Beyond first oil – the Hebron story as told by three people involved in the offshore mega-project

Beyond first oil – the Hebron story as told by three people involved in the offshore mega-project
Tug boats haul the huge production and storage platform to the Hebron oil field site back in June of 2017. Photos courtesy of ExxonMobil Canada Properties

With Hebron finally producing black gold, three individuals intimately involved in the mega-project reflect on what it means to Newfoundland and Labrador

At 11:03 am on November 28, 2017—a day that had been in the making since its discovery in 1980—ExxonMobil Canada produced first oil from its Hebron offshore field, located 350 kilometres southeast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The moment was a grand one. The $14-billion project is one of the largest, most complex industrial projects ever undertaken in Newfoundland and Labrador, and it’s extremely important for the field’s operator, ExxonMobil Canada, but also for the province. Hebron is estimated to contain 700 million barrels of recoverable oil and when the field reaches its peak production it will add 150,000 barrels per day to ExxonMobil and its four partners’ portfolio at a time when oil and gas companies are struggling to replace the production being consumed globally.

Hebron is even more important to Newfoundland and Labrador. It adds a fourth producing oil field to a stable that already includes Hibernia, Terra Nova and White Rose. That oil will help the province’s treasury as it offsets declining production at the other fields. But Hebron is not just about the added production and royalties that will eventually be collected from it. It’s about the employment it will create while ExxonMobil is pumping crude from Hebron.

There will be 220 people working on Hebron’s massive production and storage platform at the site. However, the employment it will provide doesn’t begin and end there, even if it won’t match the 7,500 people the project employed during its peak construction period. “Drilling and production operations mark the start of the next phase of the Hebron journey,” says ExxonMobil president Carman Mullins. “The project is expected to provide long-term employment for over 600 additional personnel and support long-term economic development opportunities for various local supply and service companies for many years to come.”

As Hebron enters that next phase of its journey, Natural Resources Magazine interviewed three people involved in the project at very different levels, to get their thoughts on what the oil field means to them, their companies and the province.

Carman Mullins—president of ExxonMobil Canada
ExxonMobil Canada’s top executive says the company fulfilled its promise on Nov. 30 when first oil was achieved at the Hebron oil field. “Our goal since the Hebron project was announced in 2008 was to safely achieve first oil in 2017. I am pleased to say we delivered on our commitment,” she says.

Drilling and production operations mark the start of the next phase of the Hebron journey.
Carman Mullins, president ExxonMobil Canada

Meeting that commitment was no small feat. She talks about the extensive planning and technology that was required to build a concrete gravity-based structure that can accommodate 220 people and store 1.2 million barrels of oil. The amount of materials needed to build the structure, which was erected at Bull Arm, Newfoundland and Labrador, is astounding. Enough concrete was used to fill 54 Olympic-sized swimming pools and rebar weighing the same as 99 fully-loaded Boeing 747 aircrafts. All that concrete, rebar and more was needed because the platform had to be able to withstand the harsh operating conditions ExxonMobil will encounter in the North Atlantic—icebergs, sea ice, high waves and other meteorological conditions. Mullins also points out the Hebron platform is the first in the Jeanne d’Arc Basin, where all four producing oil fields are located, to use fibre optic technology.

Why is this significant? Mullins says it will make for a more comfortable work environment and also enhance safety. “This high speed connection allows onshore support personnel in our St. John’s office to interact in real time with our offshore operations to enhance safety and reliability. The technology will improve the offshore team’s ability to stay connected to their friends and family at home while they are away for three weeks at a time,” she says.

While the field has approximately 700 million barrels of recoverable oil, there is always the hope more will be found to extend Hebron’s lifespan. Mullins says the platform is designed to accommodate future development, but the focus is on achieving peak production of 150,000 bpd. ExxonMobil Canada’s president continues to shine a spotlight on the health and safety record Hebron achieved during the construction phase of the project. Almost every reference ExxonMobil makes about the mega-project mentions that it had 42 million person hours in Newfoundland and Labrador, from construction to when the platform was towed to the field in June of 2017, without a lost-time injury. Despite all the company did to get to first oil, Mullins says that’s been its greatest accomplishment so far. “We are quite proud of our achievement. I thank everyone who was involved for playing a role,” she says.

Paul Dwyer—Hebron offshore installation manager
The married father of three children from Conception Bay South says working on an offshore oil platform in the North Atlantic is an experience unlike any other. “Your first couple of trips can be overwhelming, looking out over the side and seeing water to the horizon on all sides,” Dwyer says. “But after a while you forget where you are and just go about your daily work routine no matter what your job is.”

