New tool to estimate impact of exploration on marine environment

Paul Boughton

A new tool that will enable the UK oil and gas industry to estimate what effects oil and gas exploration will have on the marine environment, is to be developed by a scientist at Heriot-Watt University (HWU).

Dr Kate Gormley of HWU’s Centre for Marine Biodiversity & Biotechnology (CMBB), has secured a NERC Oil and Gas Knowledge Exchange Fellowship worth nearly £250K to develop a new environmental data management (EDM) platform. It is expected to transform environmental impact assessments and monitoring, both routine ones and those during major incidents on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Currently oil and gas developments are subject to permit and environmental impact assessment (EIA) requirements under a strict legal framework of national, regional and international regulations, both before and during exploration - and decommissioning. The UK industry is required to determine if any activity is likely to have a significant impact on the environment or on the conservation objectives of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) under the Scottish and UK Marine Acts. Baseline data is fundamental to assess these potential impacts, yet there is currently limited guidance to state how or when, environmental monitoring should be conducted.

Gormley’s Fellowship will focus on pertinent policy, industry and research questions in relation to decommissioning and ongoing monitoring. Her work may have useful applications beyond oil and gas, including in offshore renewables and the emerging deep-sea mineral mining industry.

Speaking about her fellowship, Gormley highlighted that ensuring that environmental data is collected and stored in an efficient and easily accessible manner will be increasingly important. She said “For the past three decades, EU environmental policy has focused on how to determine, manage and mitigate adverse and undesirable impacts to the environment as the result of human activities.

“However, with the introduction of new production techniques, combined with offshore exploration expanding into deeper waters around the UK, there are increased risks to the environment, such as an oil spill incident. These developments may highlight a requirement for a change to the current environmental procedures and for more stringent environmental monitoring going forward.

“The UK oil and gas industries will need to be able to set an environmental baseline in these relatively unknown territories in order to ensure their conservation. Furthermore, over the coming decades, a number of offshore oil and gas installations in the North Sea will be decommissioned, presenting economic as well as environmental challenges.

“That’s why we need transformative new tools and a coherent environmental data platform, so that data – particularly local environmental data - can be quickly accessed enabling scientifically rigorous and accurate monitoring, analysis and assessment of impacts, both on a day-to-day basis and for major incidents.”

Gormley will examine industry best practice; liaise with other countries involved in oil and gas exploration and production and chart a wide portfolio of environmental data resources from industry, academic research and the wider environmental community. She will create a web-based portal for data for UK regions, including the Atlantic margin where exploration and production are experiencing rapid growth.

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