Nfld. & Labrador

Of oil, ironies and contradictions

Azzo Rezori says it's not just the size of the GBS for the Hebron project that's making his head spin.
Reporters were taken on a tour of the Bull Arm fabrication site for the Hebron project 2:30

Imagine yourself on the deck of a tour boat on a sunny day in June, chugging quietly over the calm, sparkling water of a narrow stretch of Trinity Bay. 

Not far off, a small whale surfaces briefly then disappears again, over and over, as it feeds on things below.

One of the crew members mentions a group of seals which has been seen around, and a pair of bald eagles nesting on one of the cliffs just a shout or two away.

But that's not what we're here for. 

The boat we're on is a small ferry which shuttles workers to and from the floating concrete structure anchored in the deep channel of Bull Arm.

The people on board the ferry are not workers, but reporters on a tour of the Bull Arm offshore fabrication site. Our host is Geoff Parker of Exxon Mobil, senior project manager responsible for the construction of the gravity base structure for the Hebron offshore oil field.

Like a 'life-size Lego set'

We start circling the concrete mass. The 160 odd workers on it that day move over it like ants. The concrete they've already poured rises out of the water like the massive ramparts of a medieval fortress. Parker tells us what we're seeing is just the top one-third. The rest is submerged, iceberg-like. 

When completed, the gravity base structure will be a huge candlestick standing in 90 metres of water 350 kilometres southeast of St. John's, the base on the ocean floor, the thick shaft rising 120 metres past the surface, with the production platform safe and dry above the waves.

I keep thinking this is more than just another feat of modern engineering. It's a statement.

The construction effort around the whole thing is so huge, the only way at least two of us reporters could wrap our minds around it was by imagining it as a life-size Lego set.

That's one of the ironies and contradictions of this business of extracting oil from the ocean floor. Huge can get so overwhelming, your mind instinctively reduces things to toy size.

There are others as well. The timing, for example.

It took more than 30 years of waiting for the right moment to get the development of Hebron underway — three decades of sitting out economic downturns, of stick handling difficult politics, of constant corporate re-prioritizing. And just when the concrete started to flow — the bottom fell out of the global oil price.

The second-largest GBS ever built

Geoff Parker explains projects the size of Hebron allow for a wide range of fluctuating circumstances. In other words, the multi-billion-dollar investment in developing the field is still expected to pay off. It's just going to take a little longer than company shareholders might like. 

Geoff Parker is a senior project manager with Exxon Mobil. (CBC)
Still, even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers admits something's changed, and not just in the short-term.

Steaming oil from tar sands, fracking it out of shales, sucking it out of ocean floors thousands of feet below surface —none of that comes cheap. 

Global demand for energy is expected to keep growing, and Canada has the third-largest proven fossil fuel reserves in the world. But most of those reserves don't come out of the ground sweet and easy as they do in other parts of the world.

The concrete they've already poured rises out of the water like the massive ramparts of a medieval fortress.

"The sharp drop in world oil prices over the past year is slowing the growth of Canadian oil production over the next two decades," the association predicts in its 2015 industry forecast.

As we keep circling the floating construction site in Bull Arm, thick smoke belches briefly from its cement plant. Parker explains 50,000 cubic metres of concrete have already been poured, and that's little more than half of what's needed. We're looking at what will be the second-largest gravity base structure ever built.

I keep thinking this is more than just another feat of modern engineering. It's a statement.

A statement with which even Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had both to agree and to disagree. 

There are two Stephen Harpers

For the longest time he's been telling the rest of the world that, with its still untapped oil reserves, Canada is on the threshold of becoming an energy super power. Yet at the recent G7 summit in Germany, the rest of the world also forced him to admit that the time has come to join the shift towards cleaner sources of energy.

It's as if the leader of a nation, whose prosperity has been planned around manufacturing horse-drawn carriages, has finally accepted that the future lies with motor cars.

And if that's not confusing enough, there are actually two Stephen Harpers.

There's Stephen Harper up here who pulled Canada out of the Kyoto accord and recently ganged up with Japan to undermine a G7 declaration on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

There's the Stephen Harper down in the United States who is Intel's environmental guru and a board member of the Energy Foundation with its mandate to work "on practical solutions in the real world" towards a "prosperous and healthy future powered by clean, reliable, and secure sources of energy."

As we turn off our cameras, close our note books, and pull away from the the humming activity on the floating construction site in Bull Arm, it's not just the size of the project that makes my head spin.

About the Author

Azzo Rezori

Perspective

Azzo Rezori has been working with CBC News in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1987, and reports regularly for Here & Now and other broadcasts.

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