Rigs to Reefs

Thousands of offshore petroleum platforms provide energy and habitats.


Offshore petroleum platforms act as artificial reefs, creating ideal marine habitats. Beginning with an Exxon experimental subsea structure in 1979, the “Rigs to Reefs” program has formed the largest artificial reef habitat in the world.

Diver swims between pylons of offshore oil platform.

Offshore platforms make good artificial reefs. The open design attract fish – and divers – where they can swim easily through the circulating water.

In 1984, the U.S. Congress signed the National Fishing Enhancement Act, “because of increased interest and participation in fishing at offshore oil and gas platforms and widespread support for effective artificial reef development by coastal states,” according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). This led to the development of the National Artificial Reef Plan the next year. (more…)

Oil Seeps and Santa Barbara Spill

Exploring the 1969 offshore disaster and ancient natural seeps.


A 1969 oil spill from a California offshore platform transformed the public’s view of the American petroleum industry and helped launch the modern environmental movement and the Environmental Protection Agency. Ancient natural California seeps continue to leak thousands of tons of petroleum every day.

On January 28, 1969,  after drilling 3,500 feet below the ocean floor, a Union Oil Company drilling platform six miles off Santa Barbara, suffered a blowout. Between 80,000 barrels and 100,000 barrels of oil flowed into the Pacific Ocean and onto beaches, including Summerland — where the U.S. offshore industry began in 1896 with drilling on oil well piers.

Problems at the Union Oil platform began when roughnecks began to retrieve the pipe in order to replace a drill bit and pressure became dangerously low,  according to a report by the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). (more…)

ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench

Atomic Energy Commission robot inspired offshore industry’s remotely operated vehicles.


In 1960, Shell Oil and Hughes Aircraft companies began modifying a landlocked “Manipulator Operated Robot” – known as MOBOT – into one that could operate underwater. The result led to the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle), which revolutionized offshore petroleum exploration and production. 

Much of today’s offshore oil and natural gas industry relies on remotely operated vehicles that can trace their roots back to Howard Hughes, Jr. In the late 1950s, Hughes Aircraft Company developed its Manipulator Operated Robot – MOBOT – for the Atomic Energy Commission.

Working on land, the robot performed tasks in environments too radioactive for humans. Weighing 4,500 pounds with hydraulically powered steel claws and television eyes, MOBOT was linked by a 200-foot cable to the operator, who used pistol grips and levers to control it.

Scientist tests early remotely operated robot

“Manipulator operated robots” were built for the Atomic Energy Commission to work in a radioactive environment. Photo courtesy September 1960 Popular Mechanics article, “Marvelous Mobot Will Do Work Too Hot For Man.”

In 1960, Popular Science magazine described the advanced technology in “Marvelous Mobot Will Do Work Too Hot For Man.” The article, which reflected the era’s fascination with science fiction and new technologies, began: “With electronic nerves, hydraulic muscles, and TV eyes, a robot whose arms are quite capable of playing golf or snuggling a blonde is ready to live far more dangerously than that.”

The accompanying photograph showed the “murderous impluse” of a mobot stalking a scientist, but as the caption explained, “Never fear, he (the scientist) has it all under control” by watching three TV screens. The U.S. offshore oil industry quickly saw the potential of underwater electronic nerves, hydraulic muscles, and TV eyes. (more…)

Deep Sea Roughnecks

Post-WWII offshore technologies advanced petroleum exploration and production.


The modern U.S. offshore oil and natural gas industry began in 1938 when Pure Oil and Superior Oil companies built a freestanding drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico in 1938. Soon after World War II, Kerr-McGee drilled the first well out of sight of land as offshore exploration began demanding many new technologies — and highly skilled oceangoing roughnecks.

Kerr-McGee’s Kermac No. 16 began drilling on September 10, 1947, in continental shelf waters only 20 feet deep. The biggest hurricane of the season arrived a week later. The offshore platform withstood winds of 140 mph — one of its many historic milestones in advancing offshore technology.

Oil platform divers 2007 painting by Christopher Swann,

“Stabbing in,” once a deadly hazard for offshore divers, has been replaced with technologies like remotely operated vehicles. Painting by Clyde Olcott from “The History of Oilfield Diving” by Christopher Swann, 2007.

The pursuit of offshore oil demanded technological innovation as exploration led to deeper and more inhospitable waters. Offshore divers faced new challenges, including one hazard called “stabbing in” a drill bit at the well. “Because re-inserting a drill pipe from a moving, heaving barge into the subsea wellhead was a difficult maneuver, each time a worn bit had to be replaced, a diver had to be called,” noted Underwater magazine in a May 2000 article.

