With Superior Energy Services in expansion mode, most recently adding Hallin to its group, OE revisits one of Superior’s more colorful acquisitions of the past decade: well control expert Patrick Campbell, who last year was picked to head up the company’s technical solutions group. Russell McCulley talks to Campbell about the heyday of well fire fighting and how the experience shapes his new role.
The mementos of a 40+ year career dot the walls and shelves in Pat Campbell’s Houston office: photos, awards, coffee mugs and Texas-sized commemorative belt buckles, even the stuffed and mounted head of a wild boar – a mascot of sorts for a group of friends and fellow well control vets. He takes care to remove it when he has a visitor from the Middle East, to avoid giving offense.
That sort of tactfulness is something of a Campbell trademark, a contrast to the more flamboyant and publicity seeking image proffered by some of his oilfield firefighting peers, most of whom he’s worked with over the years. Dealing with blowouts and well fires is the stuff of high drama – a fact not lost on Hollywood, which based the 1968 film Hellfighters on real-life oil well firefighter Red Adair, with John Wayne taking the lead role. But there’s another, less dramatic but vital side to the business: preventing blowouts from occurring in the first place. Campbell picked up on the importance of prevention early, and it has served him well as the oil & gas industry made the transition from larger-thanlife wildcatters to today’s more safetyconscious operations.
Last April, Superior Energy Services, which acquired Wild Well Control in 2001, named Campbell, who headed the subsidiary, to lead the company’s technical solutions group. The group brings under one umbrella various Superior companies involved in decommissioning and plugging and abandonment, including its well services and structure removal divisions and the Engineering & Product Management group (EPM), along with Wild Well Control and its subsidiary, Blowout Tools Inc (BTI), which Campbell co-founded in the 1980s.
Decommissioning is nothing new for Superior: the company began as a P&A outfit headquartered in Harvey, Louisiana, but soon branched out into other aspects of well service, eventually comprising two dozen separate subsidiaries. In his new role, Campbell, now 65, will help streamline and focus Superior’s decommissioning business as the company seeks to expand its geographical reach.
‘Superior until recently had pretty much been a Gulf of Mexico decommissioning operation – a very significant one, the largest, but nonetheless pretty much in the Gulf of Mexico,’ Campbell says. ‘It is our intention to expand that, particularly in the southern North Sea. We’re about one year into a three-year curve as that business begins to escalate, as these wells come to the end of their useful life and have to be plugged, structures removed and pipelines remediated.’
Oil companies tend to focus human resources on E&P, not on end-of-well life activities, he says. ‘They don’t have big, robust decommissioning teams. It’s a real headache if you have to try to staff that work. So we’ve taken the approach that we’ll turnkey that whole thing. You don’t have to tell us anything. We’ll come read the well records, we’ll do diagnostic work, we’ll plug the wells, and we’ll remove the structures.’
In addition to stepping up its North Sea presence, Campbell’s group has an eye on Malaysia. ‘They have thousands of wells, and they’ve never P&A’d any,’ he says.
The recent $168 million acquisition of Hallin Marine Subsea International, which has headquarters in the UK and a base of operations in Singapore, will help Superior increase its profile in the region. ‘They’re in great shape for North Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, all of that,’ Campbell says. ‘And they’re a successful company. They have grown their business, they are very well managed.’
Hallin also brings material assets to the technical solutions team, which charters vessels from Superior’s marine division. Hallin has ‘a number of monohull intervention vessels and construction vessels, and they’re about to build a semisubmersible intervention vessel. And they have two newbuild ship-shape hulls in the shipyard that’ll be coming out before long,’ he says. ‘All of those can be useful for us.
‘It’s a great acquisition because they do a lot of things that we had previously been chartering third party vessels to do, particularly on subsea interventions here in the Gulf of Mexico.’
A colorful cast
For most of its history, well control was dominated by a small handful of companies and a few outsized personalities, going back at least to Myron Kinley, of Kinley Well Control, and a fresh-from-military service Kinley hire named Red Adair. ‘Red had come back from the army, where he specialized in explosive ordinance and demolition – EOD. So he was used to using dynamite, blasting caps and so on,’ Campbell says.
The two worked together ‘very successfully’ until 1959, when Kinley was getting ready to retire, he says. Kinley considered turning the well control side of the company over to Adair, but Kinley’s family intervened, pushing for a sale of the business. As Campbell recalls: ‘Red said, “Hell, I’ll quit and go start a business of my own.”’ He took two Kinley journeymen with him, the young Boots Hansen and Coots Matthews.
