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Regulators warn drilling oil-spill relief well off Canada’s Arctic coast would take three years

By Andrew Mayeda, Postmedia News August 1, 2010

Workers on the deck of a drill ship set up a well for the Devon Energy Corp. in Canada’s Beaufort Sea. Photograph by: Archive, Calgary Herald

OTTAWA – Drilling a relief well in the ice-infested waters of the Beaufort Sea would take at least three years, leaving an oil spill off Canada’s Arctic coast to gush until the job is done, Canadian regulators warn in newly released documents.

Under the current policy of the National Energy Board, which regulates drilling in the Canadian side of the Beaufort, oil companies must demonstrate the capacity to drill a relief well in the same season in which they dig their original well.

However, briefing notes prepared for NEB chairman Gaetan Caron, and obtained by Postmedia News under the federal Access-to-Information Act, suggest that companies looking to explore for oil in the Beaufort would be unable to meet that requirement.

“The wells that are being planned are anticipated to take three (3) seasons to finish. The actual drilling time is about 100 to 120 days but ice conditions and vessel capabilities mean that an operator would likely not have a continuous period to drill a well, hence multiple season well,” state the briefing notes.

To dig a relief well, operators drill diagonally until they hit the original well, then pump drilling fluid down the borehole until the oil is contained. Although BP recently succeeded in capping its blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico, the well won’t be considered permanently sealed until BP finishes the two relief wells it has been drilling.

If BP completes the relief wells by next month, as planned, they will have taken roughly three months to drill. But in the Beaufort Sea, the open-water season only lasts between 50 and 85 days, leaving a limited window in which companies can operate.

The briefing notes were prepared for Caron ahead of his appearance on May 13 before the House of Commons natural-resources committee.

The documents show Caron taking care to portray the NEB, an arm’s-length tribunal established in 1959, as a no-nonsense watchdog that vigilantly protects the environment.

“I want to read it slowly, and be no more than 10 minutes, with segments in English and French. The desired outcome of the opening statement is to show a technical regulator focused on facts, evidence, knowledge and hands-on experience in protecting the safety of workers and the environment,” Caron told the NEB staff preparing the briefing notes. “I’d like us to be seen as knowing what we are talking about.”

During his testimony before the natural-resources committee, Caron was asked by New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen if the NEB believes it’s possible to drill a same-season relief well in the Beaufort. Caron replied that the NEB didn’t know if it could be done.

“We have to examine that in detail, with a technical focus based on evidence, based on the best technical expertise around the world, and we’ll apply that to Canada when we find it. We do not have that today, sir,” Caron said.

The Canadian government established the so-called “same-season relief well” policy in the 1970s, and the NEB has maintained the policy since taking over regulation of Arctic offshore drilling in 1991. The NEB hasn’t granted an authorization to drill in the Beaufort since 2004, when Devon was given the green light to explore for natural gas at a relatively shallow depth of 11 metres. (The company found oil instead.)

But in recent years, Imperial Oil and BP spent a combined $1.8 billion to acquire exploratory licences to drill at depths of about 700 metres. Within the offshore industry, depths of at least 500 metres are considered “deepwater.” The deeper drilling goes in the Beaufort, the more difficult and time-consuming it is expected to be to dig a relief well.

At the urging of Imperial, the NEB was conducting a public review of the relief-well policy when BP’s Gulf well blew out on April 20. In the wake of the Gulf spill, the NEB suspended the relief-well hearings and expanded its review to include all its safety and environmental-protection standards.

Digging a relief well would likely require companies to summon a new drillship to the remote waters of the Beaufort. But the briefing notes warn that the drillship most likely to be dispatched, the Kulluk ship owned by Shell, “may be limited to water depths of 400 feet (120 metres) or less.” Meanwhile, the harsh weather and ice conditions could delay the progress of a relief well, according to the notes.

They also caution that the Mackenzie Delta Spill Response Corp., a non- profit organization that would be called upon to help clean up a spill, has “no offshore capability.”

“Capabilities that existed in the 1970s and 1980s are no longer available due to the lack of oil activity in the Beaufort Sea,” the notes state.

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