BSEE Tests Technology for Oil Spill Exercise in Arctic

BSEE Tests Technology for Oil Spill Exercise in Arctic
BSEE tests technology to locate oil spills as it participates for first time in oil spill exercise run by US Navy.

With the Arctic expected to be a major source of oil and natural gas, the development and testing of technologies to detect and clean-up Arctic oil spills will remain a critical area of focus.

As part of this research, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s (BSEE) Oil Spill Preparedness Division tested the capabilities of a geo-referencing identification satellite (GRIDSAT) technology during its inaugural participation earlier this year in Ice Exercise 2016 (ICEX). ICEX is an exercise designed to assess the operational readiness of the submarine force while also continuing to advance scientific research in the Arctic region.

The U.S. Navy has been running ice exercises since at least the late 1950s. Last year, the Navy approached BSEE about participating in the event, Karen Stone, an oil spill response engineer with BSEE’s Oil Spill Preparedness Division, told Rigzone.

“We’re always interested in partnering with other federal groups and combine all their expertise,” said Stone.

The GRIDSAT system is a new technology in the sense that it’s being used in a new application of existing components, Stone said. The Arctic’s extreme conditions, especially the presence of sea ice, create unique challenges for identifying, tracking and responding to an oil spill. Sometimes, oil trapped by ice cannot be recovered quickly due to weather conditions. The GIRDSAT radio/GPS marking device can be left on an ice floe to track the movement of the floe and entrapped oil for up to nine months.

A lack of infrastructure, especially communications infrastructure, is a major hurdle for companies operating in the Arctic. Stone said that most satellite systems only work at the mid-latitudes, where the world’s population is located. The geo-locating technology tested by BSEE communicates with the Iridium Satellite Network that is capable of operating at the poles.

BSEE tested the GRIDSAT system at the U.S. Navy’s Ice Camp Sargo, a temporary station on top of a floating ice sheet in the Arctic. As part of the tag project, BSEE deployed several marking devices on the ice floe for long-term duration studies. Two GRIDSAT tags with floe spikes were dropped from a helicopter, and one GRIDSAT tag was manually inserted using an ice screw technique, Stone said. Both methods would be used to tag and track oil either trapped under or encapsulated in Arctic sea ice.

Over the past 20 years, the size, weight and efficiency of sensors and satellite technology has gotten smaller, allowing for technology robust enough to operate in Arctic conditions, Sam McClintock, director of midstream technology at BSEE, told Rigzone. For the GRIDSAT tags with floe spikes dropped from helicopters, they were housed inside ice spikes. These spikes had to be designed to stick to and embed in snow and ice without bouncing off, like the front of a car in case of a crash.

The technology came out of a BSEE 2014 Broad Agency Announcement seeking ideas to address two projects: how to track oil spill assets and equipment, and how to track spilled oil trapped under or in ice as ice floes moved. BSEE wanted a way to direct assets and equipment located miles away from an oil spill, as the dark Arctic winter and harsh environment means that spilled oil sometimes cannot be recovered right away.

“We wanted to protect the environment, but we wanted to protect people even more,” Stone explained.

BSEE Tests Technology for Oil Spill Exercise in Arctic
BSEE tested a new application of an existing technology to locate oil spills trapped in ice. Source: Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement

After conducting a thorough technical review, BSEE funded AECOM, previously known as URS, which proposed addressing both projects with the same technology. AECOM developed a prototype of an innovative, cost-effective and robust tagging device, alongside an automatic tracking system to locate oil spilled under or trapped within ice. This system uses lamb waves to assist in the tagging of oil under ice, Stone told Rigzone. Lamb waves are waves that propagate along a surface such as an ice floe, and can travel considerable distances.

The technology was designed to use minimal power to conserve energy and extend the tracking period. This system includes an underwater sphere placed with the oil, a GRID tag placed on top of the ice, and a user interface to track the location of the oil as it moves with the ice floe. The underwater spheres, which contain underwater geo-referencing identification tags, are designed to be placed in the oil under the ice. The tags release a lamb wave along the ice surface that is detected by the surface GRID tags.

BSEE conducted the test to determine the system’s limits. Stone told Rigzone that BSEE is still awaiting analysis of some of the GRIDSAT tests on the distance the lamb waves traveled through the ice.

“However, early indications are that the tests were very successful,” Stone commented, noting that the ice spike design was successful for both a helicopter drop and manual placement on top of the ice.


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Karen Boman has more than 10 years of experience covering the upstream oil and gas sector. Email Karen at kboman@rigzone.com

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