|BRITAIN'S OFFSHORE OIL & GAS
Environmental management, as part of the commitment to sustainability, is today a fully integrated part of the oil business. From the early exploration activity, through the production phase until the final decommissioning of the production facilities, the potential environmental impacts of these operations are assessed. At each stage of activity, environmental controls are put in place to meet or exceed the legal requirements and to minimise the impact on the environment. UKOOA member companies have adopted guidelines on Environmental Management Systems, Auditing and Training procedures to provide a framework for responsible conduct of business.
Environmental management as a process examines the environmental factors and the activities or processes that industry uses. These assessments aim to identify the environmental sensitivities and to develop or utilise techniques, procedures and technologies to minimise the impacts on the environments. These measures range from firing seismic survey airguns softly to alert nearby mammals to the impending survey, to developing and implementing new technology to reduce oil input from produced water and reduce the use of oil based muds. Oil does biodegrade in the natural environment, but may take some time. Because each phase of the exploration and production activity will produce different hazards and risks to the environment, so this process must be repeated throughout the field lifecycle, regularly reviewing the situation and revising or implementing appropriate environmental protection strategies. This process involves frequent consultation with Government, conservation agencies and the public to ensure environmental concerns are identified and controls established, particularly in nearshore or environmentally sensitive areas.
A key aspect of environmental management is knowledge of the environment local to the industry activity. UKOOA members have been active in financially supporting research and studies to increase knowledge of the marine environment around Britain where oil and gas are found or being explored for. In particular, UKOOA members assisted with the publication of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee's (JNCC) "Coastal Directory" series, which identifies environmental information on the UK coastal environment. The JNCC Seabirds at Sea team has also been locally supported by UKOOA member companies and Government to provide comprehensive data on the distribution of seabirds which may be impacted by oil spills.
In recent years the industry has been paying increasing attention to waters north-west of the United Kingdom, an area know as the Atlantic Margin (F114). This includes waters to the west of Orkney and Shetland, as well as the area around the Faeroe Islands. This activity has prompted further co-operation among the industry and stakeholders to ensure the best possible environmental management of the area. For example, an Atlantic Frontier Environmental Network (AFEN) has been established to help the industry understand the key sensitivities and concerns - and develop appropriate protection measures.
UKOOA has published "Environmental Guidelines" for exploration operations in nearshore and environmentally sensitive areas. These describe good industry practice for carrying out exploration operations in a way in which will minimise potential damage to the environment.
The offshore industry's environmental record is good and it is determined to keep it that way, by continuing to invest considerable resources in developing new technology, new operational and management systems, working practices and increasing environmental awareness amongst the workforce. All of the North Sea operating companies have environmental departments that review and comment on all the companies' activities, from seismic surveys to production procedures and ensure that the company is following the best environmental practice. These departments may also perform audits to see that procedures are improved. In new areas to be licensed for oil or gas exploration, an environmental report on each area is automatically submitted with the company's application and proposed work programme. Such reports are available to any interested stakeholder.
Work is continuing on a long-term research project which began in 1998, studying the historical legacy of accumulated drill cuttings (F115) beneath offshore installations in the North Sea. These cuttings are rock fragments produced during drilling operations, and have accumulated in piles beneath some platforms, in areas of the North Sea where currents and tides are not strong enough to disperse them. The cuttings piles contain traces of hydrocarbons, produced through contamination of the fragments by drilling mud. In recent years major advances have been made in the types of drilling mud used to help reduce potential contamination. However, existing piles of contaminated cuttings remain in place. Options being studied include leaving the piles undisturbed, complete removal or some form of in situ treatment.
Another major focus involves decommissioning. Today there are more than 6500 offshore oil and gas production installations world wide, located on the continental shelves of some 53 countries. More than 4,000 are situated in the US Gulf of Mexico, some 950 in Asia, some 700 in the Middle East and some 600 in the North Sea and North East Atlantic. There are some 400 structures extracting oil and gas from the UK's Continental Shelf (UKCS). These include subsea equipment fixed to the ocean floor as well as platforms ranging from the smaller structures in the southern and central North Sea to the enormous installations in the northern North Sea built to withstand very harsh weather conditions in deep waters. Many of the structures were built in the 1970s and were hailed as technological feats when they were installed. The industry is now faced with the equally challenging task of decommissioning them.
A strict legal framework of national, regional and international regulations govern how operators decommission disused offshore facilities. Under current regulatory requirements for the North East Atlantic (which includes the North Sea) some 80% of structures will be completely removed from their current marine sites and brought to shore for reuse or recycling (F116). The rest, which comprise the very large and heavy steel or concrete installations, will be looked at on an individual basis to assess whether it is technically feasible and safe to remove the structures, bearing in mind that there is a general presumption for total removal of all structures. If they are too difficult or dangerous to be moved, an exceptional case for "derogation" (based on sound scientific and technological reasoning) can be made to OSPAR contracting parties. The evidence will then be reviewed and a recommendation made to the country applying for derogation. However, the final decision to grant the derogation remains with the national government in whose territorial waters the structure is situated.