“The hard-hat diver effected the ‘stab-in’ by straddling the top of the 24-inch hole between his legs, physically pulling the drill string over the target and at just the right moment instructing the drill floor, 250 feet overhead, to ‘let go.’”

Modern deep sea roughneck technology spares divers this dangerous task, reported Christopher Swann, author of The History of Oilfield Diving, 2007. Instead of air, divers began breathing mixtures of helium and oxygen during deep descents and carefully managed decompression ascents.

Saturation diving and decompression chambers were developed to further increase bottom times and improve safety. With deep saturation diving, every 100 feet of depth required 24 hours of decompression and like today, time was money. The extreme cold of deep water prompted Taylor Diving & Salvage of Belle Chasse, Louisiana, to adapt space suits designed for Nasa astronaut John Glenn to deep sea diving. Hot water pumped down from the surface and through dive-suit tubing extended bottom times.

Nasa astronaut John Glenn in Friendship 7.

Deep sea diving companies adapted space suits designed for Nasa astronaut John Glenn in Friendship 7.

Taylor also developed an underwater welding habitat pressurized with nitrogen that greatly facilitated the critical business of laying pipeline, tie-ins and repairs.

In 1948, Shell Oil Company and others pioneered the use of underwater television cameras for survey, inspection, and repair work. The Navy also developed deep sea technologies for submarine rescue. Technologies for underwater robots began to evolve.

By the early 1960s, Hughes Aircraft Company had built the first marine “Manipulator Operated Robot” — MOBOT — for Shell Oil Company. The underwater robot used sonar and television cameras for navigation, propellers for propulsion, and an umbilical cable for control. For more about MOBOT, see ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench.

Despite state-of-the-art robotics, offshore petroleum industry and scientific needs for manned deep sea diving continued.

An advertisement for petroleum diving technologies in the 1960s.

Diving technologies evolved to meet petroleum industry needs as drilling depths increased in the 1960s.

Not long after Hughes Aircraft created MOBOT, a young engineer began working for the company in California. Ken Cowens’ first project was to analyze the sapphire dome at the front of a missile field at speeds of up to Mach 3. He would spend decades in cryogenics work related to heat transfer, and later use the knowledge to develop deep-diving technologies. Meanwhile, his wife artist JoAnn Cowans, painted award-winning oilfield scenes of Southern California.

After leaving Hughes Aircraft in the 1960s, Cowans formed the offshore technology company Kinergetics Inc., with offices in Tarzana, Californian, and Aberdeen, Scotland. Patented sub-sea products included a “Cryogenic Scuba,” followed by habitat environmental control systems, underwater television systems, and diving safety equipment. Among the latter was the “Stranded Bell Diver Survival System,” a life-prolonging survival means for a cold hyperbolic environment. Kinergetics also did an advanced project with astronaut-aquanaut Scott Carpenter.


Offshore Petroleum History

Exploration and production drilling technologies evolved from lake platforms and California piers.


The exploration history of the U.S. offshore oil and natural gas industry began in the Pacific Ocean at the end of the 19th century. As recently as 1947 no offshore drilling company had ever risked drilling beyond the sight of land.

Offshore oil history view of California oil piers circa 1900.

Many of the earliest offshore oil wells were drilled from piers at Summerland in Santa Barbara County, California. Circa 1901 photo by G.H. Eldridge courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

In 1896, as enterprising businessmen pursued California’s prolific Summerland oilfield all the way to the beach, the lure of offshore production enticed Henry L. Williams and his associates to build a pier 300 feet out into the Pacific – and mount a standard cable-tool rig on it. (more…)

Petroleum Survey discovers U-boat

Routine scan of Gulf of Mexico seabed for new petroleum pipelines reveals shipwrecks.


During World War II, U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico to disrupt the flow of oil carried by tankers departing ports in Louisiana and Texas.

Today’s petroleum companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf routinely provide government scientists with sonar data for areas with potential archaeological value. Several federal agencies review oil and natural gas-related surveys every year, and over the years the data have revealed more than 100 historic shipwrecks in U.S. waters.

oil industry sonar and photo images of U-boat in Gulf of Mexico

A 2001 archaeological survey by BP and Shell prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline confirmed discovery of U-166 about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast.

In 2001, the Minerals Management Service (superseded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management a decade later) noted that “a German submarine definitely got our attention.”


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