The Evolution of Offshore Maintenance

Tue, 01/22/2013 - 11:00

More than 50 years ago, Hannes Keller, a 28-year old Swiss mathematician, was the first diver to ever get to a depth of 300m. At the time, it was widely believed that no human being could safely dive to depths beyond 90m, since several conditions start to a†ect the diver’s health at those great depths. After Keller’s achievements, oil companies such as Shell started sending divers routinely to depths of 300m for the maintainance of subsea infrastructure. The task was so demanding that it required divers aged 24-40 who could withstand the harsh conditions that diving to such depths implies.

The history of maintenance in the Mexican o†shore oil and gas industry shares a similar beginning, when Pemex installed its first platforms to exploit the oilfields at Atún, Tiburón, and Arenque in 1961. Professional divers participated in the construction and maintenance of production infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico since then, and some of today’s leading service providers built their businesses on early diving activities. One of these companies is Grupo Diavaz , whose President Luis Vázquez Sentíes travelled to Tampico to promote drilling fluids when he became aware that a diving company had just turned down a contract with Pemex. As he investigated the situation, he decided to start a commercial diving company, with his cousin, Ricardo Vázquez Adame, a professional diver, and his brother, Óscar Vázquez Sentíes, who worked at the time for the Mexican Petroleum Institute. The company, then called Constructora Subacuática Diavaz, began operations in 1973 with the main objective of providing commercial diving and maintenance services for o†shore platforms and infrastructure.

Today, thousands of technicians and laborers work on o†shore platforms, and their performance and safety still depend greatly on the correct operation of the infrastructure and equipment they operate daily, which is the main responsibility of people executing adequate maintenance programs. Even though many of these tasks are today undertaken by automated technological tools, such as remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), there are still maintenance operations that need the specific skillset that a professional diver can bring.

The maintenance e†orts that Pemex executes today include both corrective and preventative upkeep assignments, in order to optimize the safety and uptime of o†shore operations. “Pemex has become stricter in terms of taking care of its installations,” says Jorge Luis Díaz Reyes, head of non-destructive testing at Binsmar, a diving company based on o†shore hub Ciudad del Carmen. “They are handling maintenance operations under stricter guidelines and are more focused on preventative inspections and maintenance, reducing downtime, and maintenance costs.” All of these o†shore upkeep assignments that Pemex awards through maintenance contracts are intended to minimize the risk exposure of the people performing them: technology is playing an increasingly important role, both by replacing the need for human diving activities, and by reducing the total diving time based on technological advances that make subsea maintenance more time e·cient.

Being the third-most-dangerous occupation in the US, commercial diving remains a dangerous job, not only as a result of the long term health risks that the profession could trigger, but also of the hazards of using heavy machinery in challenging underwater conditions. Through advancements in technology and the incorporation of preventative and predictive maintenance, the Mexican oil and gas industry is looking at reducing the time that divers need to spend underwater performing maintenance services, but the commercial diving is destined to remain a cornerstone of o†shore maintenance activities, and remains the foundation of companies such as Grupo Diavaz.