Tag Archives: oil drilling

Gambling with the Environment: Shell’s Decommissioning Plans in the North Sea

Giant oil firms have spent more than four decades pumping billions of pounds worth of oil from the seabed. But now decommissioned rigs in the North Sea are at the centre of an environmental storm with an oil giant under intense pressure to rethink plans to leave some of the platforms in the sea.

Several hundred oil drilling platforms in the waters off Scotland are due to be decommissioned over the next three decades as they approach the end of their operational lifetime.  Due to the cost and difficulty of dismantling the structures – each of which can be as tall as the Eiffel Tower – Shell proposed removing only the topside of its four Brent platforms, leaving the huge concrete legs in place.

A natural gas platform in Norway. Almost all of the 600KT structure will be submerged.

That resulted in the controversial suggestion that oil mixed with sediment in 42 out of 64 concrete storage cells – each up to 66 feet in diameter and 200 feet high, around the height of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh – should remain on the seabed. These could remain for up to 500 years after the platforms have been decommissioned.

Chevron oil platform

The plans have raised alarm in some quarters over the impact of leaks from the estimated 11,000 tonnes of raw oil and toxins remaining in the base of the four Brent installations – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta, all put up in the East Shetland basin in the 1970s.  It has emerged that a report of an expert evaluation group commissioned by the Dutch government has provided a critical analysis of the position and recommends a clean-up be carried out as agreed more than 20 years ago in international treaties.   See Brent Decommissioning Derogation: An evaluation. The special treaty known as Ospar, which was adopted in 1992, states that rigs, including their contents and pipelines, must be removed from the sea after decommissioning.

The experts said that removing all contaminated materials “presents the most certain solution”.  They say staying true to Ospar “not only avoids passing on potential problems to future generations” but also prevents “large amounts of negative public attention as was the case in the decommissioning of Brent Spar in the 1990s”.  When Shell proposed sinking the Spar oil storage buoy in 1995, it prompted protests by Greenpeace, petrol boycotts in Germany and a falling share price. The company was eventually forced to back down and find a more environmentally friendly plan.

In October 2019, Greenpeace activists from the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark boarded two oil platforms in Shell’s Brent field in a protest against the plans. They scaled Brent Bravo and hung banners saying “Shell, clean up your mess!” and “Stop Ocean Pollution”.

The 2019 report revealed that an earlier independent review group(that took place in 2017)said that a “leave in place” solution with appropriate navigational markers and safety zones gave “a risk in relation to shipping impact that Shell regarded as acceptable”.  The report added: “However, although the estimated probabilities of a collision may be low on a per annum basis, the consequences could be catastrophic and result in major injury and loss of life or serious marine pollution.”

Excerpts from North Sea oil decommissioning: pressure grows on Shell to back down, the Herald, Oct. 20, 2019
 

How Companies Buy Social License: the ExxonMobil Example

The Mobil Foundation sought to use its tax-exempt grants to shape American laws and regulations on issues ranging from the climate crisis to toxic chemicals – with the explicit goal of benefiting Mobil, documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper show.  Recipients of Mobil Foundation grants included Ivy League universities, branches of the National Academies and well-known civic organizations and environmental researchers.  Benefits for Mobil included – in the foundation’s words – funding “a counterpoint to so-called ‘public interest’ groups”, helping Mobil obtain “early access” to scientific research, and offering the oil giant’s executives a forum to “challenge the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) behind-the-scenes”….

A third page reveals Mobil Foundation’s efforts to expand its audience inside environmental circles via a grant for the Environmental Law Institute, a half-century-old organization offering environmental law research and education to lawyers and judges.  “Institute publications are widely read in the environmental community and are helpful in communicating industry’s concerns to such organizations,” the entry says. “Mobil Foundation grants will enhance environmental organizations’ views of Mobil, enable us to reach through ELI activities many groups that we do not communicate with, and enable Mobil to participate in their dialogue groups.”

The documents also show Mobil Foundation closely examining the work of individual researchers at dozens of colleges and universities as they made their funding decisions, listing ways that foundation grants would help shape research interests to benefit Mobil, help the company recruit future employees, or help combat environmental and safety regulations that Mobil considered costly.  “It should be a wake-up call for university leaders, because what it says is that fossil fuel funding is not free,” said Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard and MIT.  “When you take it, you pay with your university’s social license,” Supran said. “You pay by helping facilitate these companies’ political and public relations tactics.”

