A wide range of potential scenarios exist where an uncontrolled or accidental release of chemicals to the ocean and atmosphere may occur, arising from offshore oil and gas industrial activities. These encompass gas and liquid leaks during the drilling and extraction process, potentially including hydrocarbon evaporation to air from surface seawater pollution, and the loss of bulk or refined products during hydrocarbon transport via pipelines and shipping. Such releases have the potential to create major environmental impacts, result in suspension of activities with associated losses of industrial and government revenues and cause severe reputational damage to companies.
Undoubtedly many small incidents pose little environmental threat but the paucity of background data makes it difficult to separate significant from insignificant events. Emissions to the atmosphere from routine operational activities are legislated via national and international agreements. However there is very limited scientific or technical capability to support environmental decision-making during one-off or uncontrolled releases to air. The BP Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010 showed a lack of capability within both industry and regulators to undertake a rapid assessment of the scale of emissions, and a complete absence of background atmospheric data against which the impacts of the event could be compared. Off-shore atmospheric releases are particularly difficult to respond to – only large and well equipped research aircraft with long range/duration can make the necessary low level boundary layer measurements in the field. Aircraft sampling platforms must be supported by a functional deployment plan with a tested experimental design, advanced laboratory capabilities for gas phase measurement and traceability, and appropriate dispersion modelling. This NERC innovation project aims to address directly a number of lessons-learned from the response to the Total Elgin event, and create a much-improved robust capability to support decision-making for future events, in the North sea and elsewhere. The project aims to translate environmental science and technology capabilities to support decision-making in the oil and gas sector in the event of accidental events. Key aims are as follows:
1. Using a set of representative FAAM146 survey flights establish the background variability and spatial distributions of methane and non-methane hydrocarbons in regions of intensive existing oil and gas activity in the North Sea. 2. Apply innovative atmospheric dispersion modelling tools, in combination with the new background data, to estimate a statistical distribution of the scale and extent of existing fugitive sources from current activities. 3. Develop and test a response plan for the detection and characterisation of evaporative emissions from liquid spills to the sea-surface, including bulk materials and refined products, through modification of an atmospheric science research instrument already certified for the FAAM aircraft. 4. Working with the FAAM aircraft operators develop an operational plan and safety case for the fast deployment of the aircraft for detection and response to oil and gas events in the Arctic ocean.