Nova Scotia

Shell's offshore gear failure could create 'artificial reef'

Shell Canada must decide whether to retrieve or abandon a two-kilometre pipe it accidentally dropped off the coast of Nova Scotia, and present its choice to the offshore regulator for approval.

Company accidentally dropped 2-km pipe off the coast of Nova Scotia

Shell Canada accidentally dropped a piece of gear called a riser to the ocean floor. A replacement riser, shown here, was purchased and delivered to the Halifax waterfront before it was deployed at sea. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Shell Canada has a decision to make. 

The offshore oil and gas company must decide whether to retrieve or abandon a two-kilometre pipe it accidentally dropped off the coast of Nova Scotia, and present its choice to the offshore regulator for approval.

A new report offers the first official third-party overview of what's at stake.

The report was prepared by Stantec Consulting Ltd. to compare the environmental effects of two options for the pipe: leave it or retrieve it.

Information, not recommendations

The report lists the pros and cons of each option.
The sea floor near the fallen riser has relatively low "overall diversity and abundance of species," the report states. This image is one of many included in the report, showing a sandy bottom with very few examples of sea life. (Stantec Consulting Ltd.)

Retrieving the pipe, known in the industry as a riser, means cutting it into pieces, digging into the sand beneath each piece, attaching a strap and hauling it to the surface.

The whole process could take up to six months, the report estimates. It could take an additional month to retrieve a specialized connector, called a "lower marine riser package".

While this option removes the riser from the ecosystem, there's a risk that cutting it into pieces could release floating debris that would likely be lost at sea.

The alternative is to abandon the riser.

This would leave the sea floor undisturbed, but adds the unpredictable potential of the equipment breaking apart or coming loose over time.

According to the report, one minor benefit to abandoning the riser would be "creating an artificial 'reef effect' in an area otherwise generally devoid of hard substrate."

No decision, no timeline

This report is the first piece of information in what will be a lengthy process.

"The eventual fate of the riser remains under review," Kathleen Funke, spokesperson for the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB), said in an email yesterday.

"A definitive timeline for a decision has not been established," she said.

Environmental impact is just one of many factors that Shell Canada and the board must consider.

They will also assess risks to safety of personnel, and consult with other federal departments who may have shared jurisdiction over this incident.

For example, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans may have specific concerns under the Fisheries Act.

Millions at stake

The other factor for Shell Canada is cost. 

The company will have to weigh the loss an expensive piece of equipment against the cost of hiring a specialized ship and crew to retrieve it. Both price tags could be in the tens of millions of dollars. 

A representative of Shell Canada confirms the company is still assessing its options and considering its next steps.

This incident began in March.

In rough weather, the riser broke free from a surface ship and fell to the bottom.

As it landed, it snaked back and forth around the well head but did not cause a leak or any damage to the equipment installed on the ocean floor.

That exploratory well has recently been shut down, with Shell Canada saying it did not find a commercial quantity of oil and gas.

The company will continue with its approved plan of drilling a second exploratory well 120 kilometres from the first one.

Shell Canada's competitor, BP, will begin its offshore exploration process in 2018.

About the Author

Brett Ruskin

Reporter/Videojournalist

Brett Ruskin is a reporter and videojournalist covering everything from local breaking news to national issues. He's based in Halifax.