uncomfortable and most notably, very unprofessional. The  real segregation between laypeople and VIP’s takes place in the galley. It is the after school play ground, where the rules don’t apply and you can be as mean and racist as you please. No teachers, no professional courtesy, no humanity. 

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This rig is small.The galley contains three long tables, and three small square tables. One of the long tables has a place mat and silverware laid out already at each chair. The commoners must get their own napkins and forks. I don’t sit at the VIP table, but opt to sit with my crew at the Filipino table. Each table is unofficially divided by race. The Filipinos have a table. The Indians have another table, and the Arabs have their own table.  The galley has a set menu for each meal. They lay out the food and everyone serves themselves. Except for one special dish, which they keep in the back and only offer to the VIP’s. I had no idea this is what was happening. I assumed that there was not enough space for all the food, and one dish is just kept in the back and was offered to everyone.

Usually, I come into the galley and go through the line. After I have served myself, one of the galley hands will lean over to me and say “We have Arabic chicken, ma’am”. I look down at my plate which is already full of food. “Uh, no thanks.” This keeps happening… “We have Arabic duck. ma’am”…. “We have grilled fish, ma’am.” Occasionally I take some if it sounds appetizing. I never turn down “Arabic spaghetti, ma’am”  Most of the VIP food is described by the little Indian cook as “Arabic”, though the foods are not specifically Arabic. For example, spaghetti is in no way an Arabic food. It’s just normal spaghetti! I realize one day, that not everyone gets to eat these special foods, and I am in the VIP category. I also realize, most of the VIPs are Arab, and of course the one token Scottish man.

While sitting with my crew, the head cook comes up to my table. “Hello. Where are you from?”

“USA”

“Oh, I thought you were Egyptian with Mexican Nationality. But you’re American nationality.” This explains why he tried to speak to me in Spanish earlier…. “Anyway, I’m the chef. If you want anything special, just let me know and I will make it for you. Do you like the food? I have special beef in the back.”

I say “no thanks” the the special beef and ask for chocolate milk. I hustle him for a 6 pack, which I later polish off in 20 minutes in my bed while watching Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated, because that’s what VIP’s do! 

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Back to the story…. What am I eating instead of the chef’s special beef?

Today the menu had “Chicken Mexican”. It hardly resembles fajita slices with some salsa, black beans and bell peppers, but I try to eat it anyway. In the corner of the galley behind the Indian’s table, there is a little rice cooker used to keep the naan warm. I feel like I’m crossing their turf as I squeeze by the man who chooses to sit directly in front of it. Rig naan is not like actual naan. It stays warm and soft for only a minute, and is rather flat. It actually resembles more closely a tortilla. I add some corn and onion from the salad bar, soft cheese from the fridge, and some spicy pickled Indian spread to the Chicken Mexican and create a burrito. My Filipino crew watches intently as the burrito is assembled. 

“Laila…… what are you doing?”

“I’m trying to make this ‘Chicken Mexican’ into a respectable Mexican meal!”

“Ohhh.” They turn to each other “It’s a modification!”  (In our line of work, different tools or equipment often call for technical ‘modifications’)

It’s no certified VIP meal, but a makeshift burrito beats the hell out of any chef’s special. …. unless the chef’s special is also a burrito.

Sophia and the Girls

I spent twelve days on this rig contemplating what have I done in my lifetime to end up here, at this moment, and all the surrounding moments making up my twelve day existence on Al Doha rig. Then, I went to work for 6 glorious hours. After completing my labors, I headed inside to my room. A guy stopped me on the stairs.

guy: Hello. Are you Egyptian? 

Laila: Well.. yes. I’m American, but my family is Egyptian.

We then exchanged names. His was “ass-hat”

Ass-hat: I’ve wanted to talk to you, but you look like you’re ready to back-hand everyone who talks to you.

Laila: Yeah, I’m at my job. I don’t mean to be cold, but I’m here to work and feel really uncomfortable when people try to give me special treatment.

A-H: Oh. Give me that bag. Don’t carry that up the stairs.

Laila: This is exactly the shit I’m talking about. This makes me uncomfortable. Please do not carry any of my things.

A-H: Okay. Can I ask you one question?

Laila: ….ok. *turns and starts walking up the stairs*

A-H: *follows Laila up the stairs* Are you married?

Laila: No

A-H: Can I ask you two questions?

Laila: …ok

A-H: Are you engaged?

