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Deep sea divers, critical to petroleum sector, face tough conditions, slack demand

Across the world, the oil and gas industry relies on the skills of professional divers who manoeuvre themselves into the depths of the sea to help large crude carriers transfer oil and oil products to refineries through a single-point mooring system in the sea (Photo: Hindustan Times)Premium
Across the world, the oil and gas industry relies on the skills of professional divers who manoeuvre themselves into the depths of the sea to help large crude carriers transfer oil and oil products to refineries through a single-point mooring system in the sea (Photo: Hindustan Times)

  • Even as oil prices soared in India, the fortunes of divers who are a key cog in the oil and gas industry have plunged
  • Commercial divers who work on a per day rate used to make $200-300 before the onset of the covid-19 pandemic. Now, their per day rates have dropped to $100-125 a day

MUMBAI : At the age of 34, Birender Pathak took voluntary retirement from the Indian Navy in 2008 and went on to become a freelance commercial diver. Pathak, now 47, wanted to use his skills to take up more exciting assignments, which would help him travel the world, and also earn more money.

“I started my commercial diving career working at Reliance Industries’ Hazira project in India. Later, I moved to work with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company in the United Arab Emirates and have stayed here ever since I started taking international assignments," Pathak said in a phone interview from Abu Dhabi, where he now works.

The onset of the covid-19 pandemic has upturned the lives of many. But the upheavals within the oil and gas industry have been particularly stark. The pandemic first hit oil prices, forcing companies that are engaged in the sector to slash capital expenditure plans and annul contracts. That has meant fewer assignments for divers like Pathak, whose work window is typically open for only 6-8 months each year—between the onset and retreat of the monsoon.

Worldwide, oil demand has slumped. In India, amid the deadly surge of covid-19 infections during the pandemic’s second wave, fuel demand slumped to its lowest in nine months due to restricted mobility and muted economic activity.

People suffering from claustrophobia are advised not to opt for a career in deep-sea diving
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People suffering from claustrophobia are advised not to opt for a career in deep-sea diving

According to data from the petroleum planning and analysis cell (PPAC) of the oil ministry, fuel demand fell 1.5% to 15.1 million tonnes despite the low base of May 2020 and was down by 11.3% when compared to the previous month.

Now, just as things seem to be improving, the onset of the monsoon will keep divers off the sea for a few more months at least. Ironically, even as oil prices at the retail pump soared in India, the fortunes of men like Pathak have plunged. These days, qualified commercial divers spend more time quarantining offshore and less in the sea.

This means that despite the challenging nature of their jobs, these divers earn far less than what they used to during pre-pandemic times. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the pandemic not only dented India’s energy demand, which fell by 5% in 2020 because of the lockdowns and other restrictions, but it also hit investment in the energy sector, which dropped by an estimated 15% in 2020.

Challenging as ever

Across the world, the oil and gas industry relies on the skills of commercial divers like Pathak, known as saturation divers, who manoeuvre themselves into the depths of the sea to help large crude carriers transfer oil and oil products to refineries through a single-point mooring (SPM) system in the sea.

When a crude carrier arrives, one or two divers dive into the water to connect the hose of the carrier to the SPM (a floating buoy or jetty anchored offshore), which is connected to the tank storage facilities of the oil refinery. This allows for the smooth transfer of the petroleum product to the oil tankers. Essentially, the oil won’t reach a refinery without the intervention of a diver, making them a key cog in the oil and gas exploration industry.

Divers also help in assembling and disassembling offshore wells, rigs and pipelines, and in the maintenance of oil platforms and the building of underwater structures—everything from tightening the bolts with hydraulic jacks to hyperbaric welding (underwater welding).

Those who work on a per day rate used to make $200-300 before the onset of the covid-19 pandemic. Now, their per day rates have dropped to $100-125 a day. A diving supervisor is earning as low as $300 a day, against $400-500 earlier. But the challenge of the job they perform is as formidable as ever.

Before a diver can plunge into the sea, his body needs to prepare, or saturate. Saturation diving ,or what is known as SAT diving in diving parlance, allows divers to venture beyond a depth of 50 metres into the sea, sometimes for days and weeks, depending on the nature of the work.

This involves breathing pressurized air in what is called a compression chamber that could look like a capsule. These chambers are usually tucked inside a ship—on oil platforms or diving support vessels. The air in the chamber contains 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen.

Nitrogen has a specific utility for divers—it is a fairly heavy gas and dissolves in the blood and tissues easily, thereby saturating the diver’s body.

Once the diver’s bloodstream has absorbed the maximum pressure of the gas, acclimatizing the body to the pressures that will be experienced underwater, he/she is physically ready for the job. A diver could take a maximum of eight hours to saturate—sometimes less, sometimes more.

Work, sleep, play

Depending on the nature of the work, the diver stays in the chamber for days or weeks as the work progresses in shifts underwater. To reach the workstation from the chambers, the diving professional enters a pressurized diving bell which is lowered down into the water, releasing the diver.

Once the shift is over, the diving bell takes the professional back to the chamber so that the body does not decompress before the work is over. After the completion of the assignment, divers are taken to the chamber to decompress. Decompression means allowing nitrogen to dissipate slowly and safely from the bloodstream.

