WORDS PETER HALLIDAY
PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 2022
WHere we work
By 2025, when Petrofac completes its decommissioning, every trace of the Hewett gas field will be removed, and a line will be drawn under 59 years of history. We take a look back at its sometimes colourful past, and its importance to the local community
HOW WE WORK
The Hewett gas field was discovered way back in 1966, by US-based Philips Petroleum, and was one of the first in the North Sea to be developed. At the time, the UK had no domestic oil and gas business, and Philips imported its people, its methods, and its operating culture from America.
‘PLASTIC YANKS’ WITH BROAD NORFOLK ACCENTS
By all accounts, hordes of Texan oilmen descended on the sleepy seaside resort of Great Yarmouth, and the impact on the community was profound. “You hear stories of local people who were swept along with the excitement of it all,” says Mark Russell, an Offshore Electrical Technician on Petrofac’s Hewett team, who takes an interest in the field’s history. “For a lot of young men, the Texan hats, jeans and boots quickly became de rigueur. They were known as Plastic Yanks and, although some of them may have looked authentic, the broad Norfolk accents were always a giveaway.”
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Red Adair with the marbles he used to stop the blow out on ‘Hewett A’
A VISIT FROM RED ADAIR
One authentic Texan who did visit the field was trouble-shooting fire-fighter Paul “Red” Adair.
To British people of a certain age, the name of Red Adair is synonymous with the taming of the Piper Alpha fire of 1988 – the world’s worst offshore catastrophe, which took the lives of 167 people, and led to an overhaul of the industry’s health and safety standards.
What most people don’t realise is that Red Adair made an earlier visit to the UK, when disaster struck during the original development of the Hewett field in 1968. It began with a blow-out on the Hewett A rig. But worse was to follow. A stand-by ship arrived in gale-force winds to evacuate the personnel scrambling down ropes, but collided with the rig and capsized. Three of the ship’s crew perished, but 16 survivors were miraculously rescued by a passing trawler.
Although the high drama was over, a major problem remained, with gas still belching from the blown-out well. The noise was apparently like a whistling kettle and, according to one eyewitness, the loudest thing he’d heard in his entire life.
Yet Red Adair was able to stem the flow with what he called his “three marbles trick” – forcing three rubber-coated nylon balls into the holes in the drill bit.
What’s in a name?
Another Hewett oddity is the naming of six neighbouring fields, which are separate from the main reservoir, but served by the same platforms and infrastructure. These are called Dawn, Deborah, Della, Delilah, Big Dotty and Little Dotty, and one can’t help wondering where the names came from.
Apparently, it all goes back to those swashbuckling days of the 1960s and 70s, when the region was being developed, and each of the original oil companies involved had its own theme and conventions for naming the fields they discovered.
At Shell, for example, it was about birds, hence Kittiwake, Mallard and Bittern. At Canadian Natural Resources, it was all about Scottish castles, hence Balmoral, Stirling and Glamis. At Conoco it was Scottish geologists, like Miller, Lyell and Maclure. And, at Philips, it was female names, hence the gang of girls around Hewett.
One of Petrofac’s projects in New Zealand
IS THIS THE END OF THE STORY?
Petrofac’s involvement in the field dates back to 2003, when Tullow Oil acquired the field from what was then Conoco-Philips. From then on, Petrofac has always been the Duty Holder and, when ownership passed to Eni in 2008, Petrofac also became the Pipeline Operator. The company now has until 2025 to complete the decommissioning, but will that mark the end of the Hewett story?
“There could easily be another lease of life,” says HSSEQ Manager Tracey Harrold. “At one time, there were plans to turn the field into a vast underground gas storage facility. Given the questions around Britain’s gas market, that idea could easily come back into fashion. Equally, there is the growing interest in carbon capture and storage. Whatever happens, I suspect the experience and skills built up in the region will be put to good use.”
RESILIENT AND READY FOR WHAT COMES NEXT
The coming together of these two complementary companies has, from Jason’s perspective, been “a smooth and frictionless transition”.
John agrees. He says that Jason and his team are excellent to work with and that a culture of safety – and putting people first – was something that immediately united the two companies. “Our people are the greatest asset in Petrofac, and we wake up every day making sure we do the right thing for each other,” he adds.
And, while the Permian Basin, like the industry around the world, has seen a downturn caused by the uncertainty of the pandemic, Petrofac and W&W Energy have been able to weather the storm together.
Despite the challenges, they have also won new clients this year. “We’re in different markets now from when the acquisition happened – we’ve gone from only working with upstream clients to working with midstream and even a little bit of downstream,” says Jason.
W&W has been able to build up their brand in the field. “The way we present proposals and communicate with clients is much more sophisticated than it used to be because of Petrofac, and it’s got us some wins in the last three months,” adds Jason.
It’s apparent that both companies are resilient and seek out opportunities. Petrofac has already been able to use its engineering expertise to drive savings for clients, offering creative ways to re-purpose existing client inventory to support in-field improvements (see box out).
Since the merger, W&W Energy has focused on enhancing its fleet, adding a new large knuckle boom truck (one of only two of its type in the whole region) and investing in new hydro testing equipment to support its pipeline integrity service. They have both stayed busy during the downturn.
“The field is already picking up. As that continues we are in a good position to take on larger projects and have the financial strength to be able to assist customers in the procurement process,” says John.