In some cases, the foundation described how volunteer-staffed not-for-profits had saved Mobil money by doing work that would have otherwise been performed by Mobil’s paid staff, like cleaning birds coated in oil following a Mobil spill.  In 1987, the International Bird Rescue Research Center’s “rapid response and assistance to Mobil’s West Coast pipeline at a spill in Lebec, CA not only defused a potential public relations problem”, Mobil Foundation said, “but saved substantial costs by not requiring our department to fly cross country to respond”.d of trustees at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (recipient of listed donations totalling over $200,000 from Mobil) and a part of UN efforts to study climate change.

Wise ultimately co-authored two UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, serving as a lead author on one. One report chapter Wise co-authored prominently recommended, among other things, burning natural gas (an ExxonMobil product) instead of coal as a way to combat climate change.

Excerpts from How Mobil pushed its oil agenda through ‘charitable giving’, Guardian, June 12, 2019

The Fate of Nuclear Waste from Oil Drilling

Scotoil Services Ltd, a company which disposes of radioactive waste from the North Sea oil industry, inadvertently pumped dangerous particles into Aberdeen Harbour over several months.  The pollution included materials such as lead-210, radium-226 and radium-228, which both glow blue in the dark, and polonium-210, which was used to poison the former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko.  An investigation by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) found one “gross” breach and several “major” breaches of the firm’s operating conditions.

However, the public was never told about the leak, which continued unchecked from November 2011 until April 2012, and it also appears that the Scottish Government was not informed either.   While Scotoil had installed equipment to remove solid material from their liquid effluent, in April 2012, they informed Sepa that a final filter they were using had potentially failed Sepa said in a statement.

Scotoil has long been at the centre of concerns about radioactive particles washing up on the southern end of Aberdeen Beach, known as Foot Dee.  Drilling for oil and gas causes Naturally-Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) to build up on offshore equipment – an estimated 50 to 100 tonnes each year from the North Sea alone.  For years, Scotoil and other operators could allow small particles of NORM to be discharged into the sea with the water they used to clean the drills and other pieces of essential kit.

However, tighter restrictions brought in from October 2011 mean that all particles must now be screened out and sent to secure landfill sites in sealed drums, along with the bulk of the solid waste.  Following a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper, it emerged that Sepa became aware of the potential Scotoil leak in April, 2012.  The company contacted Sepa to report “that particles of NORM have been discharged in their liquid effluent to the marine environment… Scotoil’s view is that the filters failed allowing the solid material into the environment”.

Excerpt  from, Ben Borland, Scots kept in the dark over radiation leak into harbour at Aberdeen, Scottish Express, Apr. 26, 2014

Yasuni National Park Oil Drilling: Ecuador, Amazon

Ecuador’s parliament on Thursday (Oct. 3, 2012) authorized drilling of the nation’s largest oil fields in part of the Amazon rainforest after the failure of President Rafael Correa’s plan to have rich nations pay to avoid its exploitation.  The socialist leader launched the initiative in 2007 to protect the Yasuni jungle area, which boasts some of the planet’s most diverse wildlife, but scrapped it after attracting only a small fraction of the $3.6 billion sought.

The government-dominated National Assembly authorized drilling in blocks 43 and 31, but attached conditions to minimize the impact on both the environment and local tribes. Though Correa says the estimated $22 billion earnings potential will be used to combat poverty in the South American nation, there have been protests from indigenous groups and green campaigners.  About 680,000 people have signed a petition calling for a referendum.  “We want them to respect our territory,” Alicia Cauilla, a representative of the Waorani people who live around the Yasuni area, said in an appeal to the assembly. “Let us live how we want.”  Correa has played down the potential impact of oil drilling in the area, saying it would affect only 0.01 percent of the entire Yasuni basin…

Oil output in OPEC’s smallest member has stagnated since 2010 when the government asked oil investors to sign less-profitable service contracts or leave the country. Since then, oil companies have not invested in exploration.  State oil company Petroamazonas will be in charge of extraction in blocks 43 and 31, which are estimated to hold 800 million barrels of crude and projected to yield 225,000 barrels per day eventually. Ecuador currently produces 540,000 bpd

Excerpt, By Alexandra Valencia, Ecuador congress approves Yasuni basin oil drilling in Amazon, Reuters, Oct. 4, 2013