Oil Spill Technology Research Continues for Arctic Exploration

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Arctic oil spill response technology remains a focus of significant research as the oil and gas industry seeks to minimize its footprint on the Arctic environment.

As the global oil and gas industry turns its attention to Arctic exploration and production, research by industry and academia continues into Arctic oil spill technology.

The Arctic Oil Spill Response Joint Industry Programme (JIP) last week released the findings of its research efforts into in-situ burning (ISB) in ice-affected waters and the fate of dispersed oil under ice.

Over the past several decades, a significant body of scientific research and testing has been carried out of techniques and technologies available for oil spill response in icy conditions, including the Arctic. The Arctic Oil Spill Response JIP was launched in January 2012 to further build on existing research, increase understanding of potential impacts of oil on the Arctic marine environment, and improve the technologies and methodologies for oil spill response. 

The JIP includes six technical working groups focused on dispersants, environmental effects, trajectory modeling, remote sensing, mechanical recovery and in-situ burning. Each group is headed by a subject matter expert experienced in oil spill response research and development. The JIP also has a field research group to examine opportunities for the JIP to participate in field releases or research to gather scientific and engineering data needed to validate certain response technologies and strategies.    

In-situ Burning Offers Greatest Potential for Arctic Oil Spill Removal

The recent JIP state of knowledge report found that ISB offers the greatest potential for oil spill removal in Arctic conditions. 

“Technology exists today to conduct controlled ISB of oil spilled in a wide variety of ice conditions and most of the perceived risks associated with burning oil are able to be mitigated,” according to the JIP findings.

Through its research, the JIP has found that a range of viable technologies are available for oil spill response in the presence of open water. In its recent findings, the JIP reported that dispersants can work in the Arctic and will, under certain conditions, be more effective in the presence of ice than in open water.

The JIP also concluded that the oil and gas industry has a role in helping countries with Arctic jurisdictions understand the benefits of having a regulatory process in place to approve the use of dispersants and ISB for oil spill response.  

Of the Arctic and sub-Arctic countries studied, only the U.S. state of Alaska has a documented procedure for approving ISB as a response technique. Two regions in Canada have established guidelines for using ISB; work is underway to clarify the guidelines for use in contingency plans related to proposed Canadian Arctic developments. The JIP found that, in other countries, there has been little serious thought given to ISB and/or a general antipathy towards its use. The countries surveyed included Denmark, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Japan, Kazakhstan, Norway, Russia, the United States and Sweden.

“A robust regulatory regime that acknowledges the potential of all three Arctic oil spill response technology options remains essential to ensuring an effective and coordinated response,” the JIP said in a statement. “Through analysis of the regulatory requirements and permitting processes currently in place, the JIP and its partners have also identified gaps in some national policies and procedures to approve the use of dispersants and ISB during an incident and that, in most jurisdictions, ISB has not been given serious consideration.”

The findings of the two recent reports and six research reports released by the JIP last fall build on decades of research and testing already conducted on techniques and technologies available for responding to oil spills in Arctic conditions. The research findings, focused on ISB, dispersants and remote sensing, continue to reinforce the industry’s capabilities in Arctic oil spill response.

ISB has been considered a viable, primary spill response option for oil spills in ice-affected

waters since offshore drilling began in the Beaufort Sea in the 1970s, according to the JIP research report. Field trials at that time demonstrated on-ice burning of spilled oil offered the potential to remove almost all of the oil present on an ice surface with only minimal residue. Since then, a great many studies and trials have been undertaken to investigate and document the burning of crude oil slicks (both fresh and emulsified) in cold open water, slush ice, drift ice, pack ice and on solid ice.

In-situ burning has rarely been used on marine oil spills, but its successful use during the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon response increased interest in further investigating its potential value as a technique to manage spilled oil. In 2010, controlled burning of spilled oil with fire booms eliminated between 220,000 and 310,000 barrels of oil that could have otherwise reached shorelines and other sensitive resources in the Gulf of Mexico.

The report on the fate of dispersed oil under ice is the first step that can predict the fate of a dispersed oil plume that develops under the ice. It is a review of what turbulence data is already available, what monitoring methods are appropriate, and what models already exist, the JIP reported Feb. 11.

The fate of a cloud of oil droplets under ice depends on droplet size distribution, the vertical turbulence profile, and the horizontal transport field. The longer the droplets are retained in the water column, the more the droplet cloud will become diluted due to horizontal mixing, and the more the oil will biodegrade.

While sufficient knowledge exists to develop an under-ice turbulence closure model, existing observations are probably not good enough to provide calibration and verification data. A number of possible strategies exist for gathering new data to support development and calibration of an under-ice turbulence model, such as turbulent instrument clusters, autonomous underwater vehicles, fluorescent dyes, acoustic doppler current profilers, and passive traces such as fluorescence and rhodamine.

In separate reports, the JIP confirmed that the oil and gas industry has a range of airborne and surface imaging systems used from helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, vessels and drilling platforms, which developed and tested for the “oil on open water scenario” that can be used for ice conditions.

What’s Next for JIP Research

The eight reports released so far comprise one third of the reports that will be published over the JIP’s life, the JIP said in a statement. Over the course of the four year program, the JIP will carry out a series of advanced research projects in its six key areas of focus.

The results to date demonstrate the potential viability of multiple oil spill response technologies in Arctic conditions beyond mechanical recovery, said Joseph V. Mullin, program manager for the JIP, at the Arctic Technology Conference in Houston Feb. 10-12.

Basin calibration of three test tanks has been completed and, over the next year, the JIP will begin lab and basin testing of dispersant effectiveness at the SL Ross Environmental Research Ltd., in Canada, SINTEF in Norway and France-based Cedre test facilities. Research experiments will be conducted to test and evaluate the performance of various surface and subsea remote sensing technologies, the JIP reported.