Laila: No

A-H: Can I ask you three questions? Is it appropriate, or inappropriate? 

Laila:… sure *I’m thinking…;. If you have to ask…this is inappropriate. It’s also why I look like I want to backhand every one of you.*

A-H: Can I have your phone number?

Laila: hahahahahahahahahaha…. No

Ass-hat: I’m sorry. *walks away*

 I felt badly that he apologized, as if I had embarrassed him. I quickly realized that he’s apologizing because he knew he was out of line and I explicitly told him how uncomfortable I am on rigs when people don’t treat me like I’m at my job. I don’t feel badly any more. 

So concluded episode one, and the Whataberger crew was released from the rig! I did everything my heart desired in the 48 hour period before returning here, again. 

What did my heart desire?:

  • A Red Lobster feast, where I sat alone in a booth stuffing my face with shrimp scampi, lobster tail, crab legs, lobster bisque, cheese biscuits, and lobster and shrimp macaroni and cheese, followed by some mellow tea drinking and journal writing.
  • Bath time. Lately, I take baths. This time, I added tea candles into my bath, which is already fragrant and full of glitter, from my LUSH bath bomb.
  • Mild indoor exercise. After nearly two weeks of extremely minimal movements, I started a little workout routine inside my room.
  • Office. Two weeks in the field means I’ve missed a lot of office duties. Time to catch up. My manager says to me, “If anyone asks, you were on ‘days off’ today.”… Great. 
  • Laundry. I can wash whatever I please without the anxiety of having my underwears stolen. I ended up just washing everything in my offshore bag. No time to get to my other laundry.
  • Shooting range with my buddy! One very sore and bruised shoulder, and 75 shot gun shells later, I’m ready to take on the world again.
  • Food with my buddy! Four appetizers, a Space Jam rant and NFL team personal ranking debate later, and its time for Laila to go to bed.

Now I’m back offshore, but this time prepared for the boredom. I decided “to hell with the creepy people on the rig. If I want to jump rope and run around on the helipad, then that’s what I’ll do.” I packed my kindle, jump rope, and art supplies. 

Most importantly, I’m excited to spend some more quality time watching the Golden Girls on YouTube. Please check out this blog. I had intended for this post to be my reflection on a clever, healthy, positive, and all around hilarious television series. Alas, Sophia and the Girls will be another post for another day. Rest assured, dear readers, my current status is: still offshore, but enjoying the company of four really awesome ladies.

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Must Love Dolphins

A foreign world lurks under the surface. Initially, I wrote this post as a theme on how to get to oil and produce it…. However, it has evolved into a theme of steps you must go through to survive the elements, be them environmental, personal, economic, or political.

 Level 1: The Water

The treacherous Gulf extends its depth to over a mile in some places. Sharks and Barracuda patrol the waters as ships travel to and from locations. Helicopters come populate the ships with people. The large vessels are equipped with extensive machinery to not only navigate to a spot, but use dynamic positioning to stay on a point within a 10m window. They include personnel accommodations, catering, cleaning, and maintenance staff.

Level 2: The Gates

The sea floor is guarded by crabs, such as the one pictured below. This spider crab was spotted by the ROV (remote operated vehicle) on the Discoverer Enterprise. When on a ship, there are cameras which feed to the TV’s on the rig. This photo was taken off the television screen from the ROV channel.

Riddle Me This!

Once marine riser is put into place, drill pipe breaks ground and begins drilling. The BOP (Blow Out Preventers) is installed above the sea floor.

Level 3: Journey to the Center of the Earth

While drilling, or doing anything in a well, the pressures must balance out. For example, the pressure built up in the earth must be equalized by the fluid column which is in the well. On this last job, the rig shot holes through casings into a salt zone. The salt zone is of lower pressure, and consequently, began “taking” fluid from the well. To contain the well, the rig circulated out 12 lb/gal mud in the fluid column with ordinary sea water. Such issues are of grave concern and arise at every step in drilling, completing, producing, working over, and eventually abandoning a well.

Level 4: The Faithful Crew

I was recently in a rig meeting with the oil company, third-party service hands, and the drilling company. To conclude the meeting, the wellsite leader looked up from his notes and stated, “One rig, one team”, reminding everyone involved that this project is not about serving the letters embroidered on your flame retardant coveralls. All the interworkings and complex systems on a rig are striving for the same project. Ultimately, the crew’s health and safety should be a uniting factor. On another job, I met a third-party hand who was the rig health and wellness coach. She counselled people on the rig about their eating and exercise habits, as well as conducted health screenings, cholesterol and blood pressure tests. This was amazing to me. Hundreds of people work two weeks at a time, often risking their health, to make a living. We all work together to make the job as safe as possible.

