It is difficult to appreciate just how far removed from everyday life it is like to work on a mining rig. Managing security in one of the most dangerous and isolated work environments in the world is equally different.
Despite best efforts to provide decent conditions and great food, an operating oil or gas rig is definitely no place like home. It is inherently dangerous, isolated and constrained. As anyone who has been on rig will tell you, if there is a fire on a rig or any other emergency, you deal with it using what you have there. There are no external emergency services that you can rely on and the same goes for security. The police will not come at all and if you do not have military resources already in place, the military will probably arrive too late. What you have there is what you have in place to deal with all security challenges.
Imagine for a moment that you have been placed in a metal tower 120 feet above the ocean and 120 kilometres from land. Now remind yourself that you will be there with basically the same 50 or so people for 14 or 28 days, eating every meal together, working together and sharing cabins with others on a steel platform barely an acre in size and only a few levels high. Add in the complexity of managing highly sophisticated production systems involving thousands of tonnes of flammable and/or toxic hydrocarbons with countless moving interrelated parts on a 24/7 basis – and we have scarcely begun to touch on the real complexities.
It is also tempting to think of oil rigs in a generic sense, but nothing could be more misleading. At its simplest, there are at least three different types of rigs as outlined below.
|Type of Offshore Facility||Description||Issues|
|MODU (mobile offshore drilling unit)||Mobile drill rigs come in many different varieties and sizes but essentially mobile drill platforms are typically used to conduct geological exploration.||These rigs operate for hire all over the world, which creates significant logistical, supply chain and security issues which can vary month by month.|
|Production Platform||These permanent platforms are what we typically think of when we use the term ‘oil rig’. They are built on concrete or steel legs, or both, anchored directly onto the seabed, supporting a deck with space for drilling rigs, production facilities and crew quarters.||These platforms are designed to operate in one location for decades which, while making for ease of logistics planning, creates security challenges as their locations are well known to pirates, refugees, etc. They can operate in waters in excess of 600 metres deep which means that they can often be found in international waters.|
|Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) unit||FPSOs can be a conversion of an oil tanker or a vessel built specially to process hydrocarbons while moored to a riser from a subsea field and offload product to tankers or through a pipeline.||FPSOs are preferred in frontier offshore regions as they are easy to install, do not require pipeline infrastructure and can operate on smaller reserves where a fixed platform would be cost prohibitive. Because FPSOs can be disconnected from their moorings, these offshore production vessels are optimal for areas that experience adverse weather conditions, such as cyclones and hurricanes.|
There are also significant differences and special challenges associated with different operating environments. For the sake of simplicity, we can consider three main types of operating environment:
- Land based (including lakes)
- Territorial waters which are usually shallow and in close proximity to land
- International waters.
Each has its only special considerations but from a security risk perspective, the most complex operations typically involve deep-water drilling in international waters. This exploration activity is pushing the boundaries of technology and geographical regions, hence risk decisions are being challenged and stretched. Despite all manner of jurisdictional and logistical challenges to security, most security threats on a rig are relatively benign, compared to managing security at most workplaces. For example, on a rig, you will have no members of the public casually walking in, no petty thieves and minimal access control. People come and go by scheduled helicopter flights or by boat and it is a challenge to get to the rigs. One of the most significant access control challenges is actually a safety function – keeping track of who is on the rig at all times and where they are. In an emergency, you need to be able to muster, account for and potentially evacuate all within a matter of minutes.
However, from a security perspective, the biggest challenges are piracy, terrorism and displaced persons – all of which require immediate but very different responses.
Terrorism and piracy are self-evident threats. One might think, however, that refugee boats would not be a security issue. Despite this, consider the challenges of taking 30 people from a sinking boat into a rig environment only to find that they are actually pirates. Even if they are genuine refugees, which nation will take them ashore? You could well have 30 people with variable language skills and education, living at close quarters for months on a working platform. There is not a lot of habitable space on a rig and safety is paramount. There is no smoking, except in designated rooms, if at all (and definitely never outdoors), bans on electrical equipment such as mobile phones or radios that could create a spark and a host of issues mean that access to fresh air could only be on an escorted basis.
That does not mean you do not take them in. On the contrary, you need to make a risk-based decision and make provision for the potential that a boat will turn up one day that is sinking and will require emergency aid. Most rigs deal with this risk by tasking their emergency support vessels (ESVs) to take on any refugees if necessary. During normal operations, ESVs operate as supply boats, fire fighting support and emergency evacuation assistance.
Terrorism, on the other hand, is a very real challenge that no amount of ESVs will solve. Equally, in places like Somalia and the Malacca Straits, piracy is the mainstay of many a community and a way of life that is handed down from generation to generation. For rigs operating where these risks are significant, only armed force can provide adequate protection. The challenge is that most host countries do not want armed expatriate security personnel in their jurisdiction. Even in international waters, the legal issues and liability, not to mention the cost, can be prohibitively challenging.
For most organisations, even in the oil and gas sector, the cost of armed security personnel and full-time standoff vessels is a major impost. As a result, most armed protection, if required, is provided by national defense organisations, whether local military or navy resources, or a combination of both. The challenge for most security managers and platform managers can then be integrating the operations of third-party forces and managing overall safety. The latter challenge comes because these military personnel are sometimes poorly trained, depending on their host nation’s budget but always inexperienced with the dangers off offshore working. In a hydrocarbon rich environment such as a rig, it can take potentially a single stray bullet to cause catastrophic destruction and loss of life. Tactics such as sonic cannons and removing all permanent access points are useful but only serve to delay rather than deter the dedicated pirate.
While most offshore security personnel generally feel confident fighting off pirates, the security advice is always muster into the safe rooms and call for help. Understanding the nature of the pirates in your environment is the key. They are often desperately poor and are not necessarily put off by a big rig with 200 people onboard. In high-risk areas, the rig may also be hardened with razor wire to deter access and it is easy to see how the cost of security can add up when you are talking about a squad of expats on the rig, security boats, hardening. Etc.
Terrorism is a different matter again. By now, I am sure you can see how vulnerable a production platform would be to something as simple as a stolen fishing boat loaded with explosives. There is no substitute for early warning systems and aggressive use of force when faced with such threats. That is not to say that the military is the panacea for this either. Often the biggest risk can be allowing armed military on, or close to the rigs. Contrary to what you might hope, most nations do not send their elite special forces to sit on a boat in the ocean for weeks on end. They send their 18-year-old new recruits who may or may not have a high school education, are easily bored and are motivated purely by the chance to earn some extra income.
Most energy organisations, these days, are grappling with the level of security and, in particular, the cost. Hence the critical requirement for quality risk-based decisions. Choices such as a permanent security boat (in addition to the usual rig support vessels) with armed guards (local military) or arming the security presence onboard (expats) are never clear-cut. For a mobile drill rig, this question becomes even more complex and the answer can change from month to month. However, one of the wonderful things about being involved with security in the oil and gas industry, is the professionalism of the people involved and the widespread understanding of risk management principles. After decades of learning how to manage inherently explosive environments, they understand the value of risk. If you, as the security manager, can demonstrate a clear risk-based business case, you will never find an easier place to get management support and funding.