Conoco­Phillips Canada: Operating responsibly in the Arctic

The Tarsiut caissons 2017 removal program

REO Speedwagon and Michael Jackson dominated the airwaves; both the U.S. and Canada had charismatic leaders in Ronald Reagan and Pierre Elliot Trudeau; and in the Arctic, Gulf Canada, a predecessor company of Conoco­Phillips, was testing the first man-made reinforced drilling island in the Beaufort Sea.
Michael Hatfield
Michael Hatfield

Tarsiut Island was built in the early 1980s for drilling exploration wells in the extremely harsh environment off Canada’s northern shores. To support year-round drilling in ice-infested waters, the island was reinforced with four massive, 5,500-ton concrete caissons measuring 226 feet (69 m) long and 49 feet (15 m) wide. In Arctic waters, caissons surround equipment below the waterline, protecting it from damage by moving ice. Built in Vancouver, the caissons could be floated and towed offshore and then secured with sand ballast.

Gulf Canada drilled two wells from the location in 1981–1982, with as many as 131 people onsite at a time. But despite the innovative approach, Tarsiut Island couldn’t withstand severe Arctic storms. The platform was decommissioned in 1984, and the caissons were towed to Thetis Bay, offshore Herschel Island in the Yukon province.

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Since then, Conoco­Phillips has explored many options for the caissons, including repurposing them, leaving them in place, sinking them or disposing of them.

The final decision to remove the caissons was made by starting with the basics: Conoco­Phillips’  SPIRIT Values.

“We have the expectation that we will be accountable for our actions and behave responsibly in everything we do, including managing our historic operations,” said Michael Hatfield, president, Conoco­Phillips Canada (CPC). “We knew we had to do the right thing with the caissons. We were also very confident we had the right team working on how to do it well. And we weren’t disappointed.”

The right thing to do started with turning to community stakeholders situated near the caissons.

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Listening to the community

Many eyes were on Conoco­Phillips as it developed plans for the caissons. Community members shared an interest in finding a safe and responsible solution.

“While the caissons were not doing any harm to the environment, they were considered an eyesore, particularly with their proximity to nearby national and territorial parks,” said Kim Clarke, Conoco­Phillips Canada’s Arctic project integration manager. “Most indigenous and community groups we talked to wanted them moved, which was a very important factor in our decision-making.”

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The caissons were parked in a location that is part of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, an area in the Northwest Territories (NWT) and Yukon traditionally used by the Inuvialuit people. Nearby communities use the land and shorelines year-round for traditional activities, including hunting.

“Through many years of consultation, the strong connection between the people and the environment was very evident,” said Chantale Campbell, senior coordinator, Stakeholder Engagement. “When we were looking at repurposing or retiring the caissons, it was important for us to respect that relationship and find a mutual win.”

One of the most promising options for delivering local benefits was to use the caissons as a breakwater for the town of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, to protect the shoreline from erosion. But when that proved economically and technically unfeasible, CPC shared the final scientific studies with the town so that alternate erosion control methods could be pursued.

“When we ran out of practical options for repurposing the caissons, the community members were honest and open with us about their preference to have the caissons removed, and they were very understanding as we worked through how to do so responsibly,” said Campbell. 

On August 6, 2017, more than 30 years after they were retired from service, the four caissons were loaded up and on their way south to a disposal yard in Mexico.

But getting to that point was no easy feat.

The challenge

Location, location, location. That may be the mantra of real estate developers, but it also points to many of the challenges faced by the Tarsiut caissons removal team.

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Derrick Laskowski, senior ocean engineer, Global Marine

First, people and equipment had to be moved into the area. The caissons were located two hours by helicopter and 36 hours by boat from the town of Inuvik, NWT, where equipment and workers were mobilized. Inuvik itself is remote, with limited services and intermittent road access.

“It was a unique project, so there were no historical benchmarks to reference for planning and decision-making.”

— Derrick Laskowski

“Once you’re up there, it takes days to get anything in or out,” said Darryl Faye, a 30-year veteran of heavy haul and logistics, which has included work in the Beaufort and Central Mackenzie Valley. He shared responsibility as operations lead on the caissons project with Bill Pepper of Geo-Link Consulting Inc.

“You have to manage the comings and goings of people and make sure they have what they need to be out there for an extended period. That means everything from fresh vegetables to redundancy in your equipment and backup for your workers.” 

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Mobilization also occurred by water, with supplies and equipment sent by river and sea from Inuvik to Herschel Island. Ultimately, the caissons were loaded onto a heavy-lift vessel (HLV). The HLV travelled from the Middle East, was refitted in Singapore, then sailed north around Alaska to Point Barrow, and, when the water was clear of ice, to the site of the caissonsThere are limited windows of time during which this is possible, as ice and weather conditions can make these routes impassable; a 2015 plan to move the caissons was cancelled for that very reason.

The route had to be planned meticulously and monitored constantly, not only for ice and weather, but to consider marine mammal migration routes and fishing areas.

“Moving caissons out of the Arctic isn’t an everyday activity,” said Derrick Laskowski, senior ocean engineer, Global Marine, marine lead and offshore site representative for the project. Laskowski coordinated a team of Conoco­Phillips experts in Houston and marine contractors who supported the Canadian effort.

