OFFSHORE DRILLING:

In North Atlantic, world's largest platform is getting a twin

BULL ARM, Newfoundland and Labrador -- A massive new offshore energy structure is rising at a Nalcor Energy fabrication site in this picturesque coastal inlet.

But for locals, Hebron is more than just another oil platform. It's also an echo of the beginnings of this province's unlikely economic revival.

More than 1,500 people were taken to this construction site to tour the work over the past summer, with industry representatives giving them a chance to see up close where Newfoundland and Labrador's current energy boom began. The Bull Arm site hosted work on the Hibernia project, which began producing its first oil in the late 1990s and is credited with ushering in the current frenzy to explore and drill in Canada's Atlantic waters.

These days construction is accelerating on Hebron, a "gravity-based structure" nearly identical to Hibernia that Exxon Mobil Corp.'s Canadian subsidiary is building. The tours closed at the end of last month so that the team building it, Kiewit-Kvaerner Contractors, can focus on completing concrete pouring and preparing the structure for installation in 2016.

Like Hibernia, currently considered the world's largest offshore oil platform, Hebron will be weighted to the ocean bottom by a huge concrete pillar surrounded by reinforced concrete oil tanks designed to withstand the impact of icebergs. The diameter of Hebron will be roughly 430 feet when it's completed.

The 400-foot-high platform is expected to reach a maximum production of 150,000 to 180,000 barrels per day, and it can hold an additional 1.2 million barrels in the storage tanks that make up part of its hull. Exxon Mobil representative Lynn Evans said the company has taken lessons to heart from some mishaps at Hibernia in improving the platform design.

"One lesson learned is regarding the design of the offshore loading system," Evans said. "Hibernia had a system that was replaced recently because the components in this harsh environment can be subject to fatigue. Hebron will use a system similar to the new system installed on Hibernia."

Hebron will also differ from Hibernia by holding one drilling derrick instead of Hibernia's two. And Hebron is designed to handle the heavy oil that lies in the offshore oil field it will trap. Hibernia's crude oil is lighter.

But aside from those design differences, the two platforms will look nearly identical to outside observers. They are also visible reminders of the lengths to which the oil and gas industry is determined to go to tap rich reserves of hydrocarbons in even the most extreme environments.

Harsh waters

Canada's Atlantic coastline is notorious for its nasty weather. Though St. John's, the provincial capital, is located at a latitude similar to Paris, the harsh climate precludes the development of any major urban centers farther north along the coast. Bigger towns in Labrador are located inland and were specifically built for major mining operations.

Tourists arrive in Newfoundland by the droves each spring to see the icebergs that traveled south from Greenland, similar to the one that sunk the Titanic. And although the oil and gas industry has known for decades that these waters likely hold rich reserves, it was those same icebergs that kept it away until the price per barrel of crude and a shortage of major new oil fields on dry land compelled it to give Newfoundland's waters a try.

The Hebron field is believed to contain 660 million to 1.055 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil. As first Hibernia and now Hebron show, the industry's solutions to get at this crude in the North Atlantic's icy waters are lots and lots of concrete, steel and other large-scale engineering efforts.

Hebron's topsides will be held up above the waves by more than 4 million cubic feet of concrete reinforced with more than 40,000 tons of reinforcing bars. The platform's total weight is projected to be 700,000 tons when it is rested on the ocean bottom.

The platform will be placed at the field it is set to tap in about 300 feet of water, a shallow depth similar to the Hibernia project. Exxon Mobil, which will operate Hebron with a 36 percent interest, is partnering with Chevron Corp., Suncor Energy Inc., Statoil ASA and Nalcor to share the costs and profit from the project.

WorleyParsons Ltd. commenced design and engineering for this newest of Newfoundland's offshore projects in 2010, and crews got to work at Bull Arm in 2011. The platform's topsides are being built in a massive building while concrete started to pour this year.

The companies hope to hook up Hebron to its site in 2016 and would like to see first oil flowing by 2017. The entire project is estimated to cost about 14 billion Canadian dollars ($13.4 billion) to complete. About 2,800 workers were employed to build Hebron, 90 percent of them local in keeping with Newfoundland and Labrador's strict rules for ensuring that its residents benefit first from all offshore energy work.

Building workers, too

Exxon Mobil knew before it even began construction that it may face problems securing the skilled labor it needed to build the platform, so the company developed specialized training programs to help get workers up to speed on the skills they would need to qualify for work on Hebron.

"We identified early that we were going to be challenged in having sufficient skilled rebar installation personnel and tower crane operators," Evans explained. "We developed training programs where individuals develop the skills that not only we need for the project, but skills that will set individuals up for future opportunities. We have also partnered with and supported academic and not-for-profit organizations in the areas of training and development."

Those academic partnerships include CA$200,000 for tuition costs for women studying relevant technologies and trades, and a CA$1.5 million endowment shared by two of the island's universities to help with efforts to train women, indigenous community members and minorities in engineering.

Newfoundland and Labrador's economy was largely written off as doomed after its fishing fleet destroyed cod stocks, the mainstay of the economy for hundreds of years. Those dark days now seem well in the past (EnergyWire, Nov. 7).

Today the province is staking its future on the oil and gas industry. It's estimated that current offshore energy production contributes about CA$8 billion to CA$12 billion to the economy each year.

Hebron's builders expect it to help steer about CA$20 billion into the local economy over its lifetime, expected to last at least three decades. A crew of 220 will work at the platform, and about 500 in total will support it both on- and offshore.

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