Technology that lessens impact makes good business sense

North Slope Borough chooses to work with Shell versus joining latest lawsuit



The use of advanced technologies that reduce environmental impact and improve business efficiency distinguishes Shell in the oil and gas industry, Michael Macrander, Shell’s Alaska lead scientist, told Greening of Oil in December.

“The investment that Shell makes in technology and the willingness to embrace new technologies is quite apparent,” Macrander said, pointing to the company’s operations in the Gulf of Mexico and its efforts to address environmental issues in offshore Alaska. “… Shell was a leader in technologies that enabled deepwater exploration and development. … We view technology as a difference-maker.”

The use of technologies and techniques that minimize the environmental footprint of oil and gas operations is nowadays a requirement and expectation, forming an essential component of Shell’s “license to operate” in places like the Arctic offshore, he said.

“It’s our view that it gives us a competitive advantage if we can demonstrate to the community that Shell takes these things seriously, and we’re willing to invest the time and resources to minimize our footprint,” Macrander said.

Shell is planning to drill exploration wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in 2010. The company has already conducted seismic surveys around its targeted exploration prospects.

But the Arctic offshore is subject to heightened environmental awareness, while also presenting some significant physical challenges for a company such as Shell.

Making headway with local residents, the Inupiat people

One challenge is convincing local Inupiat people of Alaska’s North Slope that industry activity in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas is unlikely to have a negative impact on the environment and on the wildlife they subsist on. These are local people who will not get a cent of oil and gas royalties or leasing revenues from the federal government as a result of oil company exploration, development and production in their traditional offshore hunting grounds.

And without tax jurisdiction over the Alaska outer continental shelf (federal waters), the largest government body in northern Alaska, the North Slope Borough, has been concerned that OCS oil and gas development is likely to disrupt subsistence hunting activities without bringing significant benefits to the North Slope communities.

Environmental groups, cast as protectors of whales and other wildlife, and North Slope Inupiat organizations that represent subsistence hunters of whales, seals, polar bears and other wildlife, have been on the same side in lawsuits, hindering Shell’s progress.

Still, Shell continues talking to local residents and work closely with them to find mutually acceptable solutions, a practice that appears to be making headway. In December George Itta, the mayor of the North Slope Borough and a subsistence hunter, announced the borough had opted out of a lawsuit filed in the wake of federal approval of Shell’s 2010 plan to drill in the Beaufort Sea.

“This is the first time that the Minerals Management Service has required a shutdown of drilling activities during our fall hunt of the bowhead whale,” Itta said in a statement. “The certainty of this protection is a positive step. The whalers in Barrow, Nuiqsut and Kaktovik can rest assured that their fall hunt will not be interrupted by Shell’s industrial noise.”

Itta said he gives Shell “credit for responding to some of our concerns.”

But he said a number of permits and issues remain—noise, air and water pollution issues and whalers’ concerns about cow-calf pairs diverted from Camden Bay feeding due to industrial noise.

“We expect a huge company like Shell to clear the bar with room to spare,” Itta said. “We need them to provide robust protections, not just minimums. That’s why we continue to engage with them and the agencies. I think we’re making progress. I’d rather work it out this way if we can.”

Ocean discharge in process of being resolved

The Science Advisory Committee at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is meeting this month to advise Itta on recommendations for reducing industrial discharge into the water. The borough said Shell has agreed to accept the committee’s recommendations as its guidelines for discharge.

“Ocean discharge is a real bone of contention for us, and Shell’s decision to live by the SAC’s recommendations is an important step,” Itta said. “I believe we can ultimately get to a plan that works for industry and satisfies our deepest concerns.”

Seeking better understanding of Arctic environment

A first step in addressing environmental concerns is to gain a better understanding of the Arctic offshore environment, gaining knowledge that includes baseline data that will enable projects to be timed for minimal environmental impact and that will enable the impacts of projects to be measured when those projects take place, Macrander said.

With that in mind Shell, in conjunction with ConocoPhillips, has deployed a network of subsea acoustic recorders to pick up sounds made by marine mammals in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. In the Beaufort Sea five lines of seven or eight recorders have been deployed over the past three years, while an initial deployment of 25 recorders in the Chukchi Sea in 2006 has also now grown to about 40 recorders, Macrander said.

“We’re learning a lot about marine mammals,” Macrander said. “We’re learning a lot about sound in the environment. We’re learning where animals are, what they’re doing, how they’re responding to not only industry activities but also things like climate change. We’re finding animals that have expanded their range.”

And, among other things, the recorders are providing insights into the movement of walruses, as these animals react to ice leaving the Chukchi Sea, he said.