Being in this role there are lots of responsibilities but the rewards are great.
Paul Dwyer, Hebron’s offshore installations manager

It’s no surprise working hundreds of kilometres from land no longer fazes Dwyer. He spent 19 years working for the Hibernia Management and Development Company Ltd. before transferring to his position as Hebron’s offshore installation manager with ExxonMobil Canada in October of 2016. The job comes with a lot of responsibility for this veteran of the offshore oil and gas industry. He’s responsible for the safety of all personnel on board the platform, and some of his other duties include delivery of oil production according to the business plan, installation integrity, regulatory reporting and compliance. In the event of an emergency situation, he is in charge of the platform’s command centre.

If Dwyer feels any pressure at his job, he’s not admitting it. He says he can’t think of another line of work he would rather be doing at this point in his 20-year career. “Being in this role there are lots of responsibilities but the rewards are great. I love my work,” Dwyer says. “Each and every day there are new challenges, new opportunities and new obstacles to overcome.  One of our biggest challenges is working in this harsh environment. To see the smiling faces of family members as the crews arrive on shore and knowing that you have played a part in them returning home safely is a very satisfying feeling.”

He says it’s also satisfying to be working on a project that will have a sizeable impact on his home province’s economy. He’s keenly aware of the indirect and direct employment and financial benefits Newfoundland and Labrador gains from the oil that’s produced offshore, and so are his co-workers. “The workers here know that and are proud to be a part of the industry not only for their own benefit but knowing they are contributing to the province’s well-being,” he says.

Perhaps that helps create a tight-knit work environment where over 200 men and women must work in harsh conditions, and in close quarters for two or three weeks at a time away from their friends and family. “You develop a sense of camaraderie with your co-workers that is different than any other job. You are not only working with these people but living with them. In some cases you spend more time with them than your family. They become your other family, your offshore family,” Dwyer says.

Dave Billard—vice-president and general manager, Aker Solutions Canada
As ExxonMobil has progressed from the construction phase to the production phase of Hebron, it’s not just the company’s own employees who have helped it produce crude from the oil field; several contractors have been along for the ride as well.

It’s a very important part of our current portfolio.
Dave Billard, vice-president and general manager, Aker Solutions Canada

Aker Solutions Canada is one of those companies. It’s provided engineering, procurement, construction and management services to the Hebron offshore platform. As the company’s vice-president and general manager, Dave Billard has been one of the point men for Aker Solutions Canada’s work on Hebron. The company is no stranger to big industrial endeavours. For example, it’s also working on Statoil’s massive Johan Sverdrup oil field in offshore Norway. But the Newfoundlander, whose two sons have also worked in the oil industry, says being a part of Hebron is a great opportunity for Aker Solutions. “It’s a very important part of our current portfolio,” Billard says.

Aker Solutions is one example of how Hebron’s impact on the provincial economy goes far beyond the people working on the production and storage platform. Workers must be flown to and from the platform, supplies must be purchased and shipped to the site to keep operations running smoothly, and all that work and much more is done by contractors like Aker Solutions. Billard says between full and part-time employees, his firm can have upwards of over 100 people at any one time involved in the project depending on the phase and scope of work.

Billard has been involved in the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore oil sector for a long time. He’s witnessed the impact projects like Hibernia, Terra Nova and White Rose have had on the provincial economy. He says Hebron’s impact will be sizeable as well. “It’s created and will continue to create a lot of direct and indirect employment in the province, a lot of tax revenue, and eventually, royalty payments as well that will be used to better the province,” Billard says. “Hebron, along with the rest of the oil industry, is a long-term contributor to the GDP of the province and Canada as a whole.”

Being involved in mega-projects like Hebron is also great for strengthening Aker Solution’s capabilities, which give it valuable experience and expertise as it bids on other big contracts. Billard says what amazes him about the Hebron project is how so many companies have been able to work together on such a complex project, and they’ve been able to pull it off. “What I find most interesting is that such a wide diversity of people and companies literally from all over the world can come together, and through cooperation, effective integration, and dynamic leadership create and operate some of the most amazing pieces of equipment in one of the harshest environments in the world. The early Egyptians would be impressed.”

If you talk to Robert Greenwood, executive director of Memorial University’s Leslie Harris Centre for Regional Policy and Development, the answer is yes. Greenwood, who keeps a close eye on the pulse of Newfoundland and Labrador’s economy, says ExxonMobil’s Hebron project has the province’s business community walking a little taller now that it has gone into production. He says that was on display at the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council’s annual Business Outlook Conference held in St. John’s in November of 2017. The conference is where APEC unveils its economic predictions for the region each year, and lots of business leaders attend the event. That makes it a good barometer for how the business community feels about the province’s economic fortunes.

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