Engineering expert raises concerns about BP drilling plan off Nova Scotia

An engineering expert who has investigated some of the most significant disasters in recent history says not enough is being done to mitigate potential risks for the exploratory drilling that BP Canada will carry out off Nova Scotia’s coast.

'I found that the likelihood of failure was a factor of 10 to 100 times higher'

A veteran investigator of engineering disasters says the risk assessment for BP's exploratory work off the coast of Nova Scotia is too low. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

An engineering expert who has investigated some of the most significant disasters in recent history says not enough is being done to mitigate potential risks for the exploratory drilling BP Canada will carry out off Nova Scotia's coast.

Bob Bea, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley and co-director of the Marine Technology and Management Group Center for Risk Mitigation, made the assessment in a recent op-ed for the National Observer.

Bea has spent decades studying and investigating engineering disasters, including BP's Deepwater Horizon, the space shuttle Columbia and Exxon Valdez.

Based on his viewing of the documents related to BP's plans for work 300 kilometres off Nova Scotia's coast, he said not enough has been done to bring risk levels as low as reasonably practical.

Not enough scrutiny applied

The risk assessment by BP of an uncontrolled blowout is "very optimistic," he said. The BP assessment didn't fully consider the nature of Nova Scotia's offshore environment, he said.

Part of Bea's review of the documents associated with the plan included doing his own work to determine the risk of an uncontrolled blowout.

"I used their same database to get it in an environmental setting that was appropriate for offshore Nova Scotia," he said in a phone interview Monday from his home in California. 

"Well, when I did that, I found that the likelihood of failure was a factor of 10 to 100 times higher."

Bea said his experience has shown him "the rates of trouble — accidents, failures — was certainly a function of the group or groups who were involved in the drilling operations."

He doesn't have faith the same level of scrutiny is applied to a project in Canada and the U.S. as would be if it were in the North Sea or off the coast of the United Kingdom.

"Those regulatory environments are extremely demanding, rigid, because they've come to understand an ounce of prevention is indeed worth one ton of cure."

'Continuous regulatory oversight'

The federal government ruled earlier this year the project is unlikely to cause adverse environmental effects.

Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency spokesperson Alison Reilander noted in an email that "the project will be subject to continuous regulatory oversight as well as compliance and enforcement."

Also in an email, Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board spokesperson Stacy O'Rourke said that before the board grants an approval, it "must ensure that the operator has properly identified all credible major hazards associated with carrying out the proposed activity, and that the risks associated with such have been properly assessed.

"The CNSOPB then ensures that the operator has identified all precautions that could reasonably be expected in order to mitigate these risks and their potential impacts."

Not following history

Part of Bea's career was spent working for oil companies as an employee and a consultant, including time on the Hibernia project off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, where there was a requirement for simultaneous relief well drilling as the primary drilling was taking place.

"When I saw [those requirements] missing here, I said again to myself, 'Holy crap, Bob, we're not in fact doing what history has told us was a good thing.'"

He's concerned a potential lack of experience with major disasters prevents agencies here from being sufficiently wary or cautious.

Safe operations are the priority

BP Canada spokesperson Anita Perry said in a statement the company has performed oil spill modelling as part of its spill impact mitigation assessment.

"These scenarios then formed the basis for developing the spill response strategy, which is the collection of spill response tactics that could be employed, if necessary, including when and where each tactic might be used."

Perry said safe operations are the company's priority.

"We only carry out operations where we are confident we can do so in a safe, secure and responsible manner. Drilling safely and spill prevention uses multi-layered barriers, focused on preventing major accidents including spills. Our barrier approach includes using trained and competent people, robust designs and appropriate equipment, clear contractor accountabilities, following the right standards and procedures to design and construct safe and reliable wells."

Considering human error

Bea said one of the major variables in any disaster is human error. He said more questions need to be asked about the people who will be working on the rig and their qualifications.

"That is crucial," he said. "No matter how good the equipment is, it can be undermined and it explodes."