Life aboard a rig: 'One big family'

About 50 people live and work on the Tamar gas processing rig in the Mediterranean, working together to smoothly pump gas to suppliers in Israel and around the globe.

July 25, 2013 23:57
The Tamar gas processing rig off the coast of Israel

The Tamar gas processing rig off the coast of Israel 370. (photo credit: Noble Energy)

Walking on board the Tamar gas processing rig, anchored in the pristine waters of the deep blue sea, a visitor all but enters a slice of America – fridges stocked with Gatorade and Dr Pepper, a basket of Snickers bars galore and even a purple and gold Louisiana State University pillow decorating one of the dorm room beds.

“We try to create as close as possible a feeling for people to have [as if] they were in their home – bringing the good part of all the nationalities to the place,” Doron Ben- Shitrit, a lead operator on the platform, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, following an in-depth tour of the rig a day before.

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Ben-Shitrit has been living and working on the Tamar rig from six weeks before the gas started flowing into the facility in March, before which, he had been on the adjacent Mari-B Yam Tethys rig since the beginning of 2003. Typically each Israeli on board – who account for about 60-65 percent of the staff members – works a seven-day on and seven-day off schedule, while each foreigner works a 28-day on and 28-day off schedule. Shifts run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., with workers alternating day and night service on a week-by-week basis, Ben-Shitrit explained.

“This is our second family because we spend so much time together with these people,” he said. “Number one is of course family on shore – wife and kids – but these people that we work with for such a long period of time... they come to be our family.”

Just 24 km. off the coast of Ashkelon, the rig sits about 150 km. south of the reservoir from which it receives gas through undersea pipelines, explained Bini Zomer, director of corporate affairs at Noble Energy Mediterranean, during the Tuesday tour. With approximately 282 billion cubic meters of natural gas, the Tamar reservoir contains enough of the valued hydrocarbon to supply the State of Israel with gas for 25 years, Zomer said. Houston-based Noble Energy holds a 47% share of the Tamar reservoir, while Delek Drilling and Avner Oil Exploration – both subsidiaries of the Delek Group – each own a 26.5% stake.

In more familiar terms, the size of the Tamar reservoir would approximately encompass the area of Israel from Ramat Hasharon in the north to Bat Yam in the south, and the Tel Aviv coastline in the west to the border of Petah Tikvah in the east, Zomer pointed out on a map. The gas production from Tamar, which involves 476 Israeli suppliers in addition to others from across the world, is expected to save the country about $130 billion in cash as well as 195 million metric tons in carbon dioxide – the equivalent of 14 years worth of emissions from Israeli cars on the road, Zomer added.

At the start-up of the rig’s operations in March, and during the preparatory weeks before then, about 200 people from some 20 countries worked on the 290-meter rig, performing various setup operations. Today, the number is around 50, with the roughly 35-40% non-Israeli workers hailing from the US, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, according to Ben-Shitrit.

Israeli participation in its gas rig operations was not always so strong, Ben-Shitrit recalled, remembering how a decade ago he was one of only about six to 10 Israelis onboard Mari-B at any given time.

“Back in 2003, the industry was totally new to the country of Israel,” he said. “The idea from day one was to slowly, slowly train Israelis, and slowly, slowly bring them up.”

This is how Ben-Shitrit’s own career trajectory emerged, first becoming acquainted with Noble Energy as a commercial diver in Yam Tethys’s Noa reservoir in the year 2000, and receiving onboard rig work at the bottom of the totem pole when Mari-B opened in 2003. Now, as a lead operator, Ben-Shitrit has risen to the point where he manages shifts and trains other workers.

“Basically, the idea is that in the next five to 10 years more than 90% of the people will be nationals,” Ben-Shitrit said.

Despite the Hebrew announcements over the PA system and the Israeli cleaning products and humous choices available onboard, the rig is still quite an American habitat – down to the shape of the steel lever toilet flushers, one visitor commented.

