Eight large sections of Styrofoam are adrift at sea — and there's no plan to recover them.

The abandoned floats broke loose from a pipe used for drilling operations, following an incident earlier this month that has suspended Shell Canada's search for oil off Nova Scotia's coast.

"Until such time as the board is satisfied that operations can proceed safely, drilling will remain suspended," said Kathleen Funke, spokesperson for the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB).

On March 5, weather conditions deteriorated near Shell Canada's newest exploratory well — named Cheshire — approximately 225 kilometres off the coast.

Stena IceMAX, Shell oil drilling ship off Nova Scotia

Crews aboard the Stena IceMAX drill ship disconnected a roughly 2,000-metre pipe from the subsea well head and began moving the pipe away. (Kongsberg Maritime AS)

Crews aboard the Stena IceMAX drill ship disconnected a roughly 2,000-metre pipe from the subsea well head and began moving the pipe away.

In the high seas, the long pipe — called a riser by offshore industry officials — broke loose from the ship.

Beneath the surface, the well's blowout preventer had already engaged and the riser had been flushed with water, so no oil or drilling fluid escaped. 

However, the riser is still currently lying on the ocean floor.

After the riser sank, Shell workers noticed nine "buoyancy modules" bobbing on the surface, a spokesperson for the CNSOPB confirmed Monday afternoon. The board is responsible for overseeing exploratory and resource recovery operations off the coast, on behalf of the federal and provincial governments.

'Significant effort to retrieve' buoyancy modules

The buoyancy modules are mostly Styrofoam with some plastic components. They are designed to hug the riser, offset its weight, and make it easier for surface crews to manage the heavy pipe.

Shell Canada made "a significant effort to retrieve" the modules, said Kathleen Funke, a spokeswoman for the CNSOPB. She said the company used planes and ships to search for the long Styrofoam segments.

Only one of the nine Styrofoam modules was retrieved.

'The risks outweigh the benefits of retrieving them.' - Kathleen Funke

The search has now been called off and the eight remaining modules are floating away in the Atlantic Ocean.

Initially posed navigation risk to ships

The CNSOPB says Shell officials immediately notified the Canadian Coast Guard when the modules broke loose from the riser. The Coast Guard issued a notice to mariners, warning about the floating segments. Each measures a few metres long.

Both the CNSOPB and Shell Canada say the logistics of the search are making it too risky to continue. Each day, ocean currents expand the size of the search area and push it further out to sea. The warning to mariners has also now been lifted.

Officials say, over time, the Styrofoam sections will "weather". That's how the industry describes the Styrofoam breaking down in ocean currents.

Facts about Shell Canada's Nova Scotia operation:

  • Exploratory wells approved in October 2015.
  • Cheshire well is the first of two.
  • 7,532 metres: Goal depth for Cheshire well.
  • 6,700 metres: Depth reached by March 5.
  • Nine buoyancy modules initially afloat.
  • One module recovered.

Shell Canada has been investigating how the riser broke loose from the surface ship. The CNSOPB is closely monitoring the investigation, and says it will not let operations resume until it's complete. 

The board says the company will also have to present a plan for how it can safely resume operations.

The Cheshire exploratory well is the first of two that Shell Canada has approved to drill off Nova Scotia's coast over the next few years. Officials have said they hope to find oil beneath the surface.

If any hydrocarbons are found, the company will need to apply to the CNSOPB for a "significant discovery" licence to ramp up its offshore infrastructure. Shell would also need to acquire a production licence before it could begin extracting resources.

There is no timeline for the resumption of Shell's operations off Nova Scotia's coast.