Level 5: The “Man”

I’ve been working for BP a lot these last few months. While this has mostly entailed taking a “random” alcohol and drug screening every week and a half, it has sparked my ears to talks of political discourse. You must tread lightly and not bite the hand that feeds…. After the Deepwater Horizon blowout in April 2010, deepwater drilling was put on hold for a moratorium. The ban on deepwater drilling drew a significant blow to the nation’s, and specifically local economy. Since the moratorium, federal regulations have been tighter,and audits more frequent. The blow out and the moratorium are very sensitive subjects, both on and offshore. However, they are not ignored. I have learned to keep my opinions to myself and do more listening, for there are many, many opinions and considerations. I would like to note, that on the whole, most people regard the drilling ban as a bad idea, primarily due to the devastating blow to business and the economy. A company man said to me, “When an airplane crashes, you don’t shut down the airline industry for two years…” While I have my own reservations to this statement, the man makes a lot of sense. The point here is, there are a lot of politics and policy involved in offshore operations. It should be stated here that the regulations for working on the North Slope in Prudhoe Bay Alaska are completely amazing. They will be discussed later.

Level 6: The Ecosystem

I am certain the environmental impacts of the oil spill do not need to be listed, as they have been prominently showcased in the media over the last two years or so. Gulf ecology proves complex and quite enormous. Certainly, the sheer quantity of rigs must interfere with and alter ecological adaptation. Truthfully, it is the “goal” of every oil and drilling company to minimize impact on the environment. However, this is a complete contradiction to the nature of the business. Small oil sheens are seen covering the water’s surface all the time. These are not likely from the well, but from something on the rig leaking. In any case, they are ignored. There is a famous, and very stupid, “Marine Debris” video. Every offshore worker has endured this video at least half a dozen times this year. It defines what is marine debris and outlines the penalties for throwing things into the ocean. However, it is not uncommon for people to casually drop things into the gulf from time to time. I am sure the rig itself has to create some sort of disturbance to the sea creatures. If they hear like we do, they are not happy.

Level 7: Fear

Sharks, underwater egress, heights, flights, creepy people, dead animals, spiders, explosives, radioactive sources, pumps under high pressure, and confined spaces. But fear is all in your head…. or is it?

Caught Between a Rig and a Windy Place

I will be stuck on this rig for days. The job delay is broken up by false hope of getting to rig up. initially, we were told we would not get started until Wednesday. After going to bed Monday night, we were woken up and told we would start. False alarm 1. We were told to stand by and start in another 4 hours. Five hours later, we were woken up to start. excessive wind speeds shut down the operation. False alarm 2. If the wind dies down soon, we will be called to start. False alarm 3. If the wind does not die down soon, the rig has to test the B.O.P’s (blow out preventers, a critical component of well control) by tomorrow, Wednesday night. The BOP testing will take a day.

I have been scheming ways to get myself off this rig. My plans were as follows:

1) Maybe I can feign sickness like I did that one time in the first grade and my mother let me stay home from school….. That won’t fly unless I actually get sick. I am feeling rather queasy… I should not have eaten all that pizza, french fries with liquid cheese and cheeseburger. Maybe if I throw up in front of everyone off the side of this rig, they will force me to go home.

2) This rig is outrageous about safety compliance. Maybe if we piss them off enough with a disregard for getting our work permit renewed every 12 hours, we can just be run off the rig.

Alas- I have made peace with my surroundings. When life gives you wind, you pop some pop corn, throw on your Snuggie, crawl into your bunk space, stream videos on Hulu and blog your heart out. You go to the daily safety meeting, look around at all the rough necks, ex military,ex con, and roustabouts. Count yourself as one of their kind.

During the safety meeting, people can submit ‘stop’ cards, where they write down something unsafe or safe they saw and what they did about it. They are called ‘stop’ cards because if something unsafe is happening, you are supposed to stop the job. After discussing the rig’s activities, the meeting leader reads the stop cards aloud to the group. He then asked “does anyone have anything else to add?” After a brief silence, the man next to him announced to the group,

“I saw Gunner trying to pee standing up. I stopped the job and told him it would be safer if he squatted.”