Companies drilling in the Canadian Arctic Offshore must abide by the country’s policy requiring capability to stop a spill quickly by drilling a relief well in the same season that a blowout occurs, or demonstrate how they would meet or exceed the intended outcome of that policy, according to filing requirements issued Thursday by the National Energy Board (NEB).

“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,” NEB said. Applicants will be expected to make public their safety plans, contingency plans, emergency response plans (if they exist separately from other contingency plans) and environmental protection plans.

In its original form, adopted during northern Canadian gas and oil exploration waves in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the rule required drilling a second or relief well to intercept leaking oil or natural gas. Since the arctic offshore open-water working season is short, the requirement effectively meant having backup drilling hardware and personnel standing by or within immediate reach in case of emergency.

A new version of the rule keeps the intentions behind the requirement: to ensure that no blowout could keep spilling out oil or gas through the long Canadian arctic winter.

But subtle rewording opens a door for future consideration of technical alternatives. The revised arctic rule book will follow the Canadian board’s “goal-oriented” regulatory philosophy. It lets industry spell out methods for achieving objectives, as opposed to a “prescriptive” approach with rules that lay out all the details of hardware and operating procedures.

In its Arctic review the NEB concluded that the root cause of most offshore accidents “is the lack of a broadly shared safety culture. In other words, people don’t do what they are supposed to do.”

Northern residents who participated in the review process told NEB they wanted to be involved in future decisions about offshore drilling and preparing for drilling projects, including training for emergencies.

“During the Arctic review, industry representatives acknowledged northern residents’ concerns and committed to engaging communities in more meaningful ways, as early as possible in their planning processes,” NEB said. “They also spoke of developing and offering appropriate training opportunities to northerners to help prepare them for employment and business opportunities.”

There is currently no offshore drilling in Canada’s Arctic, and there are no applications for drilling before the NEB. Companies that hold exploration licenses in the Beaufort Sea would need to respond to the new filing requirements in their applications, NEB said. Chevron Canada recently disclosed that preparations are under way for a new foray into the Beaufort Sea, though it predicted that the earliest possible time for a rig capable of enduring the rigors of Beaufort operations to go to work is likely 2017 (see NGI, Oct. 3).

Sporadic demands for a moratorium or outright ban against any industry operations in Canada’s share of the polar seas tapered this year after peaking during the prolonged Macondo oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM). But pressure from international eco-interest groups to be especially tough on arctic drilling has continued, with the environmentalists saying any accidents are bound to be worse and have longer-lasting effects in cold climates than in the Gulf of Mexico.

The latest appeal, seeking a freeze on mineral rights leasing and consideration of drilling applications, arrived in Ottawa during September from Oceans North Canada, which is supported by the Pew Environment Group in the United States.

Much of the industry’s participation in the Arctic drilling safety review centered on overhauling the relief-well rule. Adjustments to allow a potential range of new hardware, engineering and management approaches were sought by lineup of companies with extensive offshore mineral rights holdings such as Imperial Oil, Chevron Canada, BP plc and ConocoPhillips.

The NEB stopped well short of rejecting the idea that there may be more than one way to kill a runaway northern well quickly. “We acknowledge that there is a continual evolution of technology worldwide, including the technology needed to kill an out-of-control well. We are open to changing and evolving technology.”

The Canadian inquiry arctic offshore drilling safety began months before the Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The Canadian case started out as a technical review of a request by Imperial to substitute new emergency hardware and methods for the same-season relief well requirement.

Similar recommendations were made by other arctic mineral rights holders and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The companies in recent years acquired large Beaufort rights spreads. The price, paid through a Canadian lease auction system, was commitments to pour more than C$1 billion (U.S. dollar at par) into exploration.

The next generation of Canadian arctic offshore drilling is in planning stages, with the companies designing jumbo vessels and enlarged hardware to venture into deep water. The plans call for drilling in Beaufort waters up to 1,200 meters (3,960 feet) deep. Exploration wells are projected to reach targets more than 5,000 meters (16,500 feet) beneath the sea floor.

While the Canadian arctic is well known to be gas-prone, Mackenzie Delta and shallow-water Beaufort discoveries have been rich in liquid byproducts and the region’s oil potential remains far from fully explored.

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