Preparing for exploration drilling for oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea


The Environmental Impact Review Board (EIRB) is gaining a solid understanding of various facets of drilling operations in the Arctic offshore that will enable Members to meet the requirements of the EIRB’s responsibilities as defined in section 13 of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement.

In December 2013, the Inuvialuit Environmental Impact Screening Committee (EISC) referred a project description to the Inuvialuit Environmental Impact Review Board (EIRB) for drilling of exploration well(s) in the Canadian Beaufort Sea. In the project description Imperial Oil Recourses Ventures Limited (Imperial), on behalf of itself and its joint venture partners, proposes to drill one or more oil and gas exploration well in exploration licences 476 and 477 located about 175 km North – Northwest of Tuktoyaktuk in water depths ranging from 60 to 1500 m starting in the open water season of 2020. This referral for an offshore well is the first one since 1989 when Imperial, and its partners, drilled the Isserk I-15 well in the shallow waters (about 11 m) of the southern Beaufort Sea. It is also the first application for drilling an offshore well in the Canadian Arctic offshore since the catastrophic disaster at BP Macondo in April 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, sank with the loss of 11 lives, and resulted in about 5 million barrels (or about 780,00 m3of oil) being released by an out of control well in the Gulf of Mexico.

Soon after the EISC referral of the proposed project to the EIRB, and in preparation for the review of Imperial’s Environmental Impact Statement, expected in late 2015, the EIRB initiated an education program with focus on Arctic offshore drilling operations. The education program’s goal is to assist Members to meet the requirements of the EIRB’s responsibilities as defined in section 13 of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement. The education program is designed to be general in nature – not focused on a particular application, and broadly scoped so that Members and staff were aware of important aspects of exploratory drilling in deep waters (estimated to be in the 80 to 850 m water depths) in conditions unique to the Canadian Arctic offshore.

The education program’s objectives are to provide Members and staff with a solid understanding of various facets of drilling operation in the Arctic Offshore. The program elements include, but are not limited to, increasing knowledge and awareness of: drilling terminology, practices, and equipment; regulatory context and framework; oil spill preparedness and countermeasures; and information sources.

In the area of drilling terminology, practices, and equipment, EIRB Members and staff have taken an overview course on oil and gas operations (e.g., components of an offshore drilling system, how a well is designed, how a well is constructed, how integrity of a well is monitored, and what can be done in uncontrolled situations) with a focus on how such activities were conducted in the past in the Canadian Beaufort Sea; overview of the BP Macondo disaster and some key lessons learned from that event from internationally recognized expert who was the Chair of a commission looking at the root-cause of this disaster; observe components of a Blowout Preventer and how they work; and to see oil and gas companies’ real-time Operations centres where offshore wells are monitored by experts from shore based locations.

In the area of regulatory context and framework, Members and staff have had opportunities to understand and explore the role of the oil and gas regulator’s (the National Energy Board – NEB) legislation (Canada Oil and Gas Operations Act – COGOA) and regulations (Canada Oil and Gas Drilling and Production Regulations); NEB’s Arctic Offshore Drilling Review and its findings; and financial liability and responsibility requirements both under the Inuvialuit Final Agreement as well as under the COGOA and the recently passed Energy Safety and Security Act. Further EIRB Members and staff have had presentations and discussions with experts on administrative law, responsibilities of regulatory tribunals, and overview of public hearing.

On the subject of oil spill preparedness and countermeasures, Members and staff have participated in international conferences (Arctic oil Spill Conference 2014, International Oil Spill Conference 2014, Canada – United States Northern Oil and Gas Research Forum 2014, Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science conference 2015, and Beaufort Regional Environmental Assessment (BREA) Results Forum 2015) to learn from world leading experts. Members and staff engaged with source control and spill containment service providers and participated in discussions and received presentation by companies that do oil spill trajectory modelling as well as assess fate and behavior of oil in Arctic offshore conditions.

On the subject of information sources and baseline information on the physical, biological, and near-surface geology, EIRB Members and staff have had meetings and discussions from National Resources Council on the Beaufort Environmental Data Base – which includes important information of ice loads, ice conditions, and physical environmental conditions; the University of Calgary on the ASTIS – Arctic Science and Technology Information System – which houses nearly all the historical records, reports, and study results from oil activities n the Canadian Beaufort Sea from the 1970s and 1980s; and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development on BREA – a 4 year 22 M$ umbrella initiative that collected important regional baseline and historic information, and makes available via the Canadian Polar Catalog and the BREA data hosted by the Inuvialuit Game Council website.

The Members and staff education and development programs continues with sessions planned with the U.S. regulators on lessons learned from Shell’s Beaufort and Chukchi Sea drilling operations of 2012, the proposed revisions to the regulations announced in February 2015, and what the regulators would be doing in advance of, during, and post operations should Shell undertake a drilling program in the Chukchi Sea in the summer of 2015. Exploratory discussions have taken place with Norwegian regulatory agencies to leverage understanding on how safe operations can be conducted in the Barents Sea.

Sessions are also planned with world leading experts on the state of technology and capabilities for oil spill countermeasures in Arctic offshore conditions as well as in undertaking a Net Environmental Benefits Analysis to assess the benefits and consequences of the various oil spill countermeasure tools including spill treatment agents (dispersants) allowed under the Energy Safety and Security Act.

Staff continues to explore opportunities to board a modern dynamically positioned drillship (likely in the Gulf of Mexico as opportunities to witness Arctic offshore operations are not available) and see systems and practices in place for safe drilling while protecting the environment and to respond effectively when things go wrong. Finally, staff is pursuing opportunities to see how source control and containment equipment, that is positioned internationally, could work and be deployed in the event of an emergency in the Canadian Beaufort Sea as well as factors to be considered in developing costs for a worst-case scenario.

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