Divers who come up too quickly could run the risk of nitrogen being released from the blood too fast, which could potentially form bubbles in the bloodstream, much like what happens to a cola can when it is shaken. This can cause blockages, resulting in a condition called decompression sickness, which is not only painful but could be life threatening.

The chambers on the boat keep the diver’s body pressure at roughly the same level as the surrounding sea, removing the need to compress and decompress every time a shift is completed.

“Paying a diver for six days’ recovery for a day’s work is costly for oil companies. So, in the chambers, the divers are kept under pressure for days through their work, sleep and play," said R Singh, a retired commercial diver who has worked for the state-run explorer Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), among other companies.

Supply and demand

Over the past two decades, as the oil and gas industry has expanded rapidly, and so did the demand for divers. Industry players say that divers from the Indian Navy are still the most in demand, although many institutes have sprung up across the country to train and supply divers.

Qualifications to enter the profession seem relatively simple—you need to be able to swim, be physically fit, and possess a senior secondary school certificate or a graduation degree. People suffering from claustrophobia are advised not to opt for a career in deep-sea diving. In order to take up assignments offered by the global oil companies, an international certification is necessary. The profession has been attracting many youngsters who choose to become saturation divers in a bid to make money.

“Demand for experienced divers is directly proportional to opportunities in the offshore business. Offshore exploration projects by oil companies across the world had been fuelling the demand for more divers—attracting more and more candidates to the profession," said Sudesh Shanbag, owner of Sri Bhavani Underwater Services at Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. Shanbag’s company has been supplying divers to exploration companies for nearly five decades now.

Most divers are freelancers who work on a short-term contract for projects run by various oil and gas companies. A steady supply of divers has meant more competition and, by extension, shrinking opportunities for many. A diving course could cost 8-9 lakh in India and it takes at least a year to recover the said amount, said Shanbag.

Many commercial divers in the oil industry sector burn out quickly because of the long hours and rigorous nature of the job. Many move on to instructing or supervising jobs.

No foolproof remedy

Given that covid-19 is a highly infectious disease and the threat of its spread is far from waning, the only option, divers say, is to isolate themselves to avoid contracting it. Although divers are mostly known to work on a freelance basis, sometimes they also work in a team. If one person is down with illness, the entire team needs to be quarantined. Vaccination against the disease is not foolproof, they have realized.

Although many oil and gas projects have been signed, payments have not come through due to work disruptions related to the restrictions imposed in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic. And with some oil companies deferring projects because of the prevalent low crude oil price regime, 2021 may be a washout year for commercial divers.

“Since our work is only between the months of October and May, 2020 and 2021 have been a washout for us. We (the team of divers) are, however, putting stand-by teams (in place) and cutting costs. We are also paying for our own travel and stay (these days)," said Pathak, adding that divers who were ready for work under such terms were still getting assignments.

In pre-covid days, when a diver was paid for an assignment, the payment was based on the job’s entire cycle—travel, decompression days, and the gig itself.

But after the pandemic’s outbreak, the divers are getting paid only for the specific job. “We get paid for our time but in today’s environment, the industry is not capable of paying you for those 14 days of quarantine and another 15 days of treatment. If you travel to a location for a diving job, the company that has engaged you does not pick up the tab for your travel, stay, and quarantine. So, you are giving your time but not getting paid," said Singh, the retired commercial diver.

Underwater robots

Covid-19 is, however, not the only challenge that the divers are confronting. Many oil and gas companies have been shifting some tasks that are usually performed by professional divers—both onshore and offshore—to remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) for some years now.

ROVs are underwater robots, tethered to a controller or an operator, who is usually above the water. An umbilical link is used to connect the operator and the ROV, which is fitted with cameras, sensors, and tools that can collect various types of data.

The offshore oil and gas industry relies heavily on ROVs for drilling support and sub-sea construction services to enable deep-water exploration and development projects worldwide. ROVs can be used at depths of up to 3,000 metres below the sea level, where human divers can’t work. ROVs can vary in size—from small units weighing a few grams fitted with a camera to a large unit weighing several tonnes. They are controlled by a crew of specialists.

Reliance Industries and ONGC use ROVs for operations in the Krishna Godavari (KG) basin on the east coast. Nayara Energy uses it at its Vadinar refinery in Gujarat. The companies did not reply to emails seeking comment.

Pathak was 19 years old when he joined the Indian Navy and saw a team of deep-sea divers plunge headfirst into the ocean and then surface after staying underwater for several minutes. He was intrigued because deep-sea diving seemed to defy a basic tenet of respiration: you exhale what you inhale. Pathak went on to join the Naval Diving School in Kochi, Kerala, from where he graduated as a qualified diver after an intensive training that lasted for nine months.

Pathak says that he enjoys diving as well as overseeing his team of divers. The pandemic may have caused a churning in the oil and gas industry, but Pathak is not fazed by the challenges posed by either covid-19 or the ROVs.

“Four out of 10 jobs in the oil and gas industry are done by ROVs. For the rest, divers will still be needed," Pathak said. “That is where our professional expertise lie. And even with covid-19, we will adapt," he said.

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