Natural and human related incidents in oil and gas exploration and production (E&P) have a profound impact on human activity. Fuels and Power looks at some of the risk factors. Jaya Prakash and Goh Tz’en Long reports.
Unbeknownst to many of us, oil and gas exploration can be hazardous business.
Myriad risks are involved in oil and gas exploration and production can cause hazards. In exploration and production drilling there are atmospheric emissions caused by gaseous pollutants such as Volatile Organic Carbon compounds (VOC), Organic carbon compound (OC), carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide etc. High concentrations of VOC itself is known, to cause irritation of the lungs, damage to the liver and the central nervous system.
The natural hazards and some risks include the unexpected occurrence of viral pandemics such as Covid-19, well blowouts, explosions, contamination of surface and groundwater and spillages, and hydraulic fracturing pressure. Climate change conditions include sea level rise and extreme weather. There are natural disasters caused by tsunamis, typhoons, earthquakes, forest fires, tidal waves, etc.
Controls such as a marine management plan, are required in the case of offshore drilling, which poses hazards to the natural ecology. Of the hazards that can be caused by oil and gas exploration, there are indeed quite a few. And these range from blowouts, rig damages, explosions and fires, subsurface pollution, injuries and deaths and water contamination.
THE GREAT BANE
Yet one of the greatest risks posed by LNG drilling is if LNG spills occur near an ignition source. As the National Geographic explained, ‘evaporating gas will burn above the LNG pool’. A pool fire is largely understood to be always intense and because it is intense, it is a cause of grave concern. It burns with greater intensity than gasoline fires. Worse still, it cannot be extinguished as all the LNG must be exhausted from the pool before it runs out. As an LNG fire can be extremely hot, thermal radiation poses great risk to life and property and many experts have agreed that a large pool fire is perhaps the most serious LNG hazard.
As can be imagined LNG spills do not happen immediately. The evaporating natural gas will form a vapour cloud which when met with an ignition source, will potentially burn if segments of a drifting cloud had high concentrations of methane.
LNG vapour clouds could cause asphyxiation by displacing breathable air. Such clouds may begin near the ground (or water) when they are still very cold but rise in air as they warm. Due to its extremely low temperature, LNG could injure people or damage equipment through direct contact. Such contact would likely be limited, however, as a major spill would likely result in a more serious fire. The environmental damage associated with an LNG spill would be confined to fire and freezing impacts near the spill since LNG dissipates completely and leaves no residue, claims National Geographic.
Still nothing needs to be discounted if there ever is a heavy formation of methane gas. Methane, gas is made of carbon and hydrogen and even small amounts of liquid hydrogen can be explosive when combined with air. Both its explosiveness and the extremely low temperatures involved make handling it safely a challenge.
Thermogenic methane, a natural gas formed deep beneath the Earth’s surface is also able to rise through such as porous rock, and eventually dissipate into the atmosphere.
But as it is hardly known, exploring for natural gas can be a hazardous affair. The exploration for gas affects the environment even as the gas is known to be relatively safe. Even as it emits lower carbon dioxide emissions, that leaves to guess that it is mainly methane which is a very strong greenhouse gas.
Whenever drilling for the gas is done, what is inevitably ‘harassed’ is the vegetation and all accompanying flora and fauna. Unmistakably what is affected during drilling is land clearing and perhaps also along with it, the ecosystem of all surroundings. It is always a given that well drilling activities produce air pollution, disturbs people, wildlife, and water resources.
Laying LNG is the other concern. Large volumes of contaminated water when produced during drilling gives off contaminated water. Coupled with the engines found in gas wells and pipelines, what results are air pollutants and noise!
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing of shale means pumping high-pressured liquids to fracture the rock, which allows natural gas to escape from the rock. Producing natural gas with this technique has some effects on the environment.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fracking produces large amounts of wastewater at the surface, which may contain dissolved chemicals and other contaminants that require treatment before disposal or reuse. Because of the quantities of water produced and the complexities inherent in treating some of the wastewater components, proper treatment and disposal of the wastewater is important. According to the U.S. Geological Survey and cited by U.S Energy Information Administration, hydraulic fracturing “…causes small earthquakes, but they are almost always too small to be a safety concern. In addition to natural gas, fracking fluids and formation waters are returned to the surface. These wastewaters are frequently disposed of by injection into deep wells. The injection of wastewater into the subsurface can cause earthquakes that are large enough to be felt and may cause damage”.
The use of explosives during exploration is yet another concern, says Barclays Bank PLC. Equally more, is the prospect of extreme weather, sea level rise, temperature rise and water availability. Then there are regulatory risks. It is almost certain of a rising regulatory burden as development moves into new and more challenging geographies and less well-known technologies.
That is over and above the production of sulphur, says Barclays Bank PLC.
But there is some hope. Most of the damage can be mitigated if there is an optimisation of operations and processes to minimize energy and water consumption, if there is equipment maintenance and use of silencers and a noise and vibration Management Plan, an emissions inventory, air quality monitoring and management and Air Quality Management Plan or using
Non-TNT (dynamite) based, or thumper trucks in preference to explosives.
And when it comes to exploratory drilling and controlled venting, and control and management of pressurised oil and gas from borehole are some of the recommendations from Barclays Bank PLC.
As it appears the world may be losing the ‘war’ in the battle to reduce disaster losses by failing to act on early warnings, eliminate risk and invest in disaster prevention. At least that is what the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Mami Mizutori, thinks. To paraphrase what she said on 18 March 2015, “The world – low income and middle-income countries in particular – is being devastated by a mistaken notion of human progress. The global use of fossil fuels, the lack of international cooperation in support of developing countries and their health systems, the destruction of the environment, unplanned urbanisation and unchecked poverty are all driving up the frequency and intensity of disaster events.”
At least nine of the world’s top planned exploration wells for 2020 are at risk of being suspended due to the combined effect on oil and gas activities of the Covid-19 virus and the oil price war, a Rystad Energy impact analysis shows. These wells, located in Norway, Brazil, the Bahamas, Guyana, the US, Gambia and Namibia would target a combined 7 billion barrels of oil equivalents (boe).
The wells that Rystad Energy has identified as candidates for suspension are at risk because of their commercial viability under the current price levels, shutdowns that affect the supplies of equipment components, operators’ prioritisation, among other targets and limitations in crew movements, among other reasons.
“Given the prevailing global situation we now foresee that the cumulative discovered volumes by the end of the year could go even below the 2016 level of 8.9 billion boe, which was the lowest. This will solely depend upon how many key wildcat wells will still see a spinning drillbit in the coming months, as some of them could be either suspended or postponed,” says Rystad Energy senior upstream analyst Palzor Shenga.
The first quarter of 2020 already started on a low note, as explorers have only uncovered new volumes of around 2.5 billion boe. The 22 discoveries are evenly split between onshore and offshore regions, with gas representing just over half of the volumes. Volumes are down about 40% from the same period of 2019, and the number of discoveries has almost halved.
Entering 2020, Rystad Energy believed that the global discovery trend would continue its upward trajectory with an expected increase in volumes. However, the current global market situation will bring many challenges to exploration.
The understanding of the geological context and complexities of the subsurface remains unchanged – it is the unexpected market turmoil above the surface that will play the key role in the coming months.