Forging a Legacy

Far North Oil & Gas Spring 2006

One cool September evening last year, Murray Todd was strolling on the St. John’s dock as he often did after dinner. But this time he spotted a ship that stopped him abruptly. “It was painted jet black and I thought this boat really looks familiar,” says the former president of Canadian Marine Drilling (CANMAR), a subsidiary of Dome Petroleum in the 1970s and 1980s. “I walked up and down alongside it a few times and a sailor yells ‘what are you doing down there?’ I looked up and just then I could see, painted over, was CANMAR Supplier IV—it was one of the supply boats we had built.”

CANMAR Supplier IV was the fourth in a series of eight Arctic Ice Class II supply boats designed and built specifically for Beaufort Sea drilling in the1970s by CANMAR. It’s just one of the thousands of technological innovations driven by the push to find petroleum resources in the Beaufort Sea and arctic islands from the 1960s to the 1980s.

It was a time when no one had ventured into such a harshly frigid climate to search for oil, to deal with continuously moving ice cover, massive pressure ridges and rubble fields. Technology had to start from scratch and keywords were innovation and money. Innovation from engineers and technologists and money from substantial grants, allowances and tax benefits from the federal government’s National Energy Program. Together with a good measure of balls and determination, it made Canada the leader in arctic drilling technology.

A summary published by the Arctic Petroleum Operators’ Association in May 1977 listed no fewer than 136 arctic research projects under way at the time. Ranging from studies of ice island scouring to large-wheeled low pressure vehicles to mobile arctic ice chippers, one even examined the feasibility of destroying massive ice islands with high explosives.

Todd is now president and chief executive officer of Canada Hibernia Holding Corporation and he says at first the technology “was pretty primitive to say the least.” The first arctic well was a land well drilled by Dome Petroleum on King Christian Island in 1961. Apart from the logistics challenge, “it wasn’t much different from drilling anywhere,” he says.

However, seismic traces were telling a tantalizing story of potentially vast petroleum resources under the ocean. Ways had to be found to drill the Beaufort Sea floor. “So then you had a whole new series of additional challenges,” says Todd. First came ice islands, in areas of land-fast ice. “Up where the ice is anchored between the islands you can be assured it doesn’t move,” says Todd. “You flood the ice with water to get a platform strong enough to hold the drilling system. It was similar to the rough technology still used to build ice roads.” But ice islands were limited to the winter months and areas of fast ice, making for a short and area-specific drilling season.

In the shallower waters of the Mackenzie delta, gravel islands proved to be a good alternative approach. Imperial Oil, whose leases were concentrated in the delta, first applied a technology they had developed at Norman Wells building artificial islands in the middle of the Mackenzie River. Imperial pioneered the dredging technology, later employing several new techniques like dredges to suck up gravel from the sea floor, store it in the hull, and dump it out over the drillsite.

Ice islands or gravel islands, “you had two technologies converging,” says Todd. “The first [gravel] islands were in just 10-12 feet of water, which was relatively simple. But once people started pushing farther and farther off shore to 40 or 50 feet deep, they ran into other limitations. You’re out in what’s called the transition zone—where it doesn’t freeze solid and the ice is continually moving, and further north you’re out into the polar pack ice. The island technology went out to about the transition zone but it wouldn’t stand the moving ice.”

The push for deeper sea technology was boosted with Dome’s commitment to buy leases out in the deeper water. “The technology wasn’t there to drill on those leases at that time,” recalls Todd. “Our leases were in water over 60 feet, so you had to drill from a floating vessel. So Dome’s first move was to build some ice-reinforced drill ships. These were for the summer and in the fall you’d move off once the ice began to form.”

In 1976 the first three arrived: Explorer, Explorer II and Explorer III. These weren’t originally designed as drill ships, rather ordinary ships that were extensively modified for arctic waters: reinforced hulls, special thrusters and mooring systems that could be quick-disconnected if ice threatened. For support, four new icebreaker supply ships arrived to tender and handle anchors as well as a unique duty: ice management.

