- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Almost four months after Hurricane Ivan swept through the Gulf of Mexico knocking over oil and natural-gas platforms and burying pipelines under mudslides, a shortage of commercial divers is crimping the ability to get oil flowing again.

“The hurricane brought to light that there are only so many people available,” said Steven Hall, a diving manager for Oceaneering International Inc. in Morgan City, a hub for offshore work.

Before oil companies can get production back up, pipelines carrying oil and gas from under the Gulf must be inspected for damage, and any leaks sealed. In many instances, divers are the only ones who can do the work.

“All over the Gulf there’s work,” said Jeff Alloway, operations manager at DivCon, a New Orleans-based company. “You have platforms that are leaning over, some are missing; pipelines are a spaghetti field, a lot of leaks. Basically, the seas pick them up and throw them into a pile.”

About 8.5 percent of oil production, or 145,128 barrels a day, and about 4.7 percent of natural gas, or 584.7 million cubic feet, remain shut because of the problems, the Minerals Management Service said.

An area near the mouth of the Mississippi River, where the seafloor drops off dramatically, incurred the worst damage, Mr. Hall said. When Hurricane Ivan’s surge struck, it created waves as high as 80 feet.

“A lot of the pipelines were damaged as a result of mudslides,” he said.

Divers — working in shifts around-the-clock — go down in pitch-black and muddy water to install valves and connectors on pipelines and uncover the pipes from the muck.

“There’s no romance. It’s cold, it’s the middle of the night, long hours. It’s good money, but it’s hard work,” Mr. Hall said.

Getting people into the business — and staying — is the tricky part. Many newcomers, the so-called tenders who assist divers, get disillusioned quickly.

“Some people, the tenders at least, go through diving schools and they expect they’re going to make a million dollars a year, travel all over the world,” Mr. Hall said.

Scott Kinney, a diving instructor at National Polytechnic College of Engineering and Oceaneering in San Diego, said there is high turnover.

“People cycle through so much, so they have to continually look for new people,” Mr. Kinney said. “I don’t sugarcoat anything. I tell [students] it’s a hard lifestyle and it beats you down at every corner.”

The shortage of divers won’t be made up in time to recover from Hurricane Ivan.

For example, a diving course at the College of Oceaneering takes 50 weeks to complete at a cost of more than $16,000. Some colleges offer more intense and shorter programs.

But even after graduation, a diver will need two years or much more to “break out” — move on from a tender’s position to that of diver. A tender in the Gulf makes about $10 an hour and divers make between $14 and $20 an hour.

Mr. Hall said the Minerals Management Service has set a deadline of June 1 to finish repair work in the Gulf, which coincides with the beginning of this year’s hurricane season.

Mr. Hall’s company is trying to bring divers in from Mexico and Canada. He said it’s not easy attracting divers from other parts of the country. “The good divers are all working,” he said.

Mr. Alloway’s company is looking for divers on the Internet and also by word of mouth. The company would like to hire about 10 more workers to get through a backlog of jobs.

Hurricane Ivan has given Gulf divers plenty of cash. Typically in late fall and winter, diving work drops off in the Gulf because the weather gets bad. Not this year.

“Everybody’s offshore, begging for time off. But I guess you take the work when it’s there,” Mr. Kinney said. “The industry’s pretty much feast or famine. When there’s work, you take it and squirrel away your savings.”

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