ARCHIVED - Escaping drill rigs in frozen seas

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June 01, 2009— St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

When fires or other crises strike offshore petroleum-drilling platforms, escape, evacuation and rescue (EER) plans centre on rescue helicopters, ships or enclosed lifeboats that are dropped into the water from an ample height. But in Canada's Beaufort Sea, Arctic weather can ground helicopters and the ocean surface can freeze solid for months at a time.

That's why researchers at the NRC Canadian Hydraulics Centre (NRC-CHC) have been amassing satellite imagery and field studies of ice conditions, and then analyzing them to help regulators and platform operators plan safer evacuations in liquid and solid water. This research links well with a larger effort to improve Canadian EER capabilities, led by the NRC Institute for Ocean Technology (NRC-IOT) in St. John's.

Anne Barker of NRC-CHC says pioneering exploration platforms in the 1970s were built on artificial islands dredged from the Beaufort's shallow bottom. Rudimentary emergency evacuation planning efforts placed polar bear-proof canisters filled with survival gear out on the ice. After drilling an exploratory well, test rigs were removed and the islands were left to erode.

NRC-CHC researcher Anne Barker in the Beaufort Sea: the sheer wall, formed by the action of Arctic pack ice at the edge of a rubble field, typifies the obstacles that can slow emergency evacuations from petroleum drilling platforms

NRC-CHC researcher Anne Barker in the Beaufort Sea: the sheer wall, formed by the action of Arctic pack ice at the edge of a rubble field, typifies the obstacles that can slow emergency evacuations from petroleum drilling platforms

But, says Barker, "there's a lot of gas in the Arctic. If a pipeline goes through or conventional supplies dwindle, the Beaufort Sea is an area that will be examined. We need to be ready for that possibility."

So, six years ago NRC-CHC began researching platform crew safety with support from the Climate Change Technology Innovation Initiative and the Program of Energy Research and Development, both coordinated by Natural Resources Canada.

The Escape, Evacuation and Rescue Project

The wide-ranging Escape, Evaluation and Rescue (EER) project, jointly led by the NRC Institute for Ocean Technology and Memorial University in St. John's, partners industry, regulatory and rescue agencies, academic researchers and government organizations to help minimize risks and improve safety for people at sea.

So far, the EER team — led by António Simões Ré of NRC-IOT — has tested different lifeboat hull designs in pack ice and wave conditions. It found the boats were unsuited to pack ice in the Beaufort Sea and off Canada's East Coast.

Other achievements include a database and website linking a global body of EER information; tests to set baseline data for different marine evacuation systems; and the development of new software to assess lifesaving gear, which should eventually help vessel designers and operators optimize evacuation systems according to weather and geographical area.

As part of this initiative, the team conducts ongoing tests of marine safety systems in extreme environments to update safety equipment guidelines, while transferring research data and new technologies to the private sector.

Current activities led by Simões Ré include the development of standard tests to evaluate different types of emergency evacuation systems; studying free-fall lifeboat systems in different weather and sea conditions; testing life rafts in varying conditions to inform search and rescue efforts; and sharing data with interested parties.

The Canadian Beaufort Sea has some of the harshest ice conditions in the world. Its ice environment varies greatly throughout the year, which makes the design of suitable evacuation systems very tricky. Barker's team focused on ice build up, using old exploration sites as ready-made full-sized laboratories to identify and solve the challenges for developing suitable means for safe evacuation.

Typical ice sheets, thrust against platform caissons by wind and currents, fold into helter-skelter solid rubble fields sometimes measuring a kilometre long and half as wide, and towering perhaps seven metres above sea level. In spring and fall, icebreakers can maintain lifeboat escape channels in pack ice. But thicker winter ice may ground on the seabed, shielding platforms. This means it's not possible to access icebreakers and other evacuation craft.

Ice rubble fields harbour deep cracks, angles, slides, cliffs and huge blocks that, with snow or stormy weather, can stop even tank-like articulated tracked vehicles cold. And what would be an easy 10-minute hike on a smooth half-kilometre path becomes a risky, exhausting two-hour scramble. Under some conditions, says Barker, bulldozers can groom trails to temporary evacuation huts pre-built at a safe distance, where crews can await rescue in some safety and comfort. The first such evacuation shelter was deployed in 2005 in the Beaufort Sea.

Ice conditions that vary widely by location, season and year make emergency planning for the Canadian Arctic especially challenging. For that reason, regulators, planners and people working on platforms need sophisticated help to choose the best escape option at any moment.

"One of the great things about ice, and one of the annoying things about ice, is that there are so many variables," Barker says.

NRC-CHC has condensed its research into flow charts for regulators and industry. The first one guides platform operators through a series of "yes-no" questions to help them determine whether an evacuation shelter may be suitable for given conditions. A second chart helps platform planners assess the logistics, detailed planning and implementation of evacuation shelters. A third chart, now being developed, expands the scope beyond rubble fields in landfast ice to include spring and fall evacuation scenarios in open water or pack ice.

"Soon, the International Standards Organisation (ISO) will release guidelines specifically for structures in the Arctic. I and several of my colleagues sat on the panel that helped develop these regulations," says Barker. "What we're hoping is that regulators and petroleum companies can use our guidelines to assess whether a platform's evacuation plans relating to on-ice shelters are viable."

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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