Is removing all traces of oil and gas production from the North Sea really best for the environment?

The Norwegian oil drilling rig Statfjord B in the North Sea, 2006. Image: Getty.

In Europe, the majority of oil and gas production (OGP) comes from mature offshore facilities that are approaching the end of their lifespan. The current low oil price is prompting decisions about the decommissioning of this ageing infrastructure, particularly in the North Sea.

Many producing regions, such as Europe, have regulatory frameworks requiring – with relatively limited exceptions – the entire infrastructure to be removed once production ceases. These regulations, for example the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR), were put in place to ensure that the ecosystems where OGP takes place would be restored to their pristine state once production stopped.

But what are the consequences of this? And will they benefit the natural world? Ecosystems are complex and adaptive – that is, they are systems composed of many interacting species. Crucially, these interactions can change over time depending on the internal and external forces being applied to the system. The very nature of ecosystems means that we cannot think about them as we would an engineered system.

A wealth of studies have shown over the past two decades that ecosystem restoration is complex, and that removing things like the infrastructure that supports the North Sea oil and gas industry does not necessarily result in a return to the ecosystem’s original state. The introduction of the OGP infrastructure has changed the North Sea. Structures such as platforms, thousands of kilometres of pipelines and other sub-sea structures have been in place for decades – and have been used as a medium for new ecosystems to establish themselves.

And so our current understanding of ecosystem dynamics raises some important questions. What is the North Sea’s pristine condition? How do we get it back to that state? And would that really be the best thing to do?

Humans: part of nature or a species apart?

Ecosystems can exist in different states depending on how the species within them interact. The transition, or shift, between states can depend on external factors, such as perturbations or the introduction of novel habitats. Overfishing is the best known example of how a marine ecosystem state shift can occur.

One textbook example is the shift between kelp forests and sea urchin barrens. The over exploitation of sea otters for their fur on the US Pacific coast led to a boom in the populations of sea urchins – which are prey for otters and which overgrazed the kelp forests and completely transformed the coastal ecosystem.

While this particular shift led to a less productive and therefore less desirable ecosystem, state shifts do not necessarily change ecosystems for the worse.

The pre-OGP North Sea was blighted by over-fishing and was still recovering from being a naval theatre of war. Several fish stocks were collapsed with unknown consequences for the ecosystem. Is this really the ecosystem we should aim to recover?

And if we go further back, humans have been using the North Sea for millennia. If we take the view that humans are a species apart from nature, we need to discover what would constitute a “pristine” North Sea state – that is to say, a North Sea unaffected by any human activity and influence. And how would we restore the sea to this state without considering the needs, and impacts, of other users such as shipping and fishing – or indeed the species thriving there now?

North Sea oil and gas fields. Image: Gautier/US Department of Interior.

Alternatively, we could take the view that humans and their influences – such as OGP infrastructure – are an integral part of nature. This enables us to take into account the possible benefits of human activity. We should consider, for example, the role played by OGP infrastructure in the over-fishing restoration efforts in the North Sea over the past 30 years – and, importantly, what will happen if we remove all of the structures. We also need to look at how these OGP structures have provided new habitats.

In other regions, the rigs-to-reef concept, where infrastructure is either dragged near shore or left in place to form reefs, has been a useful strategy in the decommissioning process. After all, reefs are a prevalent ecosystem in these regions, predating OGP, and the infrastructure can provide the basis for new reef systems. We should consider whether sub-sea infrastructure – redundant or otherwise – that offers novel and productive habitats must be removed.

These are open questions, societal challenges, that we need urgently to face.

Pragmatic decommissioning

A dogmatic approach to decommissioning – one that insists that all infrastructure is completely removed – is likely to work against the original motivation of the regulations. We just don’t know what will be the impact on the existing environment of such a change – it might shift the system towards a “better” or “worse” state.

The one thing we know for sure about ecological systems is that they continuously change – so the notion of “returning” an ecosystem to a “pristine” state, while romantic, is not a useful way of looking at it. In fact, it is counterintuitive. This does not mean that we should adopt a laissez-faire approach, but that we should aim for a decommissioning process that maximises the health and resilience of the current ecosystem.

We need to develop a comprehensive environmental decision support system that considers what benefits the removal of each component might bring and what impact this might cause.

If things go ahead as planned, we are about to transform the North Sea into a giant demolition site, a process that will last for the next 20-40 years. Decommissioning on that scale has never been done before, really. The environmental impact of this new stage of human activity will not be trivial. It will affect both ecosystem functioning and species we care about, particularly those sensitive to noise, while also contributing substantially to carbon emissions.

