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New insight into impacts of petroleum activities

From 2002 to 2011, the Research Council of Norway has provided funding to 65 projects that have generated a valuable, unique body of cross-disciplinary knowledge about the impact of offshore petroleum activities.

The research was carried out under the programme Long-term Effects of Discharges to the Sea from the Petroleum Activities (PROOF), which in 2006 was integrated into the larger research programme on the Oceans and Coastal Areas (HAVKYST).

Environmental monitoring

“This research has led to better modelling tools for environmental monitoring of the Norwegian continental shelf. These monitoring activities have enabled us to ease concerns about negative impacts caused by earlier practice of depositing oil-contaminated waste,” states Fridtjof Unander, Executive Director of the Research Council's Division for Energy, Resources and the Environment.

Photo: Kristin Strand By As a petroleum-producing nation, Norway faces a critical challenge in dimensioning and carrying out petroleum recovery sustainably in its northern areas. (Photo: Kristin Strand By)

As a petroleum-producing nation, Norway faces a critical challenge in dimensioning and carrying out petroleum recovery sustainably in its northern areas. Mr Unander is pleased that the research findings can provide a basis for a more fact-based debate over this controversial topic.

Long-term effects studied

Petroleum activities will continue to expand in Norway’s northern marine areas in the years to come. Many people view these marine areas as more vulnerable than waters further south such as the North Sea. The Barents Sea is home to a particularly rich ecosystem, and the waters off Lofoten comprise the most important spawning grounds in the Northern Hemisphere for a number of fish species.

The objective of research under the PROOF programme was to reveal any long-term impacts from the oil and gas industry’s operational and accidental discharges into the sea. In this context “long-term impacts” are defined as effects which extend over a generation or longer, or which lead to long-lasting negative changes to the ecosystem.

Illustration: Jon Solberg The waters off Lofoten comprise the most important spawning grounds in the Northern Hemisphere for a number of fish species. (Illustration: Jon Solberg) No evidence that the north is more fragile

No findings have indicated that Arctic and sub-Arctic marine organisms are more adversely affected by discharges than their cousins elsewhere on the continental shelf. When it comes to effects from produced water and drilling waste, the differences found between Arctic and temperate species are minor and inconclusive as to which organisms are more vulnerable.

There is much evidence, however, that causal processes transpire more slowly under sub-Arctic conditions – including the degradation of oil.

Many factors involved

The susceptibility of individual species is only one of the factors that indicate how the Arctic ecosystem behaves in relation to discharges compared to corresponding ecosystems in temperate areas.

In addition to the discharges themselves, the impacts of operational and accidental discharges appear to be determined by a variety of other factors, such as climate, ecological seasonal variation, spatial distribution of populations, and society. The significance of these factors needs to be studied more closely, including investigating whether there are predictable relationships between discharge patterns, environmental pressures and the resulting impacts.

Pollutants in produced water

The programme’s research findings show that the greatest cause for concern is the discharge of produced water, which contains several substances of varying toxicity.

The studies confirm that components within produced water can cause negative impacts on health, function and reproduction in individuals of fish species and invertebrates. Risk assessments based on the monitoring results, however, show the danger of environmental damage to be moderate across the board, and that the concentrations that cause impacts are normally only found within a radius of one kilometre from a point of discharge.

The researchers do not rule out the risk that small impacts on individual species could have cumulative effects, but the probability is slight.

Photo: Harald Pettersen/Statoil During well drilling, various fluids are used to lubricate the drill bit, stabilise the well pressure and walls, and transport cuttings up from the borehole. On the Norwegian continental shelf, water-based drilling fluids are primarily used. (Photo: Harald Pettersen/Statoil)

More knowledge needed about drilling fluids’ effects

During well drilling, various fluids are used to lubricate the drill bit, stabilise the well pressure and walls, and transport cuttings up from the borehole. On the Norwegian continental shelf, water-based drilling fluids are primarily used.

The long-term effects from discharges of such fluids are not fully known, but studies show that the discharges can entail serious consequences for individuals directly exposed to them. Although the effects are limited in time and space, researchers cannot rule out the possibility that prolonged discharge could have a more far-reaching impact on seabed sediments.

The PROOF report

The report on ten years of research on long-term effects of discharges to the sea from petroleum activities may be downloaded here (PDF-2 774.2 KB) .

The findings provide an important part of the framework for understanding how offshore activities affect the marine environment, and how to avoid major negative impacts from these activities.
 

 

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