Cleaning up oil in a cold climate
Exploration and production of oil and gas are entering ever more extreme environments. An EU-funded project is examining the best ways to respond to accidental oil spills in the icy waters of the Arctic.
© jukuraesamurai #123009827, 2019 source: stock.adobe.com
Recent accidents involving oil spills in the marine environment have shown there is a need for better oil-spill response technology and knowledge on how to balance the efficiency of the response and their environmental impacts. This is particularly important as offshore oil and gas exploration moves into harsher environments, such as the Arctic. It is vital for environmental health and human quality of life that any unintended spills can be monitored online and cleaned up effectively in these fragile ecosystems.
The EU-funded GRACE project is developing, comparing and evaluating the effectiveness and environmental effects of different oil-spill response methods in extreme cold climates.
GRACE is exploring the true environmental impacts and benefits of a suite of marine oil-spill response technologies in cold and icy marine environments, says project coordinator Kirsten Jørgensen, based at the Marine Research Centre of the Finnish Environment Institute. These technologies include mechanical collection of spills in water and below ice, in situ burning of spills, the use of chemical dispersants, natural biodegradation and various combinations of these methods.
One key result from the project has been an on-site oil-spill burning test carried out in Greenland during the summer of 2017. This enabled researchers to test in practice how to operate in very remote arctic areas and to test a trawl and oil skimmer for collecting the burning waste.
The project was also able to carry out unique monitoring of the impact of the burning on the environment, which was lower than expected. In situ burning is a relevant option in remote arctic regions far from inhabited areas where it is difficult to assemble sufficient mechanical collection resources in a short time.
The team has also tested a range of oil sensors on novel platforms for online detection of oil compounds both on and below the sea surface. These rugged sensors can be mounted on ships and other platforms such as smart buoys, drifters and gliders with real-time data transfer.
Two smart buoys equipped with an oil sensor have been deployed in the Gulf of Finland, including in winter conditions. An oil sensor has also been integrated with a FerryBox system on board a passenger ferry travelling between Stockholm and Tallinn. This monitors pollutant concentrations at one-minute intervals along the route where the probability of oil spills is the highest. The data collected covers a period of almost two years and provides early warning for higher-than-normal oil levels as well as temporal and spatial data for further analysis.
Furthermore, an electro kinetic method for cleaning up oil contamination on the sea floor has been tested for the first time close to Helsinki, and one partner company is developing a new under ice vehicle for collecting oil.
Other laboratory work has focused on the impact of dispersants and dispersed oil on invertebrates and fish in cold and brackish water, and assessing the biodegradation of dispersed oil in sea ice and cold seawater. The impact studies are aiming to establish links between the molecular level and the organism. Researchers are developing a new biosensor, using zebrafish embryos, to detect oil impacts online.
A web-based decision-making tool for oil-response authorities to design an oil-spill response strategy that combines the right mix of interventions is being developed, too.
Clearly, any improvement in oil-spill response, which will cause less environmental damage in the case of an accidental spill, will also have social and economic benefits, says Jørgensen.
The smart buoys with oil sensors are already on the market and the new oil under-ice vehicle prototyped during the project should be commercialised soon, with potential international customers having already made contact. The GRACE web-based decision-making tool will be freely available online to all international organisations planning and carrying out cross-border oil-spill response cooperation in Arctic sea regions.