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Diving sector defies doomsayers

It would be easy to think that diving operations would have become somewhat superfluous, even redundant, in the deep-water era in offshore production. Not so, but an ageing workforce and industry slump present challenges.

With a growing emphasis on remote, or “diverless” operations — using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), remotely operated tools, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and the like — it might seem that the need for putting men in the water would come to an end.

Far from it. With two of the main subsea contractors each bringing new “state-of-the-art” diving support vessels into the North Sea this year and new safety-orientated technology about to come into the market, the diving industry is not about to disappear. To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumours of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. Such rumours, though, are hardly new.

“Back in the 1970s, divers were being told that that they only had a 10-year horizon before they would be overtaken by ROVs,” says Steve Ham, commercial director of The Underwater Centre, one of the industry’s main facilities for diver training, located on the banks of Loch Linnhe in Scotland.

The same things were repeated in the following two decades as well, he says, but these two new North Sea vessels — Technip’s Deep Explorer and the Seven Kestrel from Subsea 7 — indicate that there is no let-up in investing in this part of the offshore industry.

Steve_Ham.jpg Deep knowledge: Steve Ham, commercial director of The Underwater Centre.

There has also been an expansion of the conditions that divers can work under. In Norway, the diving depth limit has been 180 metres for many years – although there are moves afoot to extend that – and it is only moderately deeper elsewhere (according to Technip, 265 metres in the Gulf of Mexico and 240 metres off Israel). There is said to be regular diving to more than 300 metres and even to 350 metres off Brazil.

But that does not mean that everything is rosy in the octopus’ garden. Pete Sieniewicz, technical adviser on diving at the International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA), says that diving in the Gulf of Mexico is down 40% to 50% over the last two years and in the North Sea it is down 40%.

Possibly of even more concern is that the average age of the diving community is getting older, says Sieniewicz. Not only is the average age going up – now at 44 both in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea – but the age of the oldest diver still working continues to rise - 58 in the Gulf of Mexico and 64 in the North Sea.

In addition, due to difficult working conditions involving being away from home for at least a month at a time, it is not conducive to a settled life. Only half-jokingly, Sieniewicz says that most divers “are on their third wife and can’t afford to retire”.

Sieniewicz and fellow technical adviser Bryan McGlinchy bring an unusual perspective on diving to IMCA. Both started their careers as divers, spent a long period working for the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK and then moved into IMCA in 2012.

Sieniewicz says he likes being on this side of the industry now as he believes that he can make more of a difference on the safety aspects by being “proactive” globally and seeking ways to improve operations rather than being reactive, or waiting for an event to happen, which would have been the case when he was with the HSE.

With the ageing population of divers, training is obviously a significant issue, but little has changed in the way training is organised. Contractors still depend on divers to pay for their own training, which comes in multiple stages.

Stage one is air diving, Ham says, which can cost up to £15,000 ($18,500), while phase two, alternatively called closed bell, saturation or mixed air diving, can cost up to an additional £17,000 ($21,000). While this may seem like a high price to pay, most divers are well remunerated when working, although work for many may be limited to six months per year.

There are also different rules in different sectors, Sieniewicz points out. In the US, the training period can be up to nine months long and include a good deal of specific task-related work, such as cutting and welding. This would lead to a job as a tender, but it can take up to five years to “break out” into actual diving work.

The result is a higher drop-out rate post-training school. In the UK and much of the rest of the world, the training period is just nine weeks and includes minimal specific task training and a quicker route into the water. In addition, UK certification is for life, while in the US there is regular re-certification.

While the offshore oil and gas industry downturn has had a negative impact on the amount of diving required, the amount of work in the civil inshore diving business remains stable. And there has been a replacement for oil and gas with renewable energy.

Both Sieniewicz and Ham suggest that work related to the construction of offshore wind farms and other marine power generation projects will provide ample replacement work opportunities for the diving industry. However, work in offshore renewables tends to be sporadic, with intensive periods of activity followed by droughts.

Decommissioning is also expected to produce work for the diving industry. While there have been many forecasts – mostly in the billions of dollars – about the size of the decommissioning prize, it will all depend on the price of oil.

The sooner the price rises, the longer some of the facilities in older sectors such as the UK North Sea will remain in place. But if the price continues to remain low for the foreseeable future, marginal fields and older facilities will be shut in and shut down. It could be good for the diving industry, if not for the offshore sector in general.

Like a saturation diving bell, there are always ups and downs.

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