Each recorder sits anchored on the seafloor, operating autonomously to record subsea sounds, together with the timing of the sounds, for later analysis after the recorder has been retrieved from the ocean. The Beaufort Sea recorders can detect the direction that a sound comes from, thus enabling recordings of the same animal sound on multiple recorders to pinpoint the location of the animal.

“The reason for doing that was to understand how migrating bowhead whales react to industry activity,” Macrander said.

Hunters do not want seismic noise to divert whales

One of the initial applications for the acoustic recorders was the determination of the impact on marine mammals of offshore seismic surveying that Shell and other companies were doing.

And, although generally speaking there was little observed impact, it turned out that the sound from the seismic surveys traveled much farther through the ocean than the company’s sound models had originally predicted—the nature of the seafloor probably causes greater sound reflection than anticipated, Macrander said.

“We had to adjust to that by altering our (wildlife) monitoring capabilities,” he said. “We added more observers … including additional vessels, so we could observe over a larger area, follow what was going on with the marine mammals and protect them.”

Native subsistence hunters have expressed particular concern about the possible deflection of bowhead whale migration routes because of noise from industrial activities such as seismic surveying. If, for example, the whales move too far from shore, the whale hunters might not be able to reach them.

Past studies have indicated a deflection in whale migration, with the industrial disturbance causing a hole in the migration pattern. However, the acoustic evidence that Shell has assembled indicates that the whales’ migration path tends to flow around the industrial activities and that the whales do not back up and stop, Macrander said.

“Over the last two-and-a-half years the data … have pretty strongly indicated that there is a deflection, but it’s probably less than what people had thought it would be,” he said.

The data are also addressing the vexed question of what level of sound impacts the whales, following a debate regarding whether sound at a 120-decibel or 160-decibel level has a significant impact. Sound levels of 120 decibels extend for tens of kilometers from a seismic vessel, while 160-decibel sound extends just six to eight kilometers.

“Our data seem to indicate that 160 is a much more relevant number,” Macrander said. The sound does not cause a major holdup in whale migration or deny significant areas of habitat to the whales, he said.

But acoustic monitoring is just one of a series of observation techniques that together can assemble multiple layers of environmental data, Macrander said. Other techniques include wildlife observation from the air and the tagging of animals.

“There’s no one monitoring or study technology that’s going to deliver all the information,” Macrander said. “You really need to have multiple capabilities.”

Observing using unmanned drones

A potential new technology being actively investigated by both Shell and ConocoPhillips for the observation of wildlife, ocean conditions, ice conditions and weather in the Arctic offshore is the use of unmanned aerial systems, or drones, Macrander said. Drones could perhaps enable observations to be made far out in the Chukchi Sea, for example, in locations where the distance from land and the lack of support infrastructure make a manned airborne operation unacceptably dangerous. Drones could also help with offshore search-and-rescue operations, where the use of manned aircraft puts rescuers at risk.

And a drone can fly very quietly for 24 hours on a single gallon of fuel, thus creating minimal environmental impact, while a conventional aircraft with observers onboard creates noise that can disturb the animals being observed.

However, whereas conventional aerial wildlife observation enjoys long-accepted data collection protocols that lead to high levels of confidence in observation results, people still need to demonstrate that drones can act as effective wildlife observation devices.

“We’re working at that,” Macrander said. “We’re doing a lot of tests and experiments.”

And, cautious about opening a door to the private operation of devices that don’t meet the basic see-and-avoid standards of aviation safety, the Federal Aviation Administration has been reluctant to approve the use of drones for offshore observations. Shell has been installing radar and collecting data to demonstrate that there is little risk in using drones in the Arctic offshore, Macrander said.

Mitigating impact of Shells’ activities on wildlife

In parallel with environmental monitoring, Shell is taking a series of steps aimed at mitigating the impact of its activities on the Arctic wildlife, Macrander said,

For example, in 2007 Shell conducted an experiment to test the acquisition of offshore seismic data from floating ice in the Beaufort Sea, to determine whether it would be possible to do seismic surveying on ice in the depths of the winter rather than during the busy summer open water season when wildlife migration occurs.

The 2007 experiment did indeed demonstrate that gathering seismic data on the ice is possible, at least as far out as the limit of land-fast ice, but a lack of suitable winter ice cover in 2008 prevented a hoped-for on-ice seismic survey from taking place, Macrander said.

Shell is also investigating the use of unmanned submarines to reduce environmental impacts and improve efficiency in the Arctic offshore.