“Definitely the biggest challenge was dealing with the ice,” says Todd. Along with larger icebreakers the support ships would smash ice flows into smaller bits upstream of the drill ship. Still, the drill season was just too short to be cost-effective. It was costing a million dollars a day, and those were 1976 dollars. The season just had to be extended—especially considering that once production started, year round activity would be needed to provide the cash flows.

It became clear that a new icebreaker design was in order. Based on research data including those from Hans Island (see sidebar) CANMAR set to work and designed the revolutionary Kigoriak. Designed with a spoon-shaped bow to break ice by riding up onto it and crushing it rather than the traditional brute pushing force, it also had another first—a single, variable-pitch shrouded propeller that improved drive efficiency by 30 per cent. And a breakthrough ‘hull wash’ technology that sprayed water ahead to lubricate the ice.

“You put all these different technologies together and all of a sudden you find you can build ships that can very predictably perform under the very worst of ice conditions and that the power required for these ships is much less than previously thought,” says Todd. “We demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt the feasibility of sailing through the Northwest Passage 12 months of the year.” Kigoriak became the model for many subsequent CANMAR icebreaker designs as well as Gulf Canada’s Terry Fox and Kalvik.

Gulf had entered the fray in 1981 with its subsidiary, Beaudril. The company was aiming to extend the drill season too. Based on some CANMAR drill ship experience along with the new icebreaker technology, Beaudril designed and built the Kulluk, a floating drill platform with eight sides that could break ice from all directions.

Each side of the Kulluk was based on a CANMAR hull design. The concept was the same, but instead of the vessel moving to break the ice, the ice moved against the vessel. As a result the Kulluk needed less icebreaker support than Dome’s drill ships. It could operate from May through December.

In the quest for year-round drilling and reduced costs, the next step was bottom-founded systems. Initially berms were built up to three to nine metres below the surface and a portable, reusable steel or concrete caisson placed on top. The first test came in 1981 at Dome’s Tarsuit location which had looked promising under earlier drill ship activity. Although delayed by some late-season storms and teething problems, the company felt it was a success.

Imperial Oil followed in 1982 with their own design, the Caisson Retained Island, a six-sided steel structure with sloping sides and a sand-filled core. Learning from these two company experiences, Beaudril then designed their own bottom-founded platform, the Molikpaq, the significant difference of which was a single-piece caisson in place of the other designs’ multiple sections.

In the meantime, the quest to reduce costs even further by eliminating the berm prompted design work on the state-of-the-art SSDC (Single Steel Drilling Caisson) by CANMAR. It was a creative recycling approach. The stern was cut off a retired VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier), and its bow reinforced with concrete for ice resistance. Drilling equipment was mounted on deck amidships. Towed from Japan to the Beaufort, the SDCC commenced its first well in 1982. The intention was to ballast it to sit on the sea bottom but because the hull was originally stressed for ship loads, such “point loading” could cause it to fail and split in two. The need for a continuous flat surface was solved by a unique method of sand injection into the low points of the sea bed.

Preparing a perfectly flat sea bed however soon proved too exacting, so in 1986 along came a better idea: a permanent steel berm called the MAT that would sit on the sea floor with high density polyurethane foam ensuring an exact fit to eliminate the stress concerns. The whole package could be floated to location, operate in deeper waters and hold 200,000 tons, as well as extend the depth capability from 10 to 25 metres, where it drilled several successful wells.

The technological advances didn’t forget the environment—dealing with a possible oil spill was always a concern. “The first thing we needed to understand was the behaviour of an oil spill,” says Todd. “People tend to jump to the conclusion that an oil spill in the arctic would be a real tragedy, but in fact we demonstrated quite the opposite.” They took several barrels of arctic type crude and received government permission to release it under the ice. “It was an interesting experiment,” says Todd. “We had quite an elaborate plan—divers etc—and it didn’t behave like on open water where it spreads out a few microns thick. The under surface of ice is very rough and we found that the oil didn’t go anywhere. That was a real dramatic conclusion; that if you did have a spill it wasn’t going to spread out all over the arctic ocean. That gave us ideas about how it might be contained.”

