The underwater oilfields off the Grand Banks have been haunted by the ghosts of the 84 men who died when the Ocean Ranger capsized 13 months ago. But recently there have been even more volatile forces at work that have not only threatened lives in the offshore but also caused a gale-force political blowup between Ottawa and Newfoundland.
Apart from the normal winter
storms whose 150-km winds often push the Atlantic seas as high as six-storey buildings, the offshore this year is riddled with more than 10 times the usual number of icebergs. The hazards of the largest shifting ice masses are clear, but even the smaller “bergy bits”— often as large as Cadillacs—can rupture a rig’s pontoon and are almost impossible to spot in storm-lashed seas even
with the most sophisticated equipment.
For the Newfoundland government of Brian Peckford, the solution to the added danger to the 160 men now on the rigs was obvious: stop
drilling. Federal Energy Minister Jean Chrétien, however, disagreed, and two weeks ago, when the Newfoundland government ordered two rigs back to shore, Chrétien ordered them back. Last week, when Conservative MP James McGrath (St.
John’s East) accused the government of playing “fast and loose” with the lives of Newfoundland men, the controversy
heated up again. Said McGrath: “I think the minister of energy is taking one hell of a chance, one terrible risk. Because if anything happens it’s all going to fall on him.”
The storm that sparked the controversy occurred when the Mobil Oil Canada Ltd. rigs SEDCO 706 and West Venture were stationed more than 100 nautical miles offshore. On company orders the 706 was quickly towed toward land.
But the province claims that with icebergs only 10 to 25 km away the West Venture was trapped, unable either to disconnect anchors or to evacuate the rig because of the storm’s severity. On Feb. 24 Newfoundland Energy Minister William Marshall told a press conference that the incident gave the provincial government such a scare that “prudence and sanity” dictated an end to
winter drilling while safety guidelines and the federal government’s oft-maligned search and rescue (SAR) services were reviewed. Said a provincial oil official: “As far as we’re concerned, the rig was technically trapped there, and there could have been a major accident.” But, instead of calling a halt to the deepwater drilling, Mobil obeyed Chrétien’s order to remain at work after federal officials maintained that sea conditions were not as dangerous as the province claimed, and, in a press release issued at the
time, Chrétien claimed that rough weather and distant icebergs were only “poor excuses for this latest example of provincial grandstanding. It’s a purely political move.” Chrétien also berated the province for unilaterally halting the drilling and ignoring the practice of first consulting federal officials. He also questioned why provincial officials did not attend a meeting with federal and company representatives to discuss the affair on Feb. 20 and speculated that the province’s disappointment at the Newfoundland Supreme Court decision to award ownership of the offshore to Ottawa was the cause of the order to stop drilling.
The debate carried on in a flurry of Telexes between the two capitals. In one Marshall accused Chrétien of ordering the rigs back just so that he could “flex his muscles.” Marshall wrote, “What good would consultation have done with a government which, contrary to all responsible opinion, has stubbornly, continually rejected the basic need for improved search and rescue services.” In the past three months two federal reports have recommended a beefed-up search and rescue operation in Newfoundland. At the very least the provincial government wants Ottawa to establish a base for search and rescue helicopters and airplanes in St. John’s, instead of stationing helicopters alone in Gander—which can mean a three-hour trip to the rigs. And the closing of a federal weather and ice-tracking station at Shoe Cove, Nfld., is another nagging grievance. Said McGrath, recalling the Ocean Ranger disaster: “Had SAR helicopters been based in St. John’s, they could possibly have saved lives.”
These charges coincide with accusations of unpreparedness by Capt. David Walsh, who until 1981 was marine co-ordinator with the Armed Forces search and rescue centre in Halifax. Said Walsh: “We could be faced with an Ocean Ranger disaster tomorrow and there is not a damn thing we could do about it.”
Meanwhile, as safety on the rigs was tossed around in the political tempest, Gerry Henderson, president of Chevron Standard Ltd., Mobil’s partner, explained that the oil industry cannot tolerate being squeezed between the wills of two governments. All oil-related activity off Newfoundland should stop, said Henderson, until the jurisdictional fight is finally settled by the Supreme Court of Canada. But, with the ownership of Hibernia still awaiting a decision and a provincial appeal yet to be heard, the Supreme Court cannot promise any quick end to the immediate fight—a fight to avert another Ocean Ranger.
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