Drilling innovator Alden James Laborde dies at 98

Alden James “Doc” Laborde, who revolutionized offshore oil drilling with innovations that made it possible to drill farther from the coast and in deeper waters, died Friday at his home in New Orleans. He was 98.

In an industry dominated by people accustomed to drilling on land, Laborde brought a Louisianian’s perspective to the challenges of coastal drilling. He started in the business as a roustabout but eventually had a hand in creating three New York Stock Exchange-traded companies and helping a future president make a fortune of his own.

“He was truly a pioneer in our industry,” said Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. “No question about it.”

Laborde, the son of two educators, was born in Vinton and grew up in Marksville. He attended Louisiana State University for two years before entering the U.S. Naval Academy in 1934. He was commissioned as a Navy ensign after graduating in 1938 but was released from military service early because of vision problems.

He returned home and opened a business in Lafayette, but he was back in uniform once the United States entered World War II.

He trained at the Sub Chaser Training Center in Miami and was given command of a boat. In 1943, he returned to the Miami center to train reserve officers and later served aboard two other combat vessels. He also was involved in shipping supplies to England in preparation for the invasion of Normandy. He left the Navy with the rank of commander.

He had met his future wife, Margaret Bienvenu, in Lafayette before the war, and they were married during the conflict.

When he returned to Louisiana after his military service, Laborde’s seagoing experience suited him for the Gulf Coast’s growing offshore oil industry. He started as a roustabout but soon became known as a person other workers could rely on for solutions to problems, gaining the nickname “Doc” as a result.

Offshore oil drilling began in the 1930s but took a hiatus during the war. It resumed after the conflict but with a greater urgency because of the increased demand for gasoline, as more Americans bought automobiles, moved to the suburbs and took vacations by car.

In the late 1940s and early ’50s, however, offshore exploration was hamstrung by the “tidelands” dispute over whether the federal government or individual states had claim to offshore oil rights. Offshore drilling revved up once that dispute was settled.

At the time, the industry was dominated by people who knew their way around a land-based rig but not much about drilling in deep water.

“All these Oklahomans and Texans were having a heck of a time with how to work things offshore,” Laborde said in a 2012 interview with Offshore magazine.

While Laborde was working for Kerr-McGee Oil Industries in Morgan City as a marine superintendent, he came up with the idea for a movable, submersible drilling rig. At the time, companies had to build piling platforms for each individual rig, a time-consuming and expensive process, especially because many wells turned out to be dry holes.

Laborde quit Kerr-McGee after the company refused to build his rig. He set up Ocean Drilling and Exploration Co., known as ODECO, partnering with Murphy Oil Co. and John Hayward, who held the patent on a submersible-barge method for offshore drilling that he had invented in 1949. The first rig ODECO built was nicknamed “Mr. Charlie,” after Charles Murphy Sr., the founder of Murphy Oil.

The $2.5 million rig could drill in water as deep as 40 feet, while Hayward’s barge was limited to depths of 20 feet.

Life Magazine called it “a singularly monstrous contraption.” It used pontoons that were flooded with water to bring the rig down to the floor of the Gulf. The pontoons would later be emptied, bringing the rig back to the surface, where it could be moved to another drill site.

In 1954, Mr. Charlie started off for its first job, trailed by several other boats carrying skeptical competitors and curious news media. On a $6,000-per-day contract, the first of its type in the industry, Mr. Charlie drilled in South Pass leases that Shell Oil Co. had owned since 1947 but had not been able to exploit because of the tidelands controversy and the depth of the water.

After its first successes, Mr. Charlie drilled for more than 30 years at hundreds of sites. It has been recognized as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and is on permanent display at the International Petroleum Museum in Morgan City.

“When I think of Doc Laborde, he’s one of the giants of our time, back in the early days of the oil and gas industry when people with a vision stepped out and did things that no one else would do,” Briggs said. “He advanced the industry at times when we needed so desperately to have that energy source.

“He was the guy that stepped forward and made all that happen, just like the Wright brothers were when they flew airplanes.”

ODECO built more rigs like Mr. Charlie, and Laborde’s fame spread.

In the Offshore magazine interview, he recalled how “a young man named George (H.W.) Bush came by to see me. He owned an onshore drilling company, and he wanted to build an offshore rig.

“So I helped him get started, and he launched a company called Zapata Offshore. He sold it a few years later and got a few million dollars and used that to go into politics. The rest of the story is obvious.”

Later, Laborde turned his attention to designing oil-industry support vessels. Drilling companies had been using repurposed Navy surplus vessels to service the offshore rigs. Laborde came up with new designs that were better suited to those tasks.

Laborde and partners, including two of his brothers, formed a new company, Tidewater Inc., which became the world’s largest offshore vessel operator.

“As you got into deeper water and platform rigs, you had to have bigger boats to carry equipment,” Briggs explained. Deep waters are too choppy to transport equipment to rigs on conventional barges; the barges would rock, and equipment and materials could be lost over the side, he said.

Laborde also was involved in the development in 1963 of the Ocean Driller, a triangular semi-submersible rig, to accommodate the trend to drill even farther offshore in Gulf waters that were too deep for the submersible ones.

Laborde retired in 1977 at the age of 61. But in the mid-1980s, he and partners took over a Houma firm that had gone bankrupt. They formed Gulf Island Fabrication, the third NYSE-listed company he had a part in creating. He was its CEO from 1986 to 1990 and chairman of the board from 1987 until 2001. He remained on the board until 2012.

In 1985, Fortune Magazine inducted Laborde into the National Business Hall of Fame.

Laborde served on the boards of numerous public and private educational and philanthropic institutions and was involved in Catholic Church affairs in particular.

He was a close personal friend of former New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan, a fellow World War II veteran. Archbishop Gregory Aymond said Hannan relied on Laborde for advice.

“For me, he has been a model of faith and someone I have been privileged to know and call friend,” Aymond said.

Laborde “was a man of faith and had a great love for the mission of Christ,” Aymond said.

Laborde’s wife died in 2009. His survivors include two brothers, John and Lucien Laborde; a sister, Marguerite LeBlanc; two sons, Dr. J. Monroe Laborde and John P. “Jack” Laborde; three daughters, Susan Laborde Couvillon, Stephanie Laborde Hunt and Jane Laborde Roussel; 18 grandchildren; and 35 great-grandhildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.