The trio formed the core of a wildly successful business. Kinley’s company prospered with the manufacture of proprietary tools, but gradually got out of the well control business, leaving the Red Adair Company with a virtual lock on the well blowout market for the next decade and a half. ‘If ever there was an example of a true monopoly, that was one,’ Campbell says. ‘There was no competition.’
In 1975, Joe Bowden founded Wild Well Control ‘on the correct assumption that there desperately needed to be competition’, he continues. ‘Then, in 1977, there was a falling out between Boots, Coots and Red, and without going into the details of it – which were mind-boggling – Boots and Coots were terminated. They were fired. And they said: “Well, that’s all we know how to do.”’ The two were in a good position to strike out on their own, Campbell says. Adair had by that time become more of a celebrity than a hands-on well capper; Hansen and Matthews were far more likely to be in the field on jobs, and had built strong relationships with decision makers in the industry. Campbell, who was working for Lockheed Petroleum Services at the time, joined the new venture, Boots & Coots, and stayed on for 10 years.
‘In those days, we didn’t even have fax machines,’ Campbell says. ‘[Customers] would call you on the phone and say, I’ve gotta have something to put on this well down here in Indonesia or Sumatra or wherever it was.’ Campbell and his peers had to discern what part was required based on a verbal description, he says; in many cases, the damaged part was a one-off creation of some anonymous machine shop, so API specifications were of little use. Once they figured out what they needed to make the repairs, engineers would scramble to find a shop that could custom-build the necessary parts. You would have to interrupt work at some plant, get the part made and get it back to the job site, he says. ‘Boots & Coots had learned how to do that very effectively, because they had to.’
Campbell started Blowout Tools in 1987, in part to address the lack of quality control in the business. ‘With blowouts, people would need a piece of equipment fast, so you’d sketch it out, have it made at a machine shop, but there was no real quality control, no material certification, no documentation,’ he says. ‘And putting that stuff on a blowout well – that’s probably as bad as you could do.’ BTI manufactured and stocked specialized downhole tools that could be put to use quickly, and the industry responded well to its approach. ‘We were blessed, and very fortunate,’ he says. ‘Business grew very quickly.’
Bowden approached Campbell shortly after with a proposal for a merger. ‘He said: “Come on Campbell, give me a hand. We’ve got to get better organized to compete here.” Well, he finally talked me into it. We merged the companies, Joe Bowden’s Wild Well Control and BTI, and became partners. And I guess God smiles on you once in a while, because along came the Kuwait fires project.’
Early in the 1990/91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, Wild Well Control, along with its two biggest competitors, began negotiations with the Kuwaitis for contracts to deal with what many suspected, correctly, Saddam Hussein’s troops would do to the country’s vast oil fields in the event they had to retreat. Intelligence suggested that the Iraqis had placed explosives on 1100 wells, but most experts thought the number of well fires would be far lower. The three companies, along with Canadian firm Safety Boss, planned for 200 fires, a number that turned out to be shockingly conservative. ‘We thought, surely he would not be goofy enough to blow up 200 wells,’ Campbell says. ‘Nobody could imagine it would be more than that. But it ended up being about 950 wells.’ The number would probably have been even higher, he says, had some explosives not malfunctioned or if teams of Iraqi soldiers had not been frightened after setting off one blast. ‘We found whole groups of wells that were all wired up to be detonated, but it hadn’t happened,’ he says. Those wells turned out to be even more hazardous for firefighters than the ones that were actually burning; unexploded US cluster bombs, which would go off when heated by the raging fires, made the job even tougher.
Although good for business, the Kuwait fires were an environmental disaster. But the damage would have been far greater, and the fires burned much longer, without the expertise Campbell and his colleagues brought to the nightmarish scene.
A changing industry
By the time of the Gulf War, it was apparent that well control companies needed to expand their services in order to survive. Red Adair sold to Global Industries in 1994, and Boots & Coots followed three years later with a merger with International Well Control. In 2001, Bowden, looking to retire, arranged WWC’s sale to Superior. ‘The nature of the business, and events, were changing, and we needed to be affiliated with someone who had a footprint all over the world,’ Campbell says.
In less than a decade, the three closely held competitors became subsidiaries of publicly traded institutions, and the brash hellfighter image was pretty much doused by an increasingly cautious and publicity-averse industry.
