ATC: Industry eager to advance Arctic oil spill response expertise, skills

Few experimental spills have been done offshore the US and Canada in the last 20 years, noted a speaker at the Arctic Technology Conference in Houston on Dec. 4 during a panel discussion on oil spill preparedness.

“If we want to refine our spill response, we have to get out and practice. Experimental spills are the way to do that,” said Steve Potter, a principal with consulting firm SL Ross Environmental Research Ltd.

SL Ross has a laboratory for spill-related oil testing, yet Potter advocated that permits be granted for experimental spills to enhance oil spill response research in actual field conditions. He noted more recent experimental spills have been done off Norway than North America.

Potter also said regulations are nonexistent or unclear in many jurisdictions worldwide on obtaining approvals to use dispersants or in-situ burning on offshore oil spills.

Research indicates that in-situ burning (ISB) can rapidly eliminate more than 90% of spilled oil in arctic waters, Potter said.

ISB requires less equipment and fewer workers than do some mechanical recovery methods such as the use of skimmers, he noted, adding this makes ISB a practical response method in Arctic environments.

SL Ross helped compile a report “Spill Response in the Arctic Offshor,” which is available on the American Petroleum Institute web site.

Meanwhile, nine oil and gas companies have joined the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology Joint Industry Program to expand industry knowledge and to develop proficiencies in cold-water oil spill response (OGJ Online, Dec. 4, 2012).

Potter said mechanical containment and recovery is considered the preferred response strategy in many regions. But he noted that most mechanical recovery systems are technologies developed for open water although several types of skimmers have been developed specifically for recovering oil in ice.

Skimmers designed for recovering oil in icy waters often use brush belts or drums rotating through the slick. Some skimmers are equipped with heating systems, ice-deflection frames, and systems that can pump viscous oil-water-ice mixtures, he said.

“We shouldn’t look at ice as just being a barrier. It can be an advantage,” in helping contain spilled oil, Potter said. Ice, snow, and cold temperatures can greatly reduce the spread of spilled oil.

Oil trapped within ice during the winter typically emerges at the surface during the spring thaw. Encapsulated oil released due to spring thaw act similar to oil spilled in open water.

SL Ross believes suitability and effectiveness of most spill-response techniques rely upon the type of oil involved so an understanding of the oil’s characteristics is key, Potter said.

Tim Nedwed, a senior engineering associate for ExxonMobil Upstream Research Co., said the use of dispersants is important in large spills and in remote areas although he noted that mechanical recovery methods can be effective depending upon specific spill conditions.

“Mechanical recovery has significant limitations offshore both for large spills and spills in ice,” Nedwed said.

ExxonMobil has developed a dispersant gel for use in arctic waters for cold, viscous oil, he said.

“Dispersants should be considered a primarily planning response option for the Arctic,” Nedwed said.

Norman “Buddy” Custard, emergency response superintendent with Shell Exploration & Production Co., said Shell’s Alaska drilling operations stretch out more than 1,000 miles from the nearest deepwater port.

Consequently, Shell maintains a fleet of spill-response vessels and personnel in the region, Custard said.

He noted Shell also has invested in equipment redundancies to ensure that it has what is needed onsite in case of a spill.

“No other company has had this amount of equipment onsite available for immediate response,” Custard said of Shell’s offshore Alaska operations.

The Arctic Technology Conference was hosted by organizers of Houston’s Offshore Technology Conference. The spill preparedness panelists discussed how it’s critical to understand how oil will behave in arctic conditions.

Contact Paula Dittrick at paulad@ogjonline.com.

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