Wes Bracken began his goodbyes to his co-workers a few days before finishing his three-week shift in mid-March on BP’s Thunder Horse, one of the biggest offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
The health and safety coordinator made a point to find a group of electricians he’d come to know and some of the crane operators. He shook hands with the guys he’d worked out with down in the rig’s gym, and he spent a while talking to the new kitchen manager, a young guy who’d arrived earlier that week.
Bracken, who’s worked offshore for over 15 years, hadn’t known most of these guys long — just the 21 days of this most recent rotation — but offshore work is intense, with long hours in close quarters. If he didn’t know the names of the other 300 workers by the time he left, he knew their faces.
Back home outside Kansas City, Missouri, Bracken returned to routine life and spent hours at the kitchen table on his computer, looking for work. “It’s scary,” Bracken said. “You’re in close confinement. It’s like a cruise ship except you’re not going anywhere.”
BP executives appeared to be alarmed, as well. Since March 22, the company has taken the extreme step, usually reserved for a large-scale natural disaster, like a hurricane, of evacuating all but essential workers from the rig.
“It’s fairly common to go down to essential personnel during hurricane season. It’s not every day you do it for viruses,” said Jason Ryan, director of public affairs for BP.
But the novel coronavirus, which reached over 1 million confirmed cases worldwide Thursday, is not an everyday virus. And social distancing, the one method proven to slow its spread, is impossible on offshore rigs. On these miniature cities at sea, where upwards of 300 men share cafeterias and television lounges and work grueling 12-hour shifts, repeated close contact and public spaces are inherent parts of the job.
As of Monday, 26 people working on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico had been diagnosed with the coronavirus, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, which tracks these cases along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just five days earlier, on April 1, that number had been 14.
For offshore workers, the impact of the virus has been twofold. At the same time that demand for oil has dropped and the industry has scaled back production, many of the safety measures that companies have implemented to protect workers, have, ironically, hurt them more.
“Am I worried? Yes and no,” said Ryan Healy, a driller who learned last month that his next rotation on a rig off the coast of Brazil has been paused. “But the biggest worry is not so much catching it but that it’s putting a hold on the industry.”
That hold is not likely to let up anytime soon. Last week, the price of crude oil fell below $20 a barrel, its lowest price since 2002. By Tuesday, it had risen to $24 a barrel, still just more than a third of what it was a year ago. Ultimately, the spread of the coronavirus coupled with the ongoing oil war between Russia and Saudi Arabia could mean more than a million oil and gas workers would be laid off worldwide this year, according to a report last week from the data firm Rystad Energy.
Although the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the federal agency that oversees offshore safety in the U.S., requires companies to screen employees with questionnaires and temperature checks before bringing them to the rig, the oil companies have mostly been allowed to create their own safety regulations. At Shell, this has included reducing staff on each rig and extending each employee’s rotation on that rig.
At Chevron, where two offshore workers tested positive for the coronavirus last week, the company has moved all non-essential personnel off of its Gulf facilities, though a spokesperson said oil production would remain at normal levels.
BP and ExxonMobil declined to provide specifics about the changes they were making.
“It all depends where you’re working,” said Billy Fults, an assistant driller who was based on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico before being laid off in late March. “If you work for a good company, they look after you. If you don’t, you’re on your own.”
Fults had been on his most recent stint for about a week when his mother called and asked him to come home. A single dad with sole custody of his two youngest kids, he usually relied on his parents to look after them when he was offshore. But on March 21, their school had joined the wave of schools closing around the country. With his mom working full time, the kids would be stuck alone unless he went back.