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 caused by drifting 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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Ryan Robertson, Frank Roberts, Kim Clarke and Darryl Faye, some of the key Canadian members of the Tarsiut Caissons Removal Program, on location in Northern Canada. (Photo credit: Danny Duzich)

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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An international team of over 150 people contributed to the success of the caissons removal program.

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.”

Work barges use two 50-ton cranes to lower water pumps to drain and refloat the caissons.

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.

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, marine lead and offshore site representative, positioned next to the second caisson. (Photo credit: Ryan Robertson)

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.”


“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.” 

The caissons are unloaded from the semisubmersible heavy-lift vessel for disposal.

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. 

Although 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.”

Project Manager
 Ryan Robertson, project manager and offshore site representative, is dwarfed by the 5,500 ton concrete caissons. (Photo credit: Danny Duzich) 

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.”


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.”

Crews and resources mobilizing in Inuvik, including a camp barge with a helicopter landing pad for use in personnel transfers during operations. Photo Credit: Ryan Robertson

With community consultation and planning complete, in late June 2017, a convoy of 35 trucks traveled more than 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.

Helicopters were used a few times a week for personnel changes. Fire response staff were on site to respond to any potential concerns during refueling.

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, traveling 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.”


On Aug. 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 offloaded and organized, reloaded onto trucks and sent south.

On Aug. 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.” 

After the four caissons were loaded onto the heavy lift vehicle, it took six to seven days to secure them, including welding them into position so they would not shift should the vessel face rough waters.

About the author

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KATHERINE SPRINGALL is senior advisor, Communications & Community Investment for ConocoPhillips Canada. She joined the company in 2006 and in her current role, she supports leadership communication and issues management and serves as media spokesperson. During her time with the company, Katherine has supported communications on sustainable development, employee engagement, emergency response and asset transactions. She earned degrees in political science from the University of Calgary and journalism from Mount Royal University.