Oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, autonomous emergency response fleets and standardisation of oil spill preparedness were some of the many interesting topics at this year’s forum on the future of oil spill preparedness.

For the second time, the Norwegian Centre for Oil Spill Preparedness and Marine Environment arranged the forum on future oil spill preparedness, together with the Norwegian Coastal Administration and the Norwegian Environment Agency. The conference was held digitally. 

The theme of this year’s conference was effective and comprehensive oil spill preparedness, with a focus on northern regions and mechanical containment. 

The factors that influence the effectiveness of oil spill preparedness are particularly prominent and challenging in northern regions with cold, icy conditions, darkness and poor visibility, sea ice and icebergs, large distances and a lack of infrastructure in poorly accessible and highly vulnerable natural areas. 

“If we combine this with increased activity levels in northern regions, new risk scenarios and new oil and fuel types, we can all see that the need to ensure effective oil spill preparedness for the future is here, now. In order to achieve effective and comprehensive oil spill preparedness, we depend on coordinated and relevant R&D activities, as well as collaboration between the various stakeholders,” said Ann-Helen Ernstsen, CEO of the Norwegian Centre for Oil Spill Preparedness and Marine Environment, as she opened the conference.

Spearheading development and expertise

The Minister of Transport, Knut Arild Hareide, addressed the importance of good preparedness in his video greeting to participants at this year’s forum on future oil spill preparedness.

– This is an extremely important topic and Norway is in a position to spearhead development and expertise. This forum will be a key contributor in identifying knowledge and development needs within oil spill preparedness.

– We know that shipping traffic is moving further and further north and that operations to combat acute pollution are extremely challenging in these waters, due to the large distances, the darkness, the wind and the cold and icy conditions. Oil in ice poses a particular challenge. Even though we have a high focus on preventative maritime safety measures, we can never completely prevent accidents. It is therefore crucial that we have proper preparedness in place in the event of acute pollution, the Minister said. 

The speaker line-up during the two interesting days of the conference included representatives from the Norwegian Coastal Administration and the Norwegian Clean Seas Association for Operating Companies (NOFO), who spoke about knowledge and development needs in oil spill preparedness and the Northguider operation. Hans Petter Dahlslett from DNV GL spoke about how standardisation can result in more effective and environmentally friendly oil spill preparedness, followed by a panel discussion with various stakeholders. Winterisation of oil spill preparedness equipment was also a topic during the conference and the Norwegian Oil Spill Control Association (NOSCA) spoke about how it would facilitate increased innovation in winterised oil spill preparedness equipment.

Research on the spill in the Gulf of Mexico 

Lisa DiPinto, Senior Researcher at the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, spoke about the research they have carried out in connection with the sustained oil spill in the MC20 field in the Gulf of Mexico.

Lisa DiPinto, seniorforsker ved NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, var en av foredragsholderne på årets konferanse. Foto: Privat

Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and the platform was dragged along the seabed, approximately 210 metres from its original position, where it ended up buried beneath as much as 20 metres of mud and sand. Oil slicks have been observed on the surface of the sea ever since this happened.

Studies were conducted to identify the source of the spill and major debate ensued as to whether the oil originated from natural emissions in the seabed or whether it originated from the platform itself. The extent of the spill was studied using a variety of methods and experiments were conducted on the composition of the oil in the field. The findings from the study resulted in the installation of a collection system, which has so far collected 1,892,705 litres of oil at a rate of 3,700 litres per day.

The autonomous emergency response fleet of the future

The development of oil spill preparedness technology is essential to be able to streamline and enhance oil spill preparedness in the future. Erik Hovstein from Maritime Robotics gave a talk on the company’s unmanned surface and air vessels. He spoke about the opportunities the technology provides us with today and how it can be used in future oil spill preparedness. 

– The area in which we envision autonomous systems having an advantage is clearly the smaller vessels. We will still require the large emergency response vessels in order to ensure that there is some weight behind our emergency response. But the current emergency response fleet carries out a number of simple operations that could be done using unmanned systems that are both cheaper and easier to use. This is of particular importance when it comes to reducing the risk to crews, Hovstein said.

The company predominantly works with unmanned surface vessels. Hovstein noted how these vessels could be used for e.g. the towing of oil booms, something that can be a challenging operation in inclement weather conditions. He also noted how autonomous systems can be useful for data collection during an operation. 

The best known system supplied by Maritime Robotics within oil spill preparedness so far is “Ocean Eye,” an 11 cubic helium balloon with a camera system that can provide an overview of a situation from the air. 

Panel discussion on standardisation

Standardisation means using common instructions on how to create, describe or implement something.

In oil spill preparedness, standardisation work takes place at different levels. A discussion on standards for the testing of oil spill preparedness equipment was scheduled for the final part of the conference. Do we need to standardise testing? And what is the way forward? 

– An important objective associated with the establishment of test facilities for oil spill preparedness technology at Fiskebøl is to develop more effective oil spill preparedness. How can we facilitate research and technological developments in the best possible manner? Could standardisation be a goal when working on testing and documentation of technological characteristics? Standardisation is not something that anyone can do alone. The issue of testing, standardisation and certification concerns many stakeholders within oil spill preparedness in Norway, as well as globally. But we will start with Norway, said Gaute Wahl, Senior Adviser at the Norwegian Centre for Oil Spill Preparedness and Marine Environment. 

The Norwegian Environment Agency, the Norwegian Coastal Administration, NOSCA and NOFO participated in the panel discussion.

A forum like this is useful

This year’s forum has resulted in plenty of excellent input and knowledge for the continued work on oil spill preparedness.

“The forum on the future of oil spill preparedness is about bringing together stakeholders to gain a shared understanding of the challenges and knowledge requirements in the area, to coordinate research and development and to facilitate collaboration for more effective and environmentally friendly oil spill preparedness efforts. Based on the feedback received so far, it is clear that people consider it useful to have a forum like this, even though we had to arrange the conference digitally due to COVID-19. The Norwegian Centre for Oil Spill Preparedness and Marine Environment has received a great deal of materials and positive feedback that we will continue working on and we would like to express our thanks to everyone who contributed by way of talks, questions and input, says Wahl. 

The forum on future oil spill preparedness will be held again in 2021.