Shell incident puts Nova Scotia's offshore regulator in the spotlight

International regulators seeking insights and information from Nova Scotia about Shell's dropped riser

By Brett Ruskin, CBC News

Posted: Oct 04, 2016 1:05 PM AT Last Updated: Oct 04, 2016 1:05 PM AT

Offshore petroleum regulators from around the world have contacted Nova Scotia's regulatory board, seeking its input and insights following a rare incident earlier this year.

On March 5, a two-kilometre pipe broke loose from a Shell Canada-contracted surface ship drilling approximately 225 kilometres from Halifax and fell to the ocean floor.

The incident was so unprecedented that offshore regulators from other countries have requested meetings with representatives from the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB).

"To sit down and explain to them what happened," said Stuart Pinks, CEO of the offshore board, "so they too can learn."

Regulators from 10 different countries will meet this month at the annual International Regulators' Forum conference.

The Nova Scotia regulator had planned to deliver a fairly standard update, but after the March incident, it has much more to talk about.
Shell's riser took 'days' to fall

It was initially assumed the two-kilometre pipe (called a "riser" by industry officials) quickly landed on the ocean floor.

However, the specialized equipment weighing hundreds of tonnes — and costing millions of dollars — slowly sank to the bottom, according to information shared by Nova Scotia's offshore regulator.

In fact, the riser took "a number of days" to settle on the sea floor, said Kathleen Funke, a spokesperson with the CNSOPB.

Big as a school bus, and twice as heavy

Each section of riser is at least 13 metres long and weighs at least 26,000 kilograms. That's approximately the length of an average school bus and twice its weight.

More than 100 of these sections were bolted together to stretch from the surface down to a wellhead on the sea floor.

Two days after the riser released, officials witnessed sections still settling at the bottom.

Could there have been an oil spill?

"Was there a significant risk of a spill?" said Pinks, head of the regulatory board. "The answer is an emphatic 'no.'"

The riser sections had no oil inside when they disconnected from the surface ship.

According to a new Shell report, they fell within 12 metres of the blowout preventer (BOP), which sits atop the wellhead.

The blowout preventer is a heavily fortified piece of equipment weighing 235 tonnes and rising three-storeys above the sea floor.

"It is an extremely robust piece of equipment that sits on the sea floor," Pinks said.

Even if a riser section had slowly dropped on the blowout preventer, and even if it had been damaged somehow, there is a plug installed inside the section of pipe buried beneath the sea floor.

That plug "is the primary seal for the well and would prevent any flow of hydrocarbons to the surface," Funke said. "The BOP is there as a secondary seal only."

Most importantly, there may not have been oil in the well at all.

Shell Canada has now abandoned the exploratory site, saying there were not "commercial quantities of hydrocarbon" discovered.

Worldwide interest in this 'very rare' incident

What happened to Shell Canada rarely happens to any offshore petroleum company.

"This incident is something that other industry players and other regulators can learn from," Funke said.

Shell Canada is still studying its options for dealing with the riser. A recent environmental report suggested that leaving the pipe at the bottom could create a form of artificial reef.

The other alternative is to remove the riser, piece by piece. That process could take more than six months.

Once a plan it formulated, it will be presented to the regulatory board, which has final say over how the company can proceed.
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