‘Nobody could say anything to Red or Boots or Coots when it was a monopoly,’ he says. ‘I remember sitting there when the phone rang once – a humongous well fire in Kuwait, in the Burgan field on a well being drilled. Even the [Kuwait Oil Company] people who called were saying: “Man, what a discovery! Get over here quick and cap this thing!”
‘Nowadays, this is bad press. It’s bad news. Someone may have been injured or killed, lots of liability issues, everybody wants to litigate about lost reserves. It’s just an entirely different matter. [Oil companies] both expect and demand that you keep everything in confidence, and that you don’t go out and blow your horn about how great you are.’
It’s quite a contrast, Campbell says, from the days when Red Adair would call a press conference at the airport announcing that he was on his way to fight a well fire. ‘None of that – you can’t do any of that. And it was clear back in the late 1970s, early 80s, that this was the trend, and that the oil companies appreciated your confidentiality, and later demanded it, once they realized they could.’
Gone too are the days of haphazard record keeping or on-the-fly fabrication. ‘The idea that somebody goes out in the middle of the night and builds a piece of equipment, comes back and puts it on the well in the morning – there’s way too much at risk,’ he says. ‘So that has benefited BTI considerably over the same period.’
Well fires ‘have never been all that common’, Campbell says; the company may see about 50 uncontrolled blowouts per year, and of those maybe a halfdozen will be on fire. ‘The major oil companies and national oil companies were becoming ever better at recognizing their high-risk prospects and at devoting their very best manpower, their very best resources, their very best risk reduction modeling and methodology to those prospects. So it actually became that a minority of the events were occurring for the major IOCs and NOCs, and independents were rising. Projects that they would never have thought to undertake – putting deepwater spars in the Gulf of Mexico, drilling in Siberia – they were rising in terms of the risk potential of all of their prospects, and they had not yet become as systematic about the application of risk reduction methodology and techniques.’
Deep, high pressure gas wells are typically the most at risk for a ‘significant blowout event’, he says. ‘In the US, for high pressure gas, there will be events despite all the planning.’ That side of the business could increase as unconventional onshore plays go into production. ‘I cannot personally imagine how natural gas is not going to be a really big player in the future, because of the cleanliness with which it can be used for a variety of end purposes,’ Campbell says. ‘And that’s good for us. Anytime they’re messing with gas, we’re going to get our share of blowouts.
‘We continue to have problem wells in relatively deep water,’ he adds. ‘Not just the Gulf of Mexico – we just finished one in the Bay of Bengal. We have them every once in a while.’ In deep offshore, the hydrostatic force on long open hole sections of a well is ordinarily enough to prevent a major event. But Superior works with many operators during the construction phase of a planned wellbore to minimize the risk. ‘We look at the potential problems that could occur from a well control standpoint, and we model influxes of varying size and pressure and composition,’ he says. ‘Then, as they’re drilling that well, we compare real time to what we predicted. And taking into account that we may need to change the primary method for handling kick based on the changes we’re observing in real time compared to what we predicted prior to drilling.’
The methodical approach seems to suit Campbell. ‘I like technical things. I like technical writing,’ he says. ‘I’d create technical manuals for everything if I could, but there are not enough hours in the day. You know, when they put you in a position like this, it’s to be a problem solver, a potential problem identifier, and to provide solutions to those things before they get the better of you. I like that aspect of it. I dislike what I call regressive or corrective, burdensome work. You like that which is more progressive and beneficial – you think you’re spending your time in a way that benefits. And this past year has been a hectic year, with a lot of things requiring extraordinary management to make it all work out. But I don’t think anybody said anything about hiring me just for the good times.
‘I’m enjoying it, and my boss [Superior senior EVP] Pat Bernard – super fellow. Everybody gets along. This is not like a lot of companies,’ he says with a laugh. ‘It’s rather refreshing.’
A job that keeps him closer to home is also a welcome change. ‘Well, I’m not running off on an airplane to go cap a well,’ he says. These days, travel is more likely to include his family, photos of whom are scattered about the office: Campbell’s wife Jana, his two grown children and seven grandchildren. Just a mention of them is enough to make a veteran hellfighter wax sentimental.
‘I remember working on a big well fire in Bolivia, working with this one fellow who hadn’t seen his parents in 20 years,’ he says. ‘I can’t even imagine that.’ OE