Shell's Stena IceMAX drillship.
Shell’s Stena IceMAX drillship.
Shell’s Stena IceMAX drillship.

“Only blind luck“ prevented what could have been significant damage to the marine environment and an oil well that Shell Canada was drilling in deep water 250 kilometers off the coast of Nova Scotia.

That’s the conclusion of John Davis, an activist with the Clean Ocean Action Committee of fishermen and environmentalists opposed to drilling on the Scotian Slope because of the threat to the rich fishing grounds. Davis made the comment to the Halifax Examiner following last week’s Canadian Press article on Shell Canada’s report to the Canada Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB) of the March 5 incident.

As detailed by reporter Michael Tutton, Shell described how during stormy seas, the Stella IceMax drillship was towing a huge piece of drilling equipment that had been disconnected from the well to protect the gear. A procedural error by crew (see the full description of the incident below) aboard the drillship led to dropping that 100-tonne piece of heavy equipment known as the Lower Marine Riser Package (LMRP), as well as a 20-tonne section of steel pipe. Both narrowly missed hitting the well’s Blow Out Preventer, the first line of defence against a potential spill.

“There is always a confluence of incidents that leads to a Black Swan event,” says Davis. “It usually starts with equipment failure, and then a circumstance involving weather or human error leads to losing control of the well. Despite all the assertions by the oil industry that it takes precautions and drilling offshore Nova Scotia is safe, last March it was only blind luck that two kilometres of pipe and 100 tonnes of heavy equipment just missed the Blow Out Preventer. If there’s a spill, the fishing industry is at stake and that risk isn’t acceptable.”

Source: Shell incident report to the CNSOPB
Source: Shell incident report to the CNSOPB

The incident report filed by Shell to the CNSOPB became public only after a Tutton uncovered it through a Freedom of Information request. The report by Shell contained new information that hadn’t been included in CNSOPB’s public statement of June 22, 2016.

In its public statement, CNSOPB had described the accidental release of the drilling equipment as “a serious incident” and “near miss,” noting that the LMRP fell with enough force to bury itself 22 meters from the Cheshire wellhead.

But the Shell report obtained by Tutton shows that the “near miss” was even nearer than described by the CNSOPB statement: a section of the two-kilometre pipe weighing about 20 tonnes had been spotted by a Remote Operated Vehicle a mere 12 meters from the Blow Out Preventer.

Asked why CNSOPB didn’t include the fact a 20-tonne chunk of drill pipe had settled even closer to the well’s Blow Out Preventer, Stuart Pinks, the CEO of CNSOPB, replied that “There was never any intention to hide anything or even a single discussion about leaving out that information.”

“In hindsight and from a public perception point of view, you’re right; We should have reported it,” he continued. “But from a regulator’s point of view, the exact distance was immaterial. We were concerned. This was a near miss, and our efforts were focussed on finding out what happened and making sure it didn’t recur. The pipe was of less concern to us than the potential impact from the much larger piece of drilling equipment.”

The Blowout Preventer is attached to the wellhead to keep control of the well and do exactly what its name suggests. This critical equipment has been beefed up since 2010, when BP lost control of its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico for several months with disastrous results — the gigantic Deepwater Horizon spill.

Both Shell and the CNSOPB reported that the Blow Out Preventer suffered no damage as a result of the falling heavy equipment, that the integrity of the well was never compromised, that no oil spilled, and that no one was injured.

Pinks says CNSOPB hired a consultant from Scotland and spent three months investigating the cause of the accident. He says the reason the retractable tensioner system aboard the ship let go and dumped the heavy drilling equipment to the ocean floor (where it remains today) was the result of “a knowledge gap with respect to operating procedures.” Both the regulator and Shell says those procedures have been reviewed, revised, clarified, and rehearsed.

A wave measuring nine metres was recorded on March 5. CNSOPB regulations at that time required gear to be unplugged whenever seas heaved beyond eight metres. So Shell disconnected its pipe and drilling equipment from the wellhead and began towing it behind the ship. Three months after the incident, as a condition of being able to resume drilling, CNSOPB initially required Shell to disconnect whenever waves measured five metres high.

But within a couple of months, the regulator raised the wave threshold to seven metres, in order to avoid forcing Shell to disconnect too often — always “a risky procedure” according to Pinks. The CEO says he is “confident” a similar incident could not take place again.

Environmentalists dispute that. Although Shell has since abandoned the Cheshire well because it did not produce commercial quantities of oil, the company has begun drilling a second prospect called Monterey Jack 120 kilometres from its first exploration attempt.

“Rogue waves are not infrequent on the Scotian Slope because they get amplified,” says John Davis. “I think a drill ship is inadequate for stormy conditions out there. They should be using a semi-submersible rig, which is more stable because its buoyancy point is below the water.”

Stuart Pinks says the size of the waves did not cause the accident and both drillships and semi-submersible rigs “are safe for use on the East Coast. Both have pros and cons.”

”It was much too close to a worst-case scenario happening,” was how the Ecology Action Centre’s Mark Butler described his response to the Shell report of the March 5 accident.

Not surprisingly, both Shell Canada and the offshore regulator disagree. Pinks says even if the Blow Out Preventer had been destroyed damaged* by a direct hit from falling pipe or equipment, the fact the well had been plugged and successfully tested before the drillship disconnected provided a second layer of security* the primary barrier to contain fluids within the well preventing the possibility of a spill — made mandatory since the fiery BP disaster in the Gulf.

Still, that’s a tough sell in a province so economically reliant on the fish sharing the same waters.

“I am exceptionally uneasy,” Davis says.  “These concerns are all very real.”

* After reviewing her notes, reporter Jennifer Henderson agreed to a change in this text at the request of Pinks.

Read Shell’s report of the incident here.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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