A challenging climate for oil spill response

Published Mar 9, 2015
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Interspill 2015 Exhibition

The world of oil spill preparedness and response changed dramatically in 2010 following the events in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in a global spotlight being placed on prevention and regulation. Industry responded with improved processes for offshore risk assessments, a number of initiatives on well engineering, design and training, capping systems able to be rapidly deployed globally within 24 – 48 hours, and new technologies, innovations, and ways of working that can improve response times. Whilst progress is tangible, there are still a number of challenges to be tackled.

New regulations are starting to come into being and our prior experience with shipping has taught us the value of the industry engaging with all stakeholders – and particularly regulators - in a partnership approach.

There were of course other significant offshore spills ahead of Macondo, notably the 1979 Ixtoc 1 spill in Mexico and the Montara spill in Australia just a matter of months before. But it was the Macondo incident in the Gulf of Mexico that provided the global focus on offshore spills and acted as a catalyst for industry to lay the building blocks for a more unified approach to offshore spill preparedness and response.

History has shown that true performance improvement can be facilitated by regulators and industry working together and indeed this was the mantra of the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation (OPRC).

Learning lessons from shipping
The OPRC was introduced in 1990 following a number of high profile shipping spills such as the Amoco Cadiz off the French coastline, the Castillo de Bellver near Cape Town and the Exxon Valdez incident in Alaska following which a concerted effort was made to improve prevention methods and cooperative processes. Data from the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) demonstrate a significant reduction in tanker spills over the last several decades, from an average of 24.5 spills per year in the ‘70s to less than two spills per year on average in the current decade. There is a widespread misconception that the OPRC only relates to shipping, but it is in fact applicable to all sectors of the industry and the convention specifically makes specific reference to the offshore sector.

So why is it that we are only now seeing the beginnings of a cooperative approach on offshore spill response when shipping has been making advances for two decades?

While the answer to that question is complex, a significant part of the problem may be able to be ascribed to the fact that while there is a global body for shipping, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), to which nation states can subscribe to and to which industry is invited to contribute, its mandate is severely constrained when it comes to the majority of the offshore sector.

Whilst there have been calls to expand the remit of the IMO, in the absence of an intergovernmental solution the emergence of the International Regulators Forum and more latterly the International Offshore Petroleum Environmental Regulators Forum has provided an opportunity for wider collaboration on offshore environmental matters and regulation of the offshore sector.

Working collaboratively
In response to Macondo a number of new organisations and projects were initiated. The American Petroleum Institute set up the Centre for Offshore Safety to facilitate the sharing and learning process between industry, government and external stakeholders.

Interspill 2015 Exhibition-2

The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) also launched the Global Industry Response Group (GIRG) to focus on major offshore incident prevention, intervention and response.

These initiatives paved the way for greater collaboration around technology. Consortiums of operators united over capping projects ranging from the Subsea Well Response Project to Helix, OSPRAG, the MWCC and many others. We are now in a position where industry can access a capping device anywhere in the world within 24 – 48 hours. This is a major leap forward from five years ago.

GIRG also recommended the formation of the Oil Spill Response Joint Industry Project (OSR-JIP), which works with key stakeholders around the world.

The first phase involving nineteen member companies is coming to an end and the second phase is about to start. The JIP process promotes credibility through collaboration and importantly makes it easier for national administrations, intergovernmental organisations and other third parties to get involved. All of this builds confidence and helps to counteract assumptions of a ‘closed doors’ club. It also shares the cost and risk of speeding up the development of new technologies and processes. The three year project addressed nineteen recommendations for improving spill response from dispersant issues to good practice guidance, which are being widely adopted.

What next for oil spill preparedness?
There are still a number of challenges that need to be faced, however. The impacts to upstream companies have driven the need to get better at articulating the risks of a spill and the need to maintain oil spill budgets and expertise, regardless of the economic environment There is still too much disagreement on managing risk, which can result in companies developing boutique solutions that – in the end - cost more. The industry also needs to continuously improve its understanding of the principles of risk assessment as a driver of cost effective oil spill response preparedness.

Interspill 2015 provides a platform to initiate this debate. This year sees a first with the International Offshore Petroleum Environmental Regulators leading the closing plenary session. This will focus on the move towards regulators and industry working together to agree universal principles for preparedness.

Regulation has always been managed regionally, but can industry embrace a move towards cooperative global regulation?
Perhaps there has never been a better time.

Interspill 2015 will be held at Amsterdam RAI Convention Centre, The Netherlands, over 24-26 March 2015.

Rob Cox
Rob Cox

Rob Cox is chairman of Interspill 2015 and technical director of IPIECA


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