The JIP will conduct Phase 2 experiments at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H. to evaluate the performance of various surface and subsea remote sensing technologies.

The JIP also has initiated research into developing a new sea model that will be tested, evaluated and validated. These results will be integrated into established oil spill trajectory models. Additionally, research is being initiated to improve knowledge of herder fate, effects and performance in ice-prone waters.

JIP members include BP plc, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, Eni S.p.A., Exxon Mobil Corp., North Caspian Operating Company (NCOC), Royal Dutch Shell plc, Statoil ASA, and Total ASA.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill refocused the attention of the global oil and gas industry and governments worldwide on oil spill technology and policies. Oil and gas companies are currently researching new technologies to detect leaks and address oil spills. Efforts of this recent research were presented at the Arctic Technology Conference.

INTECSEA and Worley Parsons, in their review of fiber optic cable distributed sensing systems, have found them to be potentially effective and a viable solution for Arctic and sub-Arctic pipeline leak detection. Fiber optic cable systems could provide extremely accurate leak detection capabilities not currently available.

Pipelines are designed not to leak. However, leaks could occur on Arctic pipelines due to the excessive strains of ice gouging, strudel scour, frost heave and permafrost thaw settlement and other loading and failure mechanisms. Failure to detect leaks in a timely manner could have severe safety, environmental and economic impacts, and while large leaks can easily be detected, small chronic leaks could go undetected for a length time, particularly on pipelines buried in remote locations or under seasonal ice cover.

Temperature differential and acoustic signatures around a leak are altered, allowing fiber optic cable systems to sense the change and transport the signal onshore or to a facility, according to INTECSEA and WorleyParsons researchers. Arctic developments will benefit through the deployment of a system with precise leak detection capabilities on a buried subsea pipeline.

“Fiber optic technology has progressed in recent years; however, further research is necessary to advanced fiber optic cables into a system that can be installed and operated on Arctic pipelines,” according to the companies’ research findings.

Finland began developing oil recovery equipment for ice in the early 1980s in response to a 1979 oil spill on Finland’s coast. According to officials with Helsinki-based Aker Arctic Technology, experience has shown that different marine environment conditions need a tailored approach to oil recovery activity, particularly in icy waters.

Despite a number of solutions available, the efficiency of oil recovery still varies greatly, company officials told attendees at the Arctic Technology Conference. They added that they are moving from individual equipment to integrated systems, which could include the construction of vessels for oil recovery missions and vessels with equipment suitable for different conditions.

Finland has a fleet of oil spill recovery vessels, including vessels retrofitted for oil spill response and vessels built for oil spill recovery. The Oblique ice breaker, currently under construction, is one new way of thinking about oil spill vessels. The idea behind the Oblique ice breaker is to use the vessel’s length as a collection boom; the skimmer system is inside the hull in a temperature controlled area.

The next step might be a vessel based on a trimaran concept, where the gap between the hulls could be used for oil collection and the wide deck area used for wider sweeping width. Aker already is developing a trimaran concept; early test results indicate this concept could not only be effective in ice breaking, but oil recovery could take place in the space between the hulls and equipment on deck. The deck also would be large enough to accommodate oil recovery equipment for different purposes, allowing the vessel to serve as a moving oil recovery base, Aker officials said.

Other possible solutions being studied include airborne, high search rate spectral fluorescence/reflectance lidar (SF/RL) that could potentially detect and geolocate oil beneath the Arctic ice as well as accurately measures ice thickness, and the use of an active optical spectral detection and discrimination sensor mounted on an autonomous underwater vehicles to detect oil trapped under ice.

In a comparison of the two platform-based sensor architectures, QinetiQ North America and Fugro Earth Data estimate that an aircraft flying at 125 kts at 2,000 feet through 4 inches of snow and 8 feet of ice with nominal Lidar system parameters can search at a rate of 129 square miles (336 square kilometers) an hour, or a .9 mile (1.5 kilometers) swath and 65 feet (20 meters) spatial sampling. An AUV-borne sensor would be composed of a compact SF/RL payload that conically scans around 50 degrees from nadir for a nominal oil detection depth of 75 feet.

Following the Deepwater Horizon incident, Canada’s National Energy Board reaffirmed its same season relief well guidelines (SSRW). An NEB official said that the regulatory mechanisms are in place to ensure any future Arctic offshore drilling is conducted with the environment in mind, UPI reported last year.

These regulations include an equivalency concept, which allowed for the adoption of equipment, methods and standards that were the same or higher level of those at the time regulations were drafted to protect the environment and conserve resources.

However, SSRW capabilities in water depths from 984 feet to 6,561 feet (300 to 2,000 meters) are highly challenged, said Bill Scott, general manager of the Chevron Arctic Center, during a presentation at the Arctic Technology Conference. Scott said that well capping was the shortest option for stopping and securing a well, and that a well capping system can be moved three to four times more quickly to a site compared with a relief well drilling system. Drilling a relief well was more likely to result in an oil spill.

The ability to quickly and efficiently address potential oil spills is not just an Arctic issue, but an issue of remoteness, Scott noted.

The impact of oil spills on local environment and wildlife, and the potential disruption to local native tribes, remain a concern for tribes such as the Inuvialut, said Frank Pokiak, chair of the Inuvialut Game Council, during the conference. The limited availability of infrastructure and Arctic class vessels, and the fact that drilling activity is moving into deeper waters where SSRW may not be applicable, and limited drilling seasons, has Pokiak and other indigenous residents wanting a better understanding of what is deemed equivalent to SSRW.


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