As the 2010 BP plc Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico fades from memory, Canadian authorities say they are willing to consider dropping a decades-old safety requirement for the next northern offshore drilling campaign.
In Inuvik on the Mackenzie Delta, the Inuvialuit Environmental Impact Review Board (IERB) agrees with the National Energy Board (NEB) in the industry capital of Calgary that a new approach may be needed to enable an Arctic exploration revival. The consensus on keeping the regulatory mind open surfaced in responses from both agencies to a plan by Imperial Oil, ExxonMobil and BP to venture farther out into deeper, water of the ice-infested Beaufort Sea than drilling ever reached before.
A 455-page project description by senior consortium partner and operator Imperial calls for the new Arctic exploration to start at a site called Ajurak, 125 kilometers (75 miles) northwest of Tuktoyaktuk, where the Beaufort is up to 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) deep.
The old safety standard -- "single-season relief well capability," or assurance that a second well can be drilled to siphon off a blowout before the end of a summer work season when an accident happens -- is unrealistic for the new exploration, the plan said.
"A relief well might be started in the same season [as a blowout], but it could not be finished in the same season," say the companies.
In the new target area, air temperatures average 10 degrees C (50 degrees F) during the warm months of the 24-hour midnight sun. The Beaufort heats up just enough to break up and thin out the Arctic ice pack. But winters, including long spells of darkness at noon, average minus 27 degrees C (minus 17 degrees F). Seawater congeals into mobile floes of variable thickness formed by complex interactions of winds, currents and waves. Even mighty icebreaker ships can be overwhelmed.
"If a relief well is required it would take longer than drilling the original well," say the companies.
"The relief well would have a longer wellbore; it would need to be drilled from a location other than the original wellbore," said the Arctic deepwater exploration proposal. "The relief well would be a directional well. The additional surveys and directional accuracy required to drill a relief well result in slower drilling progress."
On paper, the NEB retained the relief well requirement after a review of Canadian offshore exploration regulations that included study of BP's 2010 Gulf of Mexico blowout, encouraged by public and environmentalist participation.
But fine print in the inquiry report opened a path to change. The board said, "An applicant wishing to depart from our policy would have to demonstrate how they would meet or exceed the intended outcome of our policy. It would be up to us to determine, on a case-by-case basis, which tools are appropriate for meeting or exceeding the intended outcome of the same season relief well policy."
Imperial, ExxonMobil and BP have filed formal notice with the NEB and the EIRB that they intend to follow the cue in the inquiry report by presenting proof that the old safety rule can be replaced without heightening risks of blowouts. The deep sea drilling consortium seeks "an equivalent approach based on best available technology which includes incident prevention, containment and response plans." Another group that holds Beaufort deepwater drilling rights, led by Chevron Canada, has notified the NEB of similar intentions.
The NEB has responded with an invitation for Imperial to submit a complete proposal, suitable for public review that includes "engineering design, safety, and environmental effects considerations" and a suggested regulatory review procedure.
The EIRB likewise does not rule out considering a replacement for the traditional safety rule. The northern agency has invited the Imperial group to provide "a full description of the alternative and its anticipated performance in the event of a spill and a demonstration of how the proposed approach would achieve the desired outcome, particularly in adverse environmental conditions that may be worsening and reaching the operating limits of the drilling system."
The oil and gas producers' schedule sets a 2020 target date for their first Beaufort deepwater well, giving them time to assemble a mini-armada of ice-strengthened vessels built to higher standards than fleets that operated in the shallows in the 1970s and 1980s.
The deepwater Beaufort plan has to date been advanced in a low-key fashion, with no news releases, industry conference presentations or public objection by Canadian environmental and aboriginal groups. But the case has attracted eco-critic attention from the United States, where the Natural Resources Defense Council has stepped forward to participate in early debates over the scope of the forthcoming EIRB assessment.
The NEB has provided an early clue to future requirements by posting a recommended "safety culture" code for pipelines and all other aspects of industry under its jurisdiction. The code, rooted in 2010 inquiry findings that human error has often been a big factor in offshore disasters, require companies to demonstrate they not only own safety hardware but are committed to using it without regard to costs.