Part 4: Safety beneath the surface

Ashley
Ashley Fitzpatrick
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CNLOPB operations department watches underwater engineering, technology

From the drill floor (seen here at Hibernia) to the well bore, the mechanics of an oil and gas project offshore Newfoundland and Labrador typically have to span thousands of metres. Oversight of the mechanics and engineering falls to the CNLOPB operations department. — Submitted photo/ Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board file photo

Fourth in a six-part series

The trick to drilling for oil and gas offshore Newfoundland and Labrador is not the drilling, but the fact it is done deep below the ocean surface.

Operations offshore have been completed in anywhere from 80-2,600 metres of water — deep enough to stack four CN Towers, with room to spare.

As such, there are unique pressures and risks that have to be taken into account.

At the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB), the work plans, procedures and contingencies are reviewed to make sure the work meets legislative requirements and board-issued guidelines.

The CNLOPB’s new department of operations, under former chief safety officer Howard Pike, focuses on checking on some of the more technical aspects of the offshore projects. The department reviews — among a long list of items — engineering work, drilling plans and so-called “down-hole safety.”

 

The work had, until recently, been tied in with the board’s safety department. Following the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry, with the resulting recommendation that the board strengthen its safety arm, the operations department was formed as a separate entity.

“Dan (Chicoyne, chief safety officer) is focused on the people and we’re focused on the equipment side,” Pike said when asked about the change.

It does not mean safety is no longer a consideration for Pike, or for the the certification engineer and the two well operations engineers in the new department. “If there’s an incident in equipment, it can easily become an incident with personnel,” he said.

 

Step by step

While an operator might have an overall operating licence, each piece of drill work also requires a fresh review from Pike’s department and approval by the board.

Any proposal to drill a well — whether for exploration or production — needs to be considered individually, he said.

“They’re not cookie-cutter.”

A well site survey determines if there are any potential hazards in the proposed work area, such as big boulders on the ocean floor or “shallow gas” deposits in the work area.

Geotechnical work — looking closely at the makeup of the ocean floor in the area of interest — will help determine what underwater construction operations are appropriate.

“That’s when they do soil surveys. So before they put the Hebron GBS out there, they’re going to want to know what the seabed is like,” Pike said.

“Not unlike any building. Before they put this building in, they would have tested the soils to make sure they had the right strength and foundation — same principle.”

When an oil company requests an “approval to drill well” authorization (ADW), Pike’s department looks at blowout prevention equipment, the well casing and cementing program (reinforcement of the well and subsequent covering) and a “geologic prognosis.”

Documentation is reviewed by a litany of experts: well operation engineers, technologists, geologists, geophysicists, petrophysicists and environmental affairs officers.

 

Watching the work

Once an ADW authorization is given, the work of Pike’s department isn’t over.

“Communication is key in this piece,” he told The Telegram, noting daily reports on drilling and production are required by the board. “On a daily basis we are dialoguing.”

The department takes part in quarterly meetings with the operators, where concerns can be raised.

It monitors updates from third-party certifying authorities, evaluates drilling mud production and assists in investigating drilling mud spills.

Like all CNLOPB departments, it provides information used in government’s consideration of regulatory changes.

For example, new regulations on drilling and production were recently reviewed following the Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

“New regulations have no expiry date on the approval to drill a well,” Pike noted. The idea in making that change was to remove pressure that might otherwise cause an operator to rush well work. The regulations now focus on geological targets rather than time.

In addition, the deepest wells — including Chevron’s Lona O-55 well — have become subject to additional oversight.

The board, meanwhile, has a dedicated team reviewing the Macondo investigation findings for information potentially relevant to the local jurisdiction.

“We’ve got a fairly robust system to start with. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn,” Pike said.

 

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

 

Thursday: maximizing benefits

Organizations: Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Gulf of Mexico

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