By PETER PUXLEY: Tues., Oct. 25, 2016
Shell Oil’s Stena IceMAX drill ship, drilling for oil on March 5th, two kilometres below the surface of the Atlantic on the edge of the Scotian Shelf, was the site of what regulators euphemistically call an “incident.”
Battling unexpectedly high waves, the drill ship crew successfully secured the well and disconnected the ship from the wellhead to protect the operation. Shortly after, the riser, a 2,100 metre-long protective series of 21-inch diameter pipes, each weighing 20 tonnes, broke free of the drill ship before it moved clear of the site. The riser pipes fell to the ocean floor missing the wellhead by a mere 12 metres.
A Shell investigation of the “incident” was monitored and matched by an internal review by the regulator, the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB). The federal/provincial CNSOPB is the equivalent of the National Energy Board, regulating oil industry activity in our offshore.
In June, after receiving Shell’s report on the event, Stuart Pink, the CNSOPB’s chief executive officer, declared, “We are satisfied that the cause of the incident has been properly determined and that appropriate corrective actions have been taken so that drilling may resume safely.”
The CNSOPB released only a summary of Shell’s investigation report, omitting key facts, such as the near hit at the wellhead when the riser pipes hit the seabed, and the poor preparedness of personnel for handling the technology connecting the riser stem and the drill ship. Those facts, and the full extent of what might better be described as a potential disaster, rather than a mere “incident”, came to light when the Halifax Examiner obtained the full report through a freedom of information request.
The lessons the CNSOPB drew from the event related to technology, procedure, training and competence, and a commitment to ensure the risk of a recurrence was minimal. The rest of us might reach other conclusions from this near disaster.
Simply put, the failure to foresee and plan for the heavy seas that are common where the deep Atlantic rolls up onto the continental shelf south of Nova Scotia, is a failure of both the operator, Shell, and more importantly, the regulator, the CNSOPB. They illustrate a fundamental characteristic Canadians are discovering in regulatory agencies across the country — they are captives of the industries they regulate. As such, they are ill-suited to the task of risk assessment in the broader public interest.
Assessing risk is an inexact art that is only half the challenge. The other half is determining what is an acceptable risk. That determination must include those most likely to bear the costs of a catastrophe.
Shell is drilling Cheshire and its sister well, Monterey Jack, in water deeper than almost any other well in the world, significantly deeper than BP’s Deepwater Horizon well.
Reliable experience in such deep water is almost non-existent. As the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill concluded in its report to U.S. President Obama, “Deepwater energy exploration and production, particularly at the frontiers of experience, involve risks for which neither industry nor government has adequately prepared, but for which they can and must be prepared in the future.”
Shell’s exploratory wells lie close to our most productive sustainable fishery, to key spawning and nursery grounds for scallops, lobster, haddock and halibut, and not far from the massive daily tidal in- and outflow from the Bay of Fundy. Clearly, deciding acceptable risk must involve southwestern Nova Scotia communities dependent on those resources. A blowout would have catastrophic consequences.
Today, the interests of the people of this region rest on assurances from the CNSOPB, whose members are overwhelmingly oil industry veterans, unrepresentative of those who bear the risks resulting from the agency’s decisions.
There may have been a time, before we truly understood the risk of further developing our non-renewable, dirty energy resources, or before we truly appreciated the importance of sustainable resource industries, such as the fishery or tourism, when risk assessment could be left to a self-serving industry. But knowing what we know now, to continue with that model of regulation is clearly senseless.
The lesson of Shell’s recent “incident” at its Cheshire well is that we need to democratize the process of deciding if we can safely drill for oil, and whether and where the risks of doing so are acceptable. Until we take steps to ensure full and informed public involvement in those decisions, further approvals for drilling exploratory wells in our vulnerable offshore can’t be trusted and should be annulled.
Peter Puxley is a member of the Coordinating Committee of the Campaign to Protect Offshore Nova Scotia (CPONS), a project of the South Shore Chapter of the Council of Canadians.