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Canada Gives Shell Permission to Leave Future Offshore Well Blowout Uncapped for 21 Days, the U.S. Gives 24 Hours

Canada’s Environment Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, gave Shell Canada up to three weeks to cap any subsea blowout that might result from future petroleum exploration off Nova Scotia’s South Shore. Similar legislation in the U.S. requires companies to cap a ruptured well within 24 hours.

The three-week time period is included in Shell Canada’s capping plan, a part of the company’s proposed Shelburne Basin Venture Exploration Drilling Project. Minister Aglukkaq green-lighted the project on June 15 following an assessment by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

Under the plan, a blowout would spill oil or gas into the ocean for up to 21 days before Shell would be required to have a capping stack or marine well containment system in place.

Capping stacks buy time for engineers to plan a permanent seal or a diversion of hydrocarbons at the site of a blowout. Because they can weigh 50 to 100 tons, transporting and maneuvering stacking caps to the site and onto a blowout can be time consuming and difficult.

Allowing Shell up to three weeks to contain a blowout means that the company does not have to retain the expensive capping equipment on shore in Nova Scotia or aboard a nearby vessel. Rather, Shell states in the assessment that the equipment can be deployed from Norway with backups in Scotland, South Africa, Brazil and Singapore.

Nova Scotia Decision Pending

John Davis, a photographer for National Geographic, is taking some credit for exposing this issue to public scrutiny and for forcing the regulator to defend its position rather than simply rubber-stamping the environmental assessment.

“We’ve called them on it,” said Davis in an interview with DeSmog Canada. Davis is also a concerned citizen with a lifetime of experience on the oceans as a former fisherman, fish plant owner and resident of Nova Scotia’s South Shore.

“The only good thing is we got them to say, ‘We are reviewing this and maybe something will change.’”

Stuart Pinks, CEO of the Canada Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board, the joint regulator of the industry in Nova Scotia waters, told the CBC in an August 6 interview he is still “knee deep” in the review of the Shell application.

In a statement posted to the regulator’s website the board notes it is conducting an “extensive review” of Shell’s proposed exploratory program and has yet to make a final decision based on the federal environmental assessment.

“The CNSOPB will only authorize Shell Canada’s proposed drilling program once it is satisfied that they are taking all reasonable precautions to ensure that the program proceeds safely and in a manner that protects the environment.”

Following the regulator’s interview with the CBC, Davis said, “Now they’re going to have to consider the environmental safety of the South Shore of Nova Scotia and the fishing industry and communities that exist there.”

Pinks claimed that blowouts are a rare occurrence and that a capping stack is just one piece of equipment among a whole set of systems and processes assessed for the prevention and mitigation of incidents like blowouts. “Blowout prevention would be the main line of defence,” said Pinks who was adamant that his board will require and review a well-capping plan.

In response, Davis pointed out that exploratory wells are particularly dangerous.

“The largest oil well spills are from exploration wells,” he said, citing recent accidents off Australia, the Caspian Sea and in the Gulf of Mexico with the Deepwater Horizon. Davis said the danger of blowouts in exploratory wells comes from the inability of oil companies to predict the backpressure of a well until a drill breaks into a reserve.

In 2010, the BP Deep Water Horizon platform exploded during a blowout that killed 11 workers and dumped 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico at enormous cost to wildlife, habitat and livelihoods. Crude flowed for 87 days before the well was finally sealed. A report in 2012 found that the well still leaks.

Davis is troubled by this recent history. “If you look at Deep Water Horizon, they were in about 1000 metres. Shell is going to be in about 3000 metres of water. [BP was] 80 or 90 kilometres offshore. Shell is going to be 250 kilometres offshore.”

“They are in deeper water, in environments that are much harsher, at the very edge of their technological capability.”

Contrasting U.S. Regulations

In comparison to the leeway granted Shell by the Canadian government, U.S. regulations require marine blowouts to be capped within 24 hours. To achieve this goal, companies need to keep stacking caps close to offshore wells.

For a marine drilling project off Alaska, Shell keeps a stacking cap aboard a nearby vessel as required by the American equivalent of the Canadian Department of the Environment.

Pinks said the Alaska comparison is not a fair one because ice can move in very quickly, making the presence of a capping stack nearby essential.

But Davis does buy Pinks’ claim: “He’s blowing smoke. Ice floats at the surface and the capping stack is at the sea floor. Shell knows when the ice is coming. The drilling stops well before any ice arrives at their site. That was a red herring. That was Mr. Pinks pretending that Alaska has a problem we don’t have here.” 

Pinks would not say whether or not the Shell Canada plan for the Shelburne Basin would require the presence of a stacking cap as in other jurisdictions around the world.

“We don’t look at each component in isolation,” he said.

Whatever equipment is brought into play, Davis is asking for one assurance. “Surely we can clean up oil in the offshore. That’s the simple request everyone on the South Shore should be making to our Minister of the Environment and to our Alberta-based, petrochemical government.”

Image: Shell

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When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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