A Model for the Future of E&P?

Abstract: Oilmen and environmentalists team up at a West African oilfield to prevent loss of biodiversity. Their collaboration may show the way to sustainable development.

Analysis: In Gabon in Central West Africa an oilfield under development by a major oil company is shaping up as a good place for wildlife--as good as or better than surrounding national forests.

The field is the Rabi field in Gabon and the oil company is Shell, or rather the Shell Foundation. But Shell is not working alone. It has taken on what you might call a biodiversity coach: the Smithsonian Institution's Monitoring and Assessment of Biodiversity Program--MAB.

Shell and the Smithsonian are teamed with several other stakeholders, the Gabonese government for one, to see what they can add to the criteria for design and operation of sustainable energy projects. For the Smithsonian, the MAB project provides the additional opportunity to add to our basic understanding of rainforests. The team approach has its origin with the creation of the Shell Foundation.

A 1997 Commitment
In 1997, the Royal Dutch Shell Group introduced a commitment to sustainable development in its Statement of General Business Principles. It did this, according to a Shell statement, because it believed that "the success of the societies of which it is a part depends on the ability of all stakeholders to balance social, economic and environmental objectives."

The Shell Group states that it contributes most to sustainable development in the way individual Shell companies operate on a day-to-day basis. But Shell also needed to play a part when sustainability became important in any given project anywhere in the world, and for this it needed organization. So the Shell Foundation was created, registered in the U.K. as a charity, and funded by contributions from member companies.

First opportunity for the Foundation arose during 2000, as Shell evaluated a project to extract natural gas from the Camisea region of Peru's Amazon basin. The company worked with the Smithsonian Institution to assess the biodiversity values in the basin. Its goal was to plan operations to have minimal impact on the rainforest and ecological diversity. Scientists from the Smithsonian mapped the biodiversity of the region and identified opportunities to minimize impact. Shell did not go ahead with the project (see "Getting the Money for Camisea," Rigzone, August 28), but it did gain valuable working experience with the Smithsonian and an appreciation for the value of the collaboration.

The Shell Foundation issued a $2.5-million, five-year grant to the Smithsonian to assess biodiversity at several oil and gas operations around the world. It plans to use the information to enhance the decision-making process.

Gabon is the first of these sites where the process is fully underway. Shell has been producing oil for 40 years in the Rabi oilfield there. This lies in the Gamba Complex, an important Central African biodiversity area.

Following an initial meeting in 2000 attended by 19 agencies and organizations, the project was able to establish a science-industry-government partnership. A team of 28 scientists from the Smithsonian and Gabonese research institutions began work on a two-year study of the operations in February 2002.

The scientists regularly publish field notes detailing their findings. These surveys itemize the life forms in an area. Shell Foundation's website says that some 20 assessment plots have yielded more than 70 species of mammals, 190 birds, nearly 100 amphibians and reptiles, and over 200 species of trees. The Smithsonian's website publishes the field notes as they are received.

Surveys of 26 groups of arthropods have yielded 280,000 insects, filled some 70 entomological drawers with 13,000 prepared specimens and accumulated representatives of almost 1,000 species. The accumulated results are being published through a Smithsonian website and through Shell Foundation's website. These results, says Shell, are establishing a scientific model and methodology for assessing the impact of oil and gas operation and production on biodiversity, something that has never been done before. You can read field notes at Smithsonian National Zoological Park Website.

Minimizing Impact of Drilling
Shell has done a good job over the years in its Rabi operations to minimize the impact of drilling and production. Road cuts through the forest are minimum width, and the edges are seeded with a mulch of native seeds and nutrients to encourage plant growth and minimize erosion. Directional drilling allows the use of few, minimal-footprint pads in the forest, and clearance around wellheads is kept to a minimum. No permanent settlements are allowed. The Smithsonian involvement is taking things even further. Now the partners regularly talk about pre-empting damage: designing environmental protection into operations.

The Smithsonian scientists say the company is acting on many of their recommendations, often with encouraging results. And some of what the scientists are finding is surprising to them. Typically, conservationists think of the oil industry as synonymous with habitat loss, contamination of wetlands, and the like. So conservationists were surprised to see at least 10 different species of wild birds calling from one swamp just 200 meters away from gas-burning flares. This bird population was comparable to swamps nearby, showing the site still maintains good species diversity and very strong, viable populations of amphibians.

The Rabi field project is the subject of "Oil's Well…?", a film made by Television Trust for the Environment (TVE), shown in TVE's Sustainable World series on
BBC World. Shell and the Smithsonian are now working with other energy majors to develop an international code of practice for sensitive areas.