Where the oil is: Drilling under the world's toughest conditions

The east coast of Newfoundland is arguably the most hazardous place on Earth to put in a day's work. But that's where the oil is.

"We are a seafaring people who have for centuries lived from the sea; people risking their lives every day to provide for their families and contribute to this province. And yet we will never, ever be able to accept the loss of precious lives to the sea." — Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, on the tragic loss of lives Thursday in an offshore helicopter crash.

The east coast of Newfoundland is arguably the most hazardous places on Earth  to put in a day's work. Considered the foggiest place on the planet (as much as 80 per cent of the time in the summer)  temperatures range from –8 C to a less than balmy 20 C in the summer. Winds howl at 37 km/h.  Slip and fall into the water and cool your core temperature to –3 C in moments.  And there are the icebergs to dodge.


East Coast hazards

  • Feb. 15, 1982: The Ocean Ranger rig sinks in a powerful winter storm, taking the lives of all 84 on board. 
  • Nov. 30, 1997: A gas leak forces the airlift evacuation of more than 100 workers from the Hibernia oil production platform.
  • Oct. 5, 1999: Production is stopped on Hibernia for three weeks following a small fire.

But that's where the oil is, so that's where the workers must go.  Helicopters have provided the quickest way to get them there, and until Thursday's fatal accident they had performed flawlessly.

The choppers take workers to the three main development fields off Newfoundland:  Hibernia, Terra Nova and White Rose. A relatively new field, Hebron, is under development. Nova Scotia operates the Sable Island field and the Deep Panuke project.

Newfoundland and Labrador's major fields have produced nearly one billion barrels of oil in about a dozen years.

Work on the Hibernia rig is typically 21 days on and 21 days off. There are berths for about 185 people. By no means are they all sailors and roughnecks. Hibernia is a giant industrial site, with caterers, engineers, cleaners and computer workers. Wages are good — between $40,000 and $100,000, depending on skills — and compensation for time away from home can amount to as much as two per cent of a worker's pay.
There are berths for up to 185 workers on the Hibernia rig, which has storage capacity of up to 1.3 million barrels of crude. ((CBC) )

Hibernia can produce as many as 230,000 barrels of oil a day, making it the most productive well in Canada. A fleet of tankers takes the oil to refinery at Come By Chance, but there is room on the rig to hold 1.3 million barrels of crude. 

Petro-Canada believes there are about 1.2 billion barrels of oil in the field, and expects Hibernia will be worked for another quarter century.

Since a royal commission recommended a significant overhaul in training and security procedures following the Ocean Ranger sinking in 1982,  work in this hazardous area has been remarkably safe.

It's located 350 kilometres east of St. John's in the Hibernia oilfield.

White Rose

Three Newfoundland oil fields are pumping oil, with the Hebron field under development. ((CBC))

Production began on the White Rose offshore oil field in 2005.

Unlike the Hibernia rig, both the White Rose and Terra Nova projects use a different technology, floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) — essentially a large ship that processes and stores the oil. It's an attractive technology for deep-water projects.

Husky Oil and Petro Canada run the project .

Both oil and gas are recovered from the field, and PetroCanada  believes the project can eventually produce 230 million barrels of oil. 

Terra Nova

The Terra Nova platform ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))
Discovered in 1984 by Petro-Canada, the company retains a one-third ownership of the project. Production began in January 2002.

Petro-Canada believes there are about  440 million barrels of recoverable oil in the field. 

Terra Nova also uses the FPSO technology to collect oil and can pump about 120,000 barrels a day.

Mechanical failures caused the ship to lose oil in 2004. Production was halted in 2006 when the ship went into dock for a refit.