These unmanned devices, already a familiar and commonly used technology in the Gulf of Mexico oil industry, can carry sensing technology, for example, to survey for potential drilling hazards such as shipwrecks, seafloor historical sites and shallow gas. Currently, shallow hazard surveying is done using a manned surface vessel that moves continuously around the survey area: An unmanned submarine, driven almost silently by an electric motor, only requires a relatively stationary tender vessel on the surface and, thanks to its high maneuverability, would be able to complete a survey relatively quickly. In addition, the possibility of operating a submarine below the sea ice offers the potential to do surveying outside the open water season.

Another way of minimizing on-water traffic and avoiding the need for aerial observation is to use satellite imagery for monitoring ice conditions. Satellite-based synthetic aperture radar, for example, can produce detailed images of sea ice, even on days when there is extensive cloud cover, perhaps enabling the early detection of a hazard such as an ice floe drifting toward an offshore operation. And, with satellites already in orbit, the use of the satellite imagery involves no new environmental impact.

Satellite imagery is already providing Shell with an improved understanding of Arctic ice behavior, an understanding that will translate to improved safety in offshore operations, Macrander said.

Plans to use drillships vs. fixed structures

Shell’s planned use of drillships rather than fixed structures for Arctic exploration drilling also enhances safety because a drillship can shut down its drilling operation and move offsite if threatened by sea ice. And Shell is implementing new technologies to reduce drillship air emissions, Macrander said.

But the use of a drillship rather than a fixed structure for exploration drilling means that Shell does not have the capability to grind and re-inject into a well the rock chips and waste mud from the drilling. The company plans to dispose of this waste at sea, but the type of waste to be disposed of has long been known to be environmentally safe, and the waste disposal has been fully permitted, Macrander said. Disposing of the waste in some other way would involve the environmental impact of putting additional vessels on the water, he said.

“We don’t want to commit to an option that ends up being a bad choice,” he said.

If exploration results lead to offshore oilfield development, modern directional drilling, with wells splaying out from a central point to tap different areas of a subsurface reservoir, would minimize the number of offshore platforms needed, thus minimizing the environmental footprint and reducing the field costs.

Curtain of bubbles would surround platforms

With many people concerned about the potential impact of industrial noise on the Arctic offshore environment, Shell is also investigating technologies for reducing sound emissions from an offshore facility such as an oil platform, which would be part of a producing field.

One possible technology generates air bubbles that reduce sound propagation by taking advantage of the fact that air transmits sound much less readily than water. Essentially, compressed air injected into a bubble generator on the seafloor would create a curtain of bubbles around the offshore structure.

“They are looking at the physics of different shapes of bubbles and whether they can produce specific shapes that will sustain themselves as they move to the surface,” Macrander said.

Preventing oil spills tops list

Oil spill prevention is a key factor in protecting the environment. And when it comes to drilling, the use of state-of-the-art 3-D seismic data to delineate the subsurface geology, coupled with modern drilling technologies, including the use of high-tech drilling muds and downhole sensing, have together made the possibility of a spill from an oil well blowout extremely unlikely. And modern well blowout preventers have also significantly reduced the risk of an oil spill, were well control to be lost.

“There is a host of technologies that we employ to get us greater control and greater knowledge about what we’re doing when we drill,” Macrander said.

Shell has also pioneered the use of remote operating centers that enable experts in, say, Houston, Texas, to monitor what is happening in a drilling operation perhaps thousands of miles away, watching out for potential problems and providing advice on how to resolve any issues that arise.

Then, when it comes to developing an Arctic offshore oil field, the design of platforms, pipelines and other infrastructure components that can withstand the forces from ice and weather in the Arctic environment will be a critical component of oil spill prevention. And Shell has been surveying seafloor ice gouges, to obtain information essential to the design of structures that will not be damaged by the keels of moving ice floes, Macrander said.

However, to prepare for the unlikely possibility of an oil spill occurring, Shell has assembled an array of oil spill response tools, including new oil skimmer designs that can operate effectively in broken sea ice, Macrander said. New oil spill response technologies include high-frequency radar for detecting oil on water and airborne sensors that can sniff out oil; there are also techniques for detecting oil under ice.

And Shell is participating in a Norwegian-based joint government and industry project to test and improve the use of oil spill response technologies such as skimmers, in-situ burning and dispersant use in Arctic conditions.

But the real key is oil spill prevention.

“We’re in the business to get the oil out of the ground and to the consumer. We’re not in business to release it into the environment,” Macrander said. “If you have a spill it impacts you. It impacts your reputation. It impacts your ability to do business, and it costs you a lot of money.”

Links of interest

Norwegian joint industry government research program mentioned in article

North Slope Borough

Shell in the Arctic

EPA proposes approving Shell air permit

New Chukchi lawsuit schedule proposed


Contact Alan Bailey at