Floating 'ice platters' touted for Arctic oil rigs

Canadians may start using ice blocks for something other than igloos. Norwegian engineers are doing the rounds here to convince Canadians that taking ice to the frozen north - of all places - would be good business. The blocks would be used in construction of oil production platforms in the Beaufort Sea, north of mainland Canada in the Arctic Ocean.

Eystein Husebye says ice, especially the freshwater variety, is one of Mother Nature's best construction materials. ''We have neglected to turn the numerous unique qualities of ice to our advantage,'' the Oslo-based consultant said in an interview.

Aker Engineering A/S, working in concert with Mr. Husebye, is about to make good on this glaring technical omission, provided Canadians are willing to share in the venture. Arve Marthinsen, a marine engineer working with Husebye and Aker , proposes to build huge gravity-ice-islands, possibly on the west coast, and then haul them to the Beaufort Sea.

The pie-shaped structures poured of freshwater ice inside a protective steel skin are said to be virtually indestructible. They also represent a combination of materials claimed to be cheaper than the other options - gravel islands, floating cylindrical contraptions, or subsea installations - intended for the offshore production and storage of crude. The ice islands, once ready, would be towed by tugs to their northern destinations for assembly and positioning at permanent locations.

Mr. Marthinsen says the tentative price tag on a 50,000-square-meter (60,000 -square-yard) ice island, capable of storing up to 5 million barrels of oil to be pumped from a cluster of wells below decks, would be around $162 million (Can., or $136 million US).

''It compares very favorably with the gravel island-lagoon concept (pioneered by Dome Petroleum Ltd.), and as we get into deeper water (in the Beaufort Sea) the practical and the cost advantages of our scheme become that much more obvious,'' Marthinsen says.

Gravity ice islands, as the name implies, would be kept in place by the natural forces at play offshore. They can be built to customer specifications and come in much larger sizes than their gravel island counterparts.

Dome, Esso Resources Canada Ltd., Gulf Oil Canada Ltd., and others with Arctic offshore interests have been building gravel islands at up to $50 million apiece for several years, mostly in the shallower coastal waters of the Mackenzie River delta of Canada's far north. Dome will be using a gravel island to explore further its promising Tarsiut location, farther out at sea, during the next winter months.

The Norwegians say all the Beaufort Sea operators are interested in the ice island concept, but no one has yet committed himself to spend money on a feasibility study or a prototype. Even though there is an awful lot of the cold stuff around, Canadians now only make a cursory use of ice in the form of ice roads and ice bridges in remote places.

Yet during World War II, a top-level British-Canadian team of experts had been assigned to the hush-hush ''Habakuk'' project, whose never realized goal was to build an aircraft carrier of sorts from blocks of ice. It was to facilitate the ferrying of airplanes from North America to Western Europe. These airplanes were then unable to make the transatlantic crossing in one hop. Hostilities ended before the ice could be turned into a giant floating base in the mid-Atlantic.

The wartime effort, however, led to a wealth of knowledge about the properties of ice and materials such as sawdust that might be mixed in to increase its strength. One of the results was ''inert ice,'' which does not expand when freezing and which remains both sturdy and stable.

The Norwegians also plan to add sawdust to their ice constructions from the plentiful stockpiles of British Columbia's sawmills. They are preparing laboratory test tank evaluation of the ice island concept here, which could lead to a full-fledged feasibility study perhaps next year. The real thing could follow within three years.

Crude oil production is anticipated in the Beaufort Sea by 1986. Husebye is convinced that a worldwide market of considerable potential exists for ice island or ice-cored platforms, which incidentally may be used in tropical climes , too. The Norwegian technology ensures that the ice islands do not melt away, he claims.

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