If there is ever a deepwater oil blowout, help could be weeks away

A device used to cap deepwater oil blowouts would have to be shipped in from Norway, according to documents filed by Statoil.

Equinor documents say a capping stack could take between 18 and 36 days to arrive

Statoil contracted the West Hercules, a deepwater rig designed for harsh conditions, for explorations in the Barents Sea. (Statoil/Canadian Press)

It could take weeks to get a disaster-stopping piece of equipment to Newfoundland and Labrador in the event of a subsea oil blowout, according to documents filed by Statoil, now known as Equinor, the company behind the province's first foray into deepwater oil development.

Documents filed by the company to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency in relation to an application for exploratory drilling projects in the Flemish Pass, near the newly-announced Bay du Nord project, indicate that if a well blew, a capping stack — a device used to reign in blowouts — would have to be shipped in from Norway or Brazil.

"Statoil's [Environmental Impact Statement] indicates that the capping of a well is estimated to take between 18 and 36 days," the document reads.

"A conservative estimate for a capping operation, including mobilization, installation offshore and capping operations, is estimated to take 36 days," it says.

Several other companies, including BP, Husky and ExxonMobil, are also exploring deepwater prospects in the province and face similar challenges bringing in capping stacks to stop blowouts.

Capping stack ended Deepwater Horizon spill

A capping stack is a special device used to divert or contain a leaking subsea well. It was a capping stack that was finally able to stop the 87-day gush of oil from a blown-out subsea well during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, recognized as one of the most disastrous oil spills in U.S. history.

The explosion at British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon offshore rig in April 2010 killed 11 workers and injured 17 others. (U.S. Coast Guard/Associated Press)

In 2015, Shell Canada proposed a deepwater drilling project off Nova Scotia, with an estimated timeline of between 12 and 21 days to cap a blowout. The Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board made Shell reduce that window to between 12 and 13 days, despite demands from environmental groups that the standard be set to one day.

Equinor Canada is leading the Bay du Nord deepwater oil project, championed as the province's first deepwater oil development project, along with Husky Energy in the Flemish Pass Basin, in water more than a kilometre deep about 550 kilometres off the coast of St. John's. 

The company will be filing a separate environmental impact statement to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency for the Bay du Nord development, and a spokesperson for Equinor Canada said the company doesn't expect the timeline for the capping device's delivery and installation to change. 

An official with the Newfoundland & Labrador Oil & Gas Industries Association points to the location of the Bay du Nord oil discovery on an exploration map. The location is a three-hour helicopter ride from St. John's. (Ted DIllon/CBC)

Equinor and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced an agreement to develop the Bay du Nord project in July. It's expected to be sanctioned in 2020.

Bay du Nord area not well understood

It's a volatile, complicated area of the sea, and a confluence of a number of strong currents, according to Brad de Young, a physical oceanographer at Memorial University.

"It's a complex region with strong surface currents, so maintaining position for an offshore platform there would be, and has been, a challenge," he said. "If there were a spill ... it's like releasing oil in the middle of an intersection."

"It's not a region that one has a great deal of kind of oceanographic confidence in," he added, noting that the present scientific understanding of how the currents interact is "not so perfect."

Brad de Young is an oceanographer with Memorial University of Newfoundland, in St. John's. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Strong, kilometre-deep currents don't help things in deepwater spills, de Young said, which pose completely different problems than spills in shallower water.

When a line or a well leaks far beneath the sea, the oil can stay under the water for long periods of time, making it impossible to track or clean up, he said. 

"Not knowing where it is and not being able to recover it means you don't really know where it ends up or what damage it's doing."

Producing oil at depths beyond a kilometre is a practice only a decade or two old, de Young said, which means there are still a lot of unknowns to grapple with. And the further down we go, he said, the farther away we move from the historical expertise of oil companies.

"The culture of oil development for oil companies is much more land-focused than it is marine-focused," he said. 

"They're not like fishermen who ... have this experience and awareness of the ocean kind of built into their genes. When you talk to oil companies, you get that understanding that the ocean for them is a real nuisance and it's not something they're particularly interested in. It's something that's in the way of them getting out their oil."

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