Offshore oil terminal design raises questions about safety

A sudden storm could cause tankers to collide with the structure, risking an oil spill, experts say.

By Rhonda Fanning & David BrownJune 11, 2024 1:40 pm,

Oil and gas company Enterprise Products has plans to build an offshore oil export terminal 30 miles off the Texas Gulf Coast. The idea is to load up supertankers with crude oil that wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach land-based ports. Once completed, the platform would allow two 1000-foot supertankers to fuel up at the same time.

While the idea isn’t a new one, the plan has raised concerns about the potential for oil spills due to a design feature that doesn’t adhere to current maritime standards, reports the Houston Chronicle’s James Osborne.

He spoke with the Standard about the terminal and the questions around its design. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: They call this “SPOT” for “Sea Port Oil Terminal” project. Why is this terminal being built and who’s behind it?

James Osborne: Enterprise Products is a big Houston pipeline company who’s behind the project. You know, they lifted the oil export ban back in 2015 and they’ve been figuring out ways to get oil to all over the world.

You know, these supertankers can’t get into conventional ports. They’re building terminals just off the Texas coast line. There’s about five of these projects in development right now, and Enterprise is the furthest along. They do have clearance from the Biden administration.

But this new Texas terminal has a design feature that is out of line, you report, with current maritime standards. What is that feature exactly?

Right. So their plan – and, you know, nothing has been built yet – but they’re going to build this terminal, which is not unlike a standard oil platform that dot all over the Gulf of Mexico.

But what’s different is they’ll build a very heavy duty mooring ball. You know, anyone who sails or runs boats knows you just pull up to a floating line in the water and you hook it onto your boat, and it’s sort of a permanent anchor. So they’re planning to have this for supertankers. And these are obviously very large, strong structures. They’re going to be tethered to the seafloor.

Now, the issue here is the distance between the platform and the mooring. And in this case, they’re planning for about two thirds of a mile distance. Now, that is quite a bit. You mentioned the terminal operating off the coast of Louisiana. That’s got about a 1.2-mile distance – quite a bit larger.

And then talking to people in the street, that is the standard, because the fear is if a storm comes up – which, as we all know, happens pretty frequently in the Gulf. It can happen very quickly and very violent winds and more. And tankers are known to break off their moorings.

With two thirds of a mile, it sounds like a lot, but tankers are huge and they are very difficult to get underway once they’re once they’re drifting. It’s not like starting up a little boat with an outboard engine. This is going to take a lot of time, a lot of people. And they’re also slow to maneuver.

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The idea would be if you had a sudden squall or you had some kind of circular movement in the current or something like that, that you could have a mooring issue and the supertanker could strike the terminal.

Exactly. And these are huge things, as we discussed.

And what would the effect of that collision be? I would imagine you’re looking at a potential oil spill – a massive oil spill.

I mean, it depends how it hit it. If it was a glancing blow, it might stay up, the engineers and experts I’ve talked to have said.

But if it was a direct hit, you know, these tankers weigh more than 300,000 tons. So oil platforms are strong, but they’re certainly not designed to take a hit like that.

But how hypothetical is it? I mean, how likely is it you’re going to have something like that happen?

You know, it’s hard to say. I mean, there are some things that have to happen, and it would depend on which way the wind’s blowing and the currents are moving. You know, it could be a storm comes through and the ship drifts and goes and misses the platform.

Has this happened in the past? Are there incidents that have been recorded?

LOOP, the Louisiana oil export terminal, had a tanker come loose a few years ago in the same storm that capsized what is known as a lift boat – a sort of a service vessel for the oil industry to help to drill for oil. That ship capsized, it was called the Seacor Power accident, and in that same storm, a tanker apparently did come loose at LOOP.

Well, why not change the specs? Why not just move these mooring anchors or tethers further out from the terminal? That doesn’t seem like a big issue, or is it?

Well, we haven’t heard from Enterprise on this. We reached out to them last week a couple times, and they chose not to make people available for comment for this story.

But talking to people from in the sector – and and let’s be clear, this is people from rival companies who are also developing these terminals – but, you know, they’re maritime professionals. And they’re saying part of the issue is there’s new environmental regulations and basically all the emissions that come off a tanker in the fueling process have to be captured. So that requires hoses and pipeline systems to get the emissions back to the platform.

I see. Greater expense.

And physics, you know, that are far over my head. But those systems can only be so long before they basically cease to function.

You mentioned that the Biden administration has already signed off on this. Department of Transportation is okay with this?

So far. This issue did come up in their environmental review, and they said the Coast Guard conducted a review and determined that it was within their risk – you know, that they did the risk analysis and they’re okay with it.

Now, what these maritime officials are saying – this is a mix of people from a rival company and independent ex-Coast Guard experts who are just very concerned – is that the Coast Guard doesn’t have a lot of experience with these sorts of projects. Like we said, there’s only one in the United States that was actually originally an import terminal built a long time ago. It was only converted to an export later. So they don’t necessarily have the experience, and they are reaching out to the Coast Guard actively now to the highest ranks, trying to get attention on this issue saying, “you guys need to give this another look.”

The sort of question is now is there is still some hurdles for this project to cross. In order to operate, they do need to be certified by a maritime organization like the American Bureau of Shipping. Or it could be the Coast Guard itself does it, but somebody else is going to take another look at this and, yeah, make a decision.

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