“It’s an American company,” Ben-Shitrit said. “So of course they try to bring home to this side of the planet.”

Even the safety practices and environmental regulations at the rig abide by the letter of American law, particularly because Israeli environmental regulations do not apply to Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone – a reality that environmentalists have been pressuring the government to change.

Within the rig there are living quarters that can accommodate approximately 50 people, with each dormitory unit holding two to four residents and containing a private bathroom and shower. The bedrooms feature a minimalist yet pristine layout, and at the foot of each twin bed is a personal flat screen television for each resident.

An industrial kitchen decked out with steel appliances for the six-person catering staff serves a cafeteria that can seat up to 27 people at a time, and workers mill in to choose among hot meals, salads, cereals and desert from a soft-serve ice cream machine.

A wall TV unit hums in the background with the latest news from CNN.

In addition to having access to a gym in their off time, the rig workers often make use of a multimedia lounge with stadium lounge chair seating, a Blu-ray DVD player and a 54-inch flat screen TV – where they can also take part in video conferences.

Swimming in the crystal clear waves below them, however, is not allowed.

“We are working hard on the platform – physically and mentally we are under a lot of stress. Because you wake up so early everyday, a lot of the guys are already in bed at 8 p.m.,” Ben-Shitrit said, noting that many of the men do still wake up at 4 a.m. to use the gym.

For those on the daytime shift, a typical workday on the platform begins at a 6 a.m.

morning meeting, where the day workers receive informational updates from the night workers and planning for the day’s labor divisions begins, Ben-Shitrit explained. The shift is broken up by a brief 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. snack break, as well as 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. meal times.

Edwin van Velsen, an operator on board the rig during the Tuesday site visit, led the Post on a tour of the control rooms, pipelines and other infrastructure necessary to processing the gas on the rig.

Climbing up and down winding staircases with caged metal flooring, workers literally walk on water, with a constant view of the deep blue sea. Emanating from that sea are the chunky white gas pipelines that circulate around the rig’s exterior like an amusement park water slide.

Pointing out to the Post one of the white pipes that brings the gas into the treatment station, van Velsen noted the condensation accumulating on the pipe’s sides. While in the well the gas experiences temperatures of about 120º Fahrenheit (49º C), inside the pipe the gas is in a 57º Fahrenheit (14º C) environment, causing liquid to form. On the platform, the liquid condensate is separated from the gas and is sold to refineries onshore for petrochemical use, explained van Velsen, an immigrant to Israel from the Netherlands.

Also gesturing to the condensation, Zomer showed the visitors a cement bed that sits underneath the pipe, so that none of the liquid can drip into the sea below, as per Gulf of Mexico environmental regulations. Once treated and dried from liquid condensate, the gas exits the rig through an outgoing 24- inch diameter pipeline and afterwards merges with a larger 30-inch diameter pipe that carries the gas to Ashdod Onshore Terminal (AOT), van Velsen said. There, the gas undergoes an additional drying treatment before being sent to Israel Natural Gas Lines pipelines for electricity generation.

All of the pipelines aboard the rig are explosion proof, van Velsen added.

Toward the end of the tour, van Velsen pointed out an enormous metal vortex stretching from the top of the rig and seemingly into the sky – what he called “a flare valve.” The enormous structure, which has not yet needed to be used, allows for complete evacuation of gas from the rig in emergency situations, he explained.

Back inside the rig’s inner compartments, the visitors disrobed from their fireproof overalls, hardhats and protective safety hardhats, stopping in the galley cafeteria for a bite to eat before boarding a bright yellow helicopter back to Sde Dov.

For the workers on board, such a trip only happens once every week at most, and once a month if they are from abroad. Despite missing his own Israeli loved ones, Ben-Shitrit emphasized that aboard the rig he finds “one big happy family.”

“The idea that you deal with people from so many nationalities and cultures – I find it so interesting,” he said. “I get along great with the people in this industry, and you can learn so many things.”

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