Rockets and oil platforms

April 25, 2005
Earlier this month, Canadian news media began to report a threat to oil and gas facilities on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and Labrador.

Earlier this month, Canadian news media began to report a threat to oil and gas facilities on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and Labrador. The US Air Force Space Command planned to launch what is to be the last Titan IVB rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The flight path follows the Atlantic seaboard, and engineers warn that a 10,000-ton solid rocket booster section will fall in a launch hazard area near the Hibernia platform; the Terra Nova floating production, storage, and offloading unit; and a semisubmersible drilling at White Rose.

The initial launch date, Apr. 11, has been postponed several times, apparently due to problems with ground equipment.

The unmanned Titan IVB rocket is to carry a SIGINT (signal intelligence) payload, in this case a satellite for the US National Reconnaissance Office, the agency responsible for classified intelligence-gathering spacecraft.

In a speech to the Canadian Parliament on Apr. 7, Canadian Defense Minister Bill Graham noted, “The Hibernia platform is stationary.... It can’t move the way ships can to get out of the area.” He also pointed out that there would be an “ecological catastrophe” for Canada if rocket debris fell on the Hibernia oil platform, which produces 200,000 b/d of light, sweet crude and keeps up to 1.3 million bbl in reserve.

Canadian response

Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams called for the US to change the flight path.

Simone Keough, manager of communications for the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NOPB), told OGJ that the Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada agency, based in Ottawa, has been coordinating Canada’s response to the situation.

C-NOPB met with the three operators of Hibernia, Terra Nova, and White Rose and on Apr. 7, announced an evacuation of all personnel prior to the launch, beginning with Hibernia. C-NOPB’s acting Chair and CEO Fred Way said the actions were “precautionary” as debris from the launch may fall within 15 nautical miles (27 km) of the Hibernia platform.

Hibernia’s drilling and production facility is a 450,000-tonne gravity base structure with a 105.5-m concrete caisson reinforced with steel rods. A 1.4-m-thick ice wall, consisting of 16 concrete teeth, surrounds the caisson. The structure has two platform drilling rigs: M71 (East) and M72 (West). About 235-245 people work on the platform.

Hibernia Management & Development Corp. manages the installation on behalf of ExxonMobil Canada Ltd., ChevronTexaco Corp., Petro-Canada, Murphy Oil Corp., the government of Canada (Canada Hibernia Holding Corp., CHHC), and Norsk Hydro ASA.

The Terra Nova FPSO is operated by Petro-Canada and has 80 staff working at any given time. Production began in January 2002 and is now about 150,000 bo/d, according to Natural Resources Canada.

White Rose, the province’s third field, is to begin production later this year. It’s operated by Husky Energy Inc. The GSF Grand Banks semisubmersible has resumed drilling at White Rose field, following a 26-bbl spill of synthetic-based drilling mud on Apr. 4. The rig is staffed with about 100 people.

Total evacuation of the three facilities would be more than 400 people.

Staff at the Canadian Space Agency told OGJ that the US Air Force provided results of its trajectory analyses to the Canadian federal government and that the CSA was part of the working group that evaluated the probability of risk, based on those analyses.

The working group included various Canadian agencies as well as stakeholders in each of the projects on the Grand Banks. The group was briefed in Nova Scotia on Apr. 9 and came up with an independent risk assessment of the threat to oil and gas installations off Newfoundland and Labrador. The possibility of space debris hitting a particular platform was estimated to be one in a trillion. The evacuation was subsequently canceled.

The launch

Nevertheless, C-NOPB’s chief safety officer, Howard Pike, plans to be onboard Hibernia during the launch.

Pundit David Malott, in Canada’s Globe and Mail on Apr. 15, wrote, “I think we should accept the assessment by US missile experts about the vulnerability of the Hibernia oil platform during the proposed Titan IV launch. Their lack of success in testing their missile-defense shield has provided them with the confidence to conclude that they won’t hit an oil platform either.”