A new CyI study to assess the role of new technological trends in environmental protection in natural gas extraction, focusing on technologies for offshore operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, was presented at the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) committee meeting, by a team from The Cyprus Institute. This research was initiated by STOA, following a proposal by European MP Mr. Neoklis Sylikiotis, who pointed out that it is important to investigate the best new technologies in order to achieve the optimal extraction of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean with full safety and environmental protection. The study presents an overview of the main risks to the environment and the safety of personnel and facilities, and the role that existing or emerging technologies play or will play in addressing them. The study is limited to the consideration of conventional offshore exploration and extraction.
Environmental profile of the Eastern Med
The Eastern Mediterranean is one of the most oligotrophic seas in the world, characterized by very low nutrient availability. It is also characterized by high temperatures, evaporation and salinity since the inflow of fresh water is very limited due to the absence of large rivers, which limits the supply of coastal waters with debris and nutrients. However, despite its low productivity compared to other seas, the Eastern Med demonstrates very high biodiversity of flora and fauna species. It is however threatened by the introduction of invasive species, frequent oil spills, marine litter and heavy marine transport. The area exhibits a very high population density along the coast, exacerbated by the presence of ports, power stations and other industrial infrastructure.
Environmental and safety risks
The study, which is at its final stages, reviewed and evaluated the volumous scientific literature on th subject , together with the input from experts in academia the industry and governmental departments and led to the identification of three main categories of environmental risks: The risk of accidental blowouts, the accidental discharge of chemicals during the various stages of exploration, and the emission of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) during normal operations, either as CO2 from the numerous sub-processes of exploration and production, or from the fugitive methane emissions in the various subsystems.
Significant technologies now and for the future
There are many technological developments happening at the same time in the upstream portion of the O&G industry, from a number of technology developers (O&G service companies, research centres, O&G exploration companies, national R&D centres etc.) on a multitude of fronts. These encompass the drilling and completion equipment, subsea equipment, infrastructure above sea level and all other infrastructure necessary for exploring, finding, extracting and delivering gas to the next phase of operations.
The main technological trends identified in the study are the following:
- New developments in Blowout Preventers (BOPs): The DWH disaster was attributed mainly to the faulty operation of the BOP, which has prompted the industry to respond by promoting new designs. Due to the relatively challenging underwater environment of the Eastern Med (mainly due to depth), new designs that can withstand high throughputs and pressures are necessary, which will be as close as possible to 100% failsafe.
- New seismic surveying equipment: These technologies help to identify natural gas prospects more easily; place wells more effectively, reduce the number of dry holes drilled, reduce drilling costs, and cut exploration time. 3D and 4D surveys are now commonplace, but they can be done faster, cheaper and containing a lot more information than before. They also allow for much richer environmental baseline surveys.
- New trends in robotics: Remote Operating Vehicles and other autonomous undersea rovers have been sued for some time in the O&G industry. They are now cheaper to produce and operate, go deeper, last longer, provide better information and are more reliable. They are also deployed aerially (e.g. industrial drones) and are about to revolutionise the safety maintenance of infrastructure, the monitoring of leaks, and the gradual move towards upstream processes automation, minimising human error.
- Widespread digitalisation: The gradual process of moving all business activities onto digital platforms is sweeping through the O&G industry as well. This allows for new techniques such as machine learning and big data to be employed in almost all operation phases of exploration and production. This in turn reduces cost, minimises exploration time, allows for the use of data-sharing platforms, and will fundamentally transform the industry ushering in new generations of employees.
The policy options inferred from the above are presented in three main groups:
- Policies targeting Environmental, Health and Safety issues directly
- Policies targeting data sharing and collaboration and
- Policies targeting the reduction of GHG emissions
The first group focuses on better legislation and measures around the safe deployment of Blowout Preventers (BOPs), the devices that were ineffectual during the 2010 BP DeepWater Horizon (DWH) disaster. It is argued that a concerted effort between the countries of the Eastern Med rim can lead to better test protocols, in line with the articles of the 2013/30/EU Directive. In addition, the role of baseline Environmental Survey and Strategic Environmental Assessments should be elevated, to reduce costs, exploration time and safeguard the profile of the region.
The second group advocates for better standardisation and open-access platforms of environmental and safety data. This will bring the relevant countries towards a path of convergence, and can culminate in the creation of a policy and technology research centre based in the region, which can coordinate these efforts and be the first stop for all these assessments.
The third group aims to promote interconnectedness of energy systems due to the very high potential for efficiency gains throughout the gas upstream chain. Special efforts should be made through a policy framework for the monitoring, controlling and eventual reduction of fugitive methane emissions, a very potent GHG. It is also argued that the industry should take the lead in investigating the feasibility of Carbon Capture and Storage for the area, because of the enormous potential for GHG reductions in the future.