First gas production uncertain after Deep Panuke fire

Government regulators say bad weather has kept investigators away from a Nova Scotia offshore platform where fire broke out Saturday and the automated fire suppression system failed.

Forty-six of the 115 people aboard the Deep Panuke natural gas production platform were flown back to shore as a precautionary measure early Saturday morning following an electrical fire.

“Staff are preparing to go offshore — once weather permits travel — to ensure that the investigation is done to the satisfaction of the board,” said Tanya Taylor White, spokesperson for the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board.

Calgary-based Encana and SBM Offshore — the Dutch company it hired to build, commission and operate the natural gas platform — are responsible for investigating the fire. The fire was contained to an electrical panel.

Both companies have experts on the platform, located about 250 kilometers southeast of Halifax on the Scotian Shelf.

“The goal is to get to the bottom of what happened,” Encana spokesperson Lori Maclean told CBC News.

“Fundamentally, why was there a fire and beyond that, why the suppression system did not engage as it should and how to fix it.”

Although the fire suppression system failed, crew were able to extinguish the fire. No one was hurt.

In an emailed response to CBC News, Tanya Taylor White of the CNSOPB, said workers will be allowed to return, “After the investigation is complete and next steps are determined.”

The companies looking into the fire — Encana and SBM — are currently locked in a court battle, blaming each other for Deep Panuke’s lengthy production delays.

The natural gas production facility is more than two years late and is hundreds of millions of dollars over the original forecast. The platform was in the process of final commissioning when the fire broke out.

The project received regulatory approval in 2007 and was initially supposed to go into production by late 2010. But last fall, SBM said Deep Panuke wouldn’t start producing natural gas until at least June 30.

MacLean said she doesn’t know what impact this setback will have on the production of first gas, expected sometime in 2013.

“It’s really too early to say, in terms of impact, on that. The main thing right now is to focus on the investigation and to find out why this fire occurred, to get to the bottom of it, and to take the steps to address that,” she said. “That’s where full effort is being placed right now.”

This latest setback is potentially bad news for natural gas consumers, large and small, in Nova Scotia. The industry was counting on Deep Panuke gas.

The platform’s delay has already been partially blamed for a supply shortage that saw prices triple in Nova Scotia last month.