Miles away from land, working as well as living on iron structures standing in 70 to 100 metres of sea depth was always considered a physically demanding and potentially dangerous job. And when the 14-day work shift gets extended to as much as 35 days, it certainly can be mentally stressful and physically exhausting.
But not for the 4,500 ONGC employees and officers who have been operating India’s biggest oil and gas fields in the Arabian Sea as well as fields and installations in the Bay of Bengal to feed the country’s energy needs.
The employees, including 9 women, are happy to continue working on offshore installations as a nationwide lockdown restricts bringing in their replacement.
"I have been receiving messages from these brave employees saying they are happy to continue working on offshore fields as long as it is needed," Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) Chairman and Managing Director Shashi Shanker told PTI here.
Most of India’s oil and gas is produced from fields lying below the seabed.
To produce oil and gas, firms such as ONGC drill wells and also build installations in the sea to process the oil and gas coming from these wells before it is piped to onshore facilities. The processing platforms have living quarters that house personnel operating and maintaining the fields.
ONGC has a number of fields in the Arabian Sea, the prime being Mumbai High oil and gas fields, Bassein and Heera. It also has some fields in Krishna Godavari basin in the Bay of Bengal.
Globally, a 50:50 pattern of work in offshore fields is followed. ONGC employees are supposed to work 14 days offshore before getting an equal period of break at their homes.
Shanker said most of the ONGC employees and contractual workers went to work on offshore last month on a 14-day work cycle. But the imposition of the lockdown meant that their replacement could not reach Mumbai — the base from where they are to be ferried in helicopters to the offshore cite.
"My chest swells with pride to see these young ONGCians who are ready to go the extra mile during these testing times the nation is facing. It moves me to see how each one of them is wanting to do his or her best to serve the nation," he said. "Some people call them ‘oil warriors’ but I think a more appropriate term would be ‘oil sevaks’."
While mobile phones are not allowed on the installations, the employees stay in touch with their families over satellite phones and video calls.
The living quarters on offshore locations are well-staffed with kitchen, laundry and entertainment rooms but staying at sea for such a long period with no physical contact with land can be mentally exhausting.
Shanker says ONGC has continued to maintain oil and gas production even during the lockdown as a net oil importing nation cannot afford to shut even a single well.
Besides, ONGC fields are old and if some wells are shut down, they will be difficult to revive as the natural pressure that pushes oil and gas out will be hindered.
"Due to COVID-19 lockdown, may of these men and women working offshore have completed 28 days to 35 days duty compared to usual 14-day shift duty and are continuing to perform a duty," he said. "Due to dedicated efforts of offshore personnel, oil and gas production has been maintained from offshore and drilling operations are also continuing."
A rig operates on 12-hour shifts and typically workers do 14 days and then rotate out for a break for another 14 days.
The machinery on oil rigs is some of the most demanding equipment that works in one of the most difficult environments in the world, with oil and gas being extremely inflammable. An offshore oil rig is a noisy, grimy, cramped existence.
A typical oil rig might rise several stories from the ocean, with living quarters on the sixth or seventh level. Inside, the quarters look like a cross between an office building and a hotel — except there are no windows. The structure is designed to withstand hurricanes.
The living quarters are part barracks, part locker room. Space is a luxury an oil rig cannot afford.
Large helicopters haul staffers for the hour-long ride to the platform, which is 160-km from Mumbai
ONGC has maintained the oil production rate of 480,000 barrels per day and gas output of 53-54 million standard cubic metres per day.
In a bid to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 25 that shut factories, stopped trains and flights and restricted movement of people and goods. The lockdown was on Tuesday extended till May 3.
"Even during the lockdown, supply chain management by shore base personnel has been very good for ensuring smooth supply of material, fuels, and provisioning to offshore to take care of operations as well as health and safety issues of personnel," the ONGC chairman said.
Social distancing, sanitization and other guidelines issued by the government are being strictly followed even in offshore installations, he said, adding around 300 persons were sent back from offshore at the beginning of lockdown period to ensure safety and social distancing.
He said all medical attention is being provided to personnel offshore as well as those onshore.
"We have contacted hospitals to carry out tests to rule out any COVID-19 case," he said.