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Pollution Associated With Oil And Gas Production Environmental Sciences Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 1783 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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1.1.1 Oil and gas production generally generates massive wealth for countries and contributes to the socio-economic development in the areas of foreign exchange earnings, provision of job opportunities, improved infrastructure, water supply, sewerage and waste treatment, health care and education, among others. Despite these economic and social benefits associated with the oil and gas industry, the exploitation of oil and gas reserves has not always been without some ecological side effects. Oil spills, damaged land, accidents and fires, and incidents of air and water pollution have all been recorded at various times and places.

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1.1.2 The discussions that follow will seek to highlight the pollution associated with the various stages of the oil and gas production; and will discuss the wide range of approaches used by governments across the globe to regulate the attendant impact and pollution to the ecosystem. The discussion will also suggest an appropriate strategy to be adopted by the industry in order to achieve its overall goal of finding the right mix of regulatory, co-regulatory, incentives and voluntary mechanisms to meet the challenge of world energy demands, whilst minimising adverse impact on the environment by conforming to current good practice.

The environmental impacts of the activities of the oil and gas industry – exploration and exploitation, refining and products marketing – have been of concern to government regulatory agencies, oil companies’ operators as well as the host communities. The potential for extensive and irreversible environmental and social damage from oil development projects is particularly acute in developing countries with inadequate regulatory frameworks or weak environmental and social legislation.

The impacts of oil and gas operations generally occur in the form of human, socio-economic and cultural impacts, atmospheric impacts, aquatic and terrestrial impacts.

Human, socio-economic and cultural impacts may include changes in land-use patterns, such as agriculture, fishing and hunting as direct consequence (for example, land-take and exclusion) or as a secondary consequence in the form of new access routes, leading to unplanned settlement and exploitation of natural resources. The impact could also result in changes in aesthetics because of unsightly or noisy facilities.

It has been reported that in some places where oil is discovered, the economy develops rapidly, but it is an economy of misery.   Poorly built oil camps are carved out of the landscape and bring with them many social problems, such as forced displacement, alcoholism, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV/AIDs. Oil companies and governments regularly wash their hands of the communities mostly damaged by the oil development. In most instances, these communities are left on their own to try to determine how much and what kinds of harm the oil and gas industry has caused, and to search for ways to restore their community’s health.

Protests by communities, often confrontational in nature, are the most eloquent testimonies of the resistance to the general pollution of the environment by the activities of oil companies. For example, in 1995, proposals by Shell to dispose of the Brent Spar oil storage facility provoked an extensive campaign of protests by activists from Greenpeace aimed at stopping Shell from dumping the Brent Spar in the North Sea. Spontaneous protests in support of Greenpeace and against Shell broke out across Europe, and eventually resulted in Shell’s eventual abandonment of plans to dump it deep in the Atlantic.,

Atmospheric pollution results from flaring, venting, and purging gases, fugitive gases from loading operations and tankage and losses from process equipment, combustion processes such as diesel engines and gas turbines. The main emission gases include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, volatile organic carbons and nitrogen oxides.

Gas flaring exposes workers, communities, and wildlife to pollution with various health effects. The flares pollute the clouds, causing a “black rain” that poisons water sources. The Niger Delta in Nigeria is a typical example of a region adversely affected by the impact of oil and gas exploration and production. Pervasive gas flaring is one of the key factors that have worsened the environment of the Niger Delta, attracting concern from the international community. It has been reported that Nigeria has the World’s highest level of gas flaring and flares about 16 per cent of the world’s associated gas.

Aquatic pollution result from production water, spills and leakages, cooling water, process, wash and drainage water, drilling fluids, and chemicals used for well treatment. Oil is often spilled during transport through pipelines, trucks, and ships. When oil spills, it pollutes groundwater and waterways, harms plants and animals, and causes damage that may last for years to resources for hunting, fishing, and farming. Even once the oil appears to have dissipated, it can still lurk beneath the surface of beaches and the sea bed, severely affecting marine organisms that burrow, such as crabs, for literally decades. These burrowing creatures are also food for other animals, so the cycle of poisoning continues for many years.