Not all of the technological experiments worked. For example, CANMAR wintered their drill ships in a safe harbour, but when spring arrived they’d still be stuck in the land-fast ice when their drill sites were already sitting free in open water. “We tried different ways of ‘breaking out’ in the spring,” says Todd. “Like coal dust to accelerate the melting, explosives, or just sawing our way out. With explosives when you tried to blast it, it just absorbed the energy of the explosion and welded itself together again—by and large none of the methods worked. A good powerful ice breaker is what worked in the end.”

Soon a combination of the moratorium on northern drilling and dismantling of the National Energy Program put a halt to three decades of arctic drilling technology advances. But all hasn’t been lost. “The fleet was eventually sold to a consortium of European buyers which was formed to buy the fleet and disperse it,” says Todd. “The Kulluk and the SDC are still up there, the icebreakers went all different directions, and the Explorer III is in the China Sea somewhere.”

On the other side of the world, the Molikpaq found a new home too. Five years after being mothballed in 1990 it was picked up by Sakhalin Energy who needed a production platform that could withstand the pounding, icy conditions and minus 70 wind chills of the Sea of Okhotsk off Siberia. Modified to withstand Magnitude 7 earthquakes, ice and ten-metre waves, it now serves the Piltun-Astohskoye field in 30 metres of water 16 km off Sakhalin Island.

And today, Devon Canada Corporation feels they were fortunate that the SSDC (now called the SDC) became available for their current offshore well, the first in the Beaufort Sea in a generation (see “Back to the Beaufort,” Far North Oil & Gas Winter 2004). “We had actually made the decision to go with an ice island but at the last moment the SDC became available at a competitive price,” says Ian Freeland, Devon’s Exploitation Engineer.

Freeland is thankful for the technology that was developed decades ago—it meant Devon didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. But it’s not just the technology, he says, “it’s the bank of experience that was built up during that period. For example, building ice islands. Certainly had we been building an ice island we would have benefited from that; and we are banking on it for our relief well program. And we benefit from all the wells that were drilled in the past.”

Bill Livingstone, Devon’s team leader of application support, says the knowledge of ice loads has been tremendously important for their program. But, he says, there are things lost too. “The biggest difference from the 70s is the lack of infrastructure and that is a challenge,” he says. For example, for a one-day tow to move the SDC onto location Devon had to contract the icebreaker Vladimir Ignatyuk all the way from Murmansk Russia. To the Vladimir Ignatyuk it was visiting the old homestead—she started life as Gulf Canada’s Arctic Kalvik in the early 1980s.

On the other hand, admits Livingstone, today’s drilling has technological advantages over those earlier decades. “The real steps forward in my opinion are things like the internet, the transmission of data, satellite photography, GPS,” he says. “That’s been a huge advance.”

It’s now blending the best from the past and the present. “We’re really fortunate that the world leaders in drilling in ice were Canadians,” says Livingstone. “When the Beaufort Sea went down that technology spread around the world. It’s a tribute to our strengths here in Canada that we’re recognized around the world.”

Sidebar: The Hans Island Experiments

Hans Island, about the size of three football fields nestled between Canada and Greenland, made international headlines earlier this year over an ownership spat. Absent from the news reports was the story of Canada’s ice research on the island by the oil and gas industry.

Massive amounts of ice flow out of the Labrador Straits and impact the island during spring and summer, making it a perfect place to study the relationship between a fixed structure and moving ice. Canadian Marine Drilling (CANMAR) took advantage of the opportunity and stationed research teams on the island in 1980 and 1981. They’d take a helicopter out onto an approaching berg, measure its thickness and take air photos to determine its length and breadth. Using these three dimensions engineers could calculate the mass of the ice. Then using transponders to measure its drift velocity they simply applied the basic physical formula of force equals mass times acceleration. Knowing the forces impacting the fixed island they could observe the ice behaviour as it collided.

“It would crumple up absorbing the energy,” says Murray Todd, president of CANMAR at the time, “and typically would go around either side. The key thing is that these experiments enabled us to determine very accurately the stress at which the ice actually breaks. Prior to that time, all you knew about ice is what you learned in a lab. With this research, we were able to dramatically change the naval architect’s understanding of the interaction of a structure with ice. In my opinion it was one of the real turning points for the breakthrough technology used in our icebreakers.”

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