The OGP infrastructure has been in place for decades, much of it acting as fisheries exclusion zones. Some might now sustain species and habitats crucial to ecosystem functioning. The benefits of complete removal, as originally intended, are therefore now less clear. We need a holistic approach to decommissioning that integrates the environmental costs and benefits at every level and doesn’t just assume that all of the infrastructure is “bad”. That way, the North Sea ecosystem stands the best possible chance of thriving into the future.The Conversation

David Lusseau is professor of behavioural biology; John Paterson is co-director of the Centre for Energy Law; and Richard Neilson is reader in engineering at the University of Aberdeen.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Which nations control the materials required for renewables? Meet the new energy superpowers

Solar and wind power facilities in Bitterfeld, Germany. Image: Getty.

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

The 20th century was dominated by coal, oil and natural gas, but a shift to zero-emission energy generation and transport means a new set of elements will become key. Solar energy, for instance, still primarily uses silicon technology, for which the major raw material is the rock quartzite. Lithium represents the key limiting resource for most batteries – while rare earth metals, in particular “lanthanides” such as neodymium, are required for the magnets in wind turbine generators. Copper is the conductor of choice for wind power, being used in the generator windings, power cables, transformers and inverters.

In considering this future it is necessary to understand who wins and loses by a switch from carbon to silicon, copper, lithium, and rare earth metals.

The countries which dominate the production of fossil fuels will mostly be familiar:

The list of countries that would become the new “renewables superpowers” contains some familiar names, but also a few wild cards. The largest reserves of quartzite (for silicon production) are found in China, the US, and Russia – but also Brazil and Norway. The US and China are also major sources of copper, although their reserves are decreasing, which has pushed Chile, Peru, Congo and Indonesia to the fore.

Chile also has, by far, the largest reserves of lithium, ahead of China, Argentina and Australia. Factoring in lower-grade “resources” – which can’t yet be extracted – bumps Bolivia and the US onto the list. Finally, rare earth resources are greatest in China, Russia, Brazil – and Vietnam.

Of all the fossil fuel producing countries, it is the US, China, Russia and Canada that could most easily transition to green energy resources. In fact it is ironic that the US, perhaps the country most politically resistant to change, might be the least affected as far as raw materials are concerned. But it is important to note that a completely new set of countries will also find their natural resources are in high demand.

An OPEC for renewables?

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a group of 14 nations that together contain almost half the world’s oil production and most of its reserves. It is possible that a related group could be created for the major producers of renewable energy raw materials, shifting power away from the Middle East and towards central Africa and, especially, South America.

This is unlikely to happen peacefully. Control of oilfields was a driver behind many 20th-century conflicts and, going back further, European colonisation was driven by a desire for new sources of food, raw materials, minerals and – later – oil. The switch to renewable energy may cause something similar. As a new group of elements become valuable for turbines, solar panels or batteries, rich countries may ensure they have secure supplies through a new era of colonisation.

China has already started what may be termed “economic colonisation”, setting up major trade agreements to ensure raw material supply. In the past decade it has made a massive investment in African mining, while more recent agreements with countries such as Peru and Chile have spread Beijing’s economic influence in South America.

Or a new era of colonisation?

Given this background, two versions of the future can be envisaged. The first possibility is the evolution of a new OPEC-style organisation with the power to control vital resources including silicon, copper, lithium, and lanthanides. The second possibility involves 21st-century colonisation of developing countries, creating super-economies. In both futures there is the possibility that rival nations could cut off access to vital renewable energy resources, just as major oil and gas producers have done in the past.

On the positive side there is a significant difference between fossil fuels and the chemical elements needed for green energy. Oil and gas are consumable commodities. Once a natural gas power station is built, it must have a continuous supply of gas or it stops generating. Similarly, petrol-powered cars require a continued supply of crude oil to keep running.

In contrast, once a wind farm is built, electricity generation is only dependent on the wind (which won’t stop blowing any time soon) and there is no continuous need for neodymium for the magnets or copper for the generator windings. In other words solar, wind, and wave power require a one-off purchase in order to ensure long-term secure energy generation.

The shorter lifetime of cars and electronic devices means that there is an ongoing demand for lithium. Improved recycling processes would potentially overcome this continued need. Thus, once the infrastructure is in place access to coal, oil or gas can be denied, but you can’t shut off the sun or wind. It is on this basis that the US Department of Defense sees green energy as key to national security.

The ConversationA country that creates green energy infrastructure, before political and economic control shifts to a new group of “world powers”, will ensure it is less susceptible to future influence or to being held hostage by a lithium or copper giant. But late adopters will find their strategy comes at a high price. Finally, it will be important for countries with resources not to sell themselves cheaply to the first bidder in the hope of making quick money – because, as the major oil producers will find out over the next decades, nothing lasts forever.

Andrew Barron, Sêr Cymru Chair of Low Carbon Energy and Environment, Swansea University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.