“It was a unique project, so there were no historical benchmarks to reference for planning and decision-making. But we had the benefit of a lot of embedded knowledge within the organization from working in the Arctic,” he added. 


While the caissons were moored in northern Canada, the team that planned and executed their removal came from around the world.

In Canada, experts in project management, safety, engineering, logistics, heavy hauling and community engagement were called into service. They drew on Conoco­Phillips Canada’s extensive experience and lessons learned in the Canadian Arctic through previous work with these caissons and arctic drilling programs in the Beaufort Sea and Mackenzie Delta.

“I never would have expected to return to Canada to work on a marine project,” said Ryan Robertson, a drilling engineer from Calgary, Alberta, who was project manager for the caissons removal program. His career has taken him everywhere from Alaska to Australia. “This was the perfect opportunity to learn more from my colleagues in Canada and Houston.”

Assisting the Canadian contingent with planning and execution were experts from Conoco­Phillips’ Global Marine and Global Projects teams, as well as experts from around the world in ice and metocean (meteorology and oceanography), naval architecture, offshore vetting and marine operations.

Houston weather and ice experts helped pick the ideal time to start the removal project, and monitored the status of the ice and weather before and during the operation. This included poring over 10 years of historical satellite data and daily weather reports.

“We had the best team imaginable,” said Clarke. “Everyone was engaged and took ownership of their role in the project. I couldn’t have been prouder to work with them.”

Outside of Conoco­Phillips, expertise and support was provided by partners and contractors. Approximately 40 percent of the Beaufort operations contract services used were based in the NWT. That included marine mammal and wildlife observers, who helped protect people at the site from encounters with wildlife and marine life from encounters with vessels and divers.

“We had the best team imaginable. Everyone was engaged and took ownership of their role in the project.”

— Kim Clarke

Creating the plan for the caissons’ removal required months of detailed work. The Conoco­Phillips team created a strategy, developed planning and execution schedules, obtained numerous regulatory approvals and produced and negotiated dozens of contracts. Throughout this process, more than 100 project risks were evaluated and addressed, including safety hazards; detailed requirements, work programs, equipment and material lists were developed.

The team spent weeks inspecting and testing the marine vessels to ensure all systems were operational. When the team was ready to mobilize, checks had to be performed to make sure everyone had the proper training for the area, equipment was tested, and emergency helicopter backup was available 24/7 to assist in case of emergency. 

“Everyone who contributed to this project was key to its success,” said Laskowski. “Small things could have derailed us, but we had the people we needed to get the job done.”

Shipyard staging area


With community consultation and planning complete, in late June 2017, a convoy of 35 trucks travelled over 1,600 miles (2,700 km) from Grande Prairie, Alberta, up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. There, over the course of two weeks, the truck contents were checked and loaded onto a 40-person camp barge, two transport barges and four tugboats. The camp barge would serve as the operations center, main crew quarters and the landing base for helicopters in case of emergency.

To make sure the team was cohesive and responsibilities were clear before activities began, a one-day orientation was held in Inuvik for team members to study the plan and understand exactly how they would work together to execute the project safely. In addition, indigenous cultural awareness training helped ensure local culture and environmental values were respected.

Finally, the team was ready to board the vessels. Over the course of two days in cramped quarters, they made their way north on the Mackenzie River and then west along the coast to Herschel Island, travelling more than 1,000 miles (1,700 km) to the site and arriving on July 19.

Over the course of the next two weeks, the team refloated the massive caissons from their 30-year resting place by pumping out the seawater, rocking them loose from the sea floor and staging them in preparation for loading. Sonar was used to scan the seabed to ensure nothing was missed, and divers ensured no caisson-related debris remained behind.

The 54,000 metric ton semisubmersible HLV arrived July 30, and the four caissons were safely maneuvered onto the vessel and secured.

At the peak of the refloating and removal operations, up to 100 people were onsite, including safety coordinators, wildlife management experts and marine mammal observers, vessel crews, medics, a salvage and diving team, environmental sampling crew and three operations supervisors.

“We finished under budget and without injuries. I believe we’ll look back on this in another 30 years and be proud that we did the right thing.”

— Ryan Robertson

On August 6, the HLV, with the four caissons aboard, departed for its destination in Mexico.

For many of the people, who put in hundreds of hours, seeing the caissons safely on their way was “the highlight of their career.”

But the work wasn’t done yet.

“With the caissons loaded, we faced something that could have been a greater challenge: staying focused on demobilization. When there’s a mass exodus, and all the confusion that can go with it, that’s when incidents can happen,” said Faye.

With that in mind, after the HLV’s departure and the fleet’s return to Inuvik, workers were given 24 hours off to spend some time on shore and refocus. Then the equipment, materials and waste were off-loaded and organized, reloaded onto trucks and sent south.

On August 21, the caissons arrived safely at the disposal yard, were offloaded, and the 30-year project was complete.

“We finished under budget and without injuries,” said Robertson. “I believe we’ll look back on this in another 30 years and be proud that we did the right thing.”

The caissons removal project is a great example of how Conoco­Phillips’ global expertise can act as a competitive advantage in managing regional issues.

“By combining a terrific team from Canada with expertise from other Conoco­Phillips business units and our corporate office, as well as experts from the global contractor community, we safely and successfully planned and executed a complex, unique, world-class project,” said Hatfield.  “I couldn’t be prouder of this team.” 

Caissons en route to Mexico