Victoria oil rig simulator offers hands-on experience for those in the industry


June 15, 2010 at 1:15 a.m.

Leonard Ruiz, left, of Dallas, trains at Victoria's Petroleum College International, a school to prepare oil rig workers. Instructor Tom Elliot watches to ensure the team passes the test and no problems arise.

Leonard Ruiz, left, of Dallas, trains at Victoria's Petroleum College International, a school to prepare oil rig workers. Instructor Tom Elliot watches to ensure the team passes the test and no problems arise.

A group of men stood surrounded by buttons, gauges and levers.

They clutched kill sheets and eyed ever-changing numbers that flashed on a nearby, orange machine.

As they contemplated pressure levels for the oil rig they oversaw, Cuero drilling consultant Gene Gonzales adjusted levels to release excess gas from the column.

The platform they stood on, however, wasn't on an offshore rig. In fact, it wasn't a rig at all.

It was a full-sized simulator used to train those in the industry. The simulator - one of six in the nation and the only in Texas - is part of the curriculum at Petroleum College International, a Victoria school geared at training and re-certifying oil field workers in well control.

The school has particular significance because of the recent Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion.

Rig workers must be re-certified in their trade every two years, said Tom Elliott, vice president of Southern operations for the school. Certification helps to keep them mindful of the tasks at hand, he said.

"When you do a job a long time, you begin to think you know it," said Elliott, who also teaches the courses. "You get complacent."

Petroleum College International got its start in 1982 as Petroleum Training International, then part of the University of Houston-Victoria. The university later sold the rights, Elliott said, and the school assumed its current name.

It still rents the Ben Wilson Street building from the university.

The training students receive includes basics, such as safety risks, fluid dynamics and what to do if unexpected problems arise. It also incorporates new technology they need to learn.

"It's sort of all-encompassing," Elliott said. "We work with guys who have been doing this for years and guys just starting out."

The hands-on training helps put students in real-world situations without risking injury or environmental implications if something goes wrong, said Gonzales, who had just finished a run on the simulator.

Although nothing went wrong during a simulation he finished Wednesday, the previous day's run-through included a few issues, said J.D. Nelson, a Yorktown drilling consultant, also taking the course.

That day, while the three-man group simulated drilling into a pressure zone, they ran into an influx of gas. After working out the kill sheet, they determined the best way to pump down the hole.

The college's simulator is just like being on a rig floor, although some rigs are more advanced and others less so. There is one exception, Nelson said.

"It's a lot cleaner," he said, smirking.

He agreed the drills help to keep people from becoming complacent and said safety became more important in the oil industry over time. It used to just be tool pushers and the like who had to be re-certified, but the list of workers expanded.

Now, some companies even have derrick hands and floor hands keeping up-to-date.

"Safety in the last 15 or 20 years has become a big concern with oil companies," Gonzales said. "Every day we step out and work, we have a chance of losing our lives or getting hurt."

In certain ways, the classroom environment reflects the current oil industry, Elliott said.

When the industry suffered a decline in 2009, for instance, class sizes dropped, some weeks as low as just a few people. Now that the industry is recovering, student numbers have increased to the point the college is considering hiring another instructor.

The ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill also affects the classroom atmosphere because the students bring it up, Elliott said, explaining that they discuss the issue, but the college takes no stand on who is to blame.

It's too early to point fingers, he said.

Nelson agreed that he and the others in his class want to discuss the current spill. Eleven people died in the blast, he said, and they want to know what happened.

"I believe that, 99 percent of the time something like that happens, it's human error," Nelson said. "And the more we know about it the less chance there is of it happening to us."



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