In addition to the impact on marine life, oil spills have a direct impact on humans too long after the initial media frenzy has died down. For example, some Alaskan communities were affected by the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989 as important commercial fishing and hunting grounds were contaminated for an extended period. Tourism was also affected.

Oil and gas operations also have potential impacts on vegetation and soils resulting from deforestation, disturbance due to construction activities, indirect impact due to social change and contamination resulting from spillage and leakage or solid waste disposal. During the course of exploration oil, forests are cut down and homes are destroyed. Roads are built, and streams and rivers are blocked up. Seismic testing damages homes, wildlife, and the land.  

Oil drilling can cause fires, explosions, and other accidents that endanger workers and the community. For example, in 1988, the offshore platform Piper Alpha, which was located in the British sector of the North Sea oil field and operated by Occidental Petroleum, was engulfed in a catastrophic fire and resulted in the loss of 167 lives, costing billions of dollars in property damage, and the shutting down of approximately 10% of total UK gas production.

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The dumping of toxic water is also a major cause of pollution. Laws about drilling in wealthy countries require the toxic water to be put back into the ground rather than dumped on the surface.  Oil companies often do nothing more than dig a hole and dump in crude oil, drilling wastes, toxic water, and other wastes leading to the contamination of groundwater and land.

Pollution at the refining stage results from refineries releasing toxic waste into water, soil, and air and this leads to various health risks. This pollution also adds to global warming.

The decommissioning phase of oil and gas production, if unchecked, can also present environmental problems by the disposal of oil platforms into deep waters. The end result could be hundreds of rusting platforms, obsolete subsea infrastructure and disused pipelines running all the way to land.

It is important to point out here that the impact on the environment of oil and gas exploration and production operations depends on the stage of the process, the size and complexity of the project, the nature and sensitivity of the surrounding environment, the effectiveness of the planning, pollution prevention, and mitigation control techniques.

While some of these impacts can be said to be the result of unpredictable “acts of God”, the occurrence of some of these potentially devastating impacts often result from accumulation of errors and questionable decisions, most of which are rooted in the organization, its structure, procedures, and culture. These organizational factors include flaws in the design guidelines and design practices, misguided priorities in the management of the trade-off between productivity and safety, mistakes in the management of the personnel on board, and errors of judgment in the process by which financial pressures are applied on the production sector resulting in deficiencies in inspection and maintenance operations.

The Piper Alpha accident of 1988 is one of the cases that can hardly be attributed to “an act of God”: gross human error greatly contributed to this accident. Notwithstanding the fact that the coincidence of the final events that triggered the catastrophe was not in itself controllable, the failure resulted essentially from an accumulation of management errors. In November 1990, Lord Cullen’s report into the disaster severely criticised safety procedures on the rig owned by Occidental Oil. The immediate cause of the disaster was a

failure in the permit to work system which caused a breakdown in communications between the day shift and the night shift. This led to the use of machinery which was undergoing maintenance and caused the escape of gas from an insecurely fastened temporary flange. Thereafter, there appeared to be a series of failures and errors of judgment which contributed to the overall scale of the disaster.

In the case of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1998, the US National Transportation Safety Board ruled that drinking by the ship’s captain, a fatigued and overworked crew and inadequate traffic control by the Coast Guard all contributed to the enormous oil spill by the Exxon Valdez off the Alaskan coast in 1989.

In another instance, the final Report by the Commission set up by US President Barack Obama to investigate the cause of the recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion on 20 April 2010 in which 11 workers were killed and led to an estimated four million barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico (‘the National Oil Spill Commission’) concluded, among others, that the explosive loss of the Macondo well could have been prevented ; and that the immediate causes of the Macondo well blowout can be traced to a series of identifiable mistakes made by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean that reveal such systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.


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