The oil and gas industry, like any competitive industry, keeps technological advancements close to the vest. The greatest exception to that rule are advancements that promote safety and protect the environment.
After all, one oil spill in any part of the world can bring all operators to a grinding halt.
As sea ice in the Arctic continues to melt, larger windows are opening for exploration. With particular interest in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, which are carefully monitored by the U.S. government, international operators are coming together to improve oil spill response technology in unprecedented ways.
One includes a recent oil spill experiment just outside Fairbanks, Alaska.
Although the results are still under analysis, it is looking as if a step change might occur in the oil spill response and recovery realm of the industry.
United For a Cause
To ensure the most effective use of resources, funding and expertise, nine international oil and gas companies came together in 2012 to form the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology Joint Industry Program – known, in short, as the Arctic JIP.
Its members, who include BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ENI, ExxonMobil, Shell, Statoil, North Caspian Operating Company and Total, share the goal of advancing oil spill response technologies and methodologies in the Arctic and other ice-covered environments.
“Environmental issues are a topic that everyone in the industry cooperates on because one spill affects us all,” said Joe Mullin, a retired oceanographer and program manager for the Arctic JIP who has conducted research on oil spill recovery for 36 years. “The industry wants to ensure it is prepared to respond and handle any incident that might occur. However, prevention is the highest priority.”
Areas of focus for the Arctic JIP include improving the capability of dispersants, in-situ burning, mechanical recovery, remote sensing and trajectory modeling, as well as gaining a better understanding of the environmental effects that could occur from a spill – and the response activities that follow.
Of utmost importance is enhancing the effectiveness of “herders,” which are a type of chemical surfactant (which lowers the surface tension between two liquids – much like dish detergent), in the Arctic environment, and advancing in-situ burning strategies when herders are applied.
Big Ideas, Big Tank
When sprayed around the boundary of an oil slick, a herder can cause oil to contract to a new, thicker equilibrium state. An increase in thickness provides favorable conditions for effective, in-situ burning without the need for containment booms.
Containment booms are not ideal for the Arctic, Mullin explained, because it takes time to transport them to remote locations, and the booms tend to gather ice, impeding the oil-gathering process.
Although herders have been studied for years, they have not always been ideal for oil spill response, as some of the early herders were potentially toxic to the environment, he said.
However, two relatively new herders have been approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency in North America, and the JIP wanted to test their effectiveness in the Arctic environment.
While herders have been tested in the past in large tanks around the globe – the largest one being the size of two football fields – an even larger tank was needed to perform the Arctic-based experiment.
That need led the JIP to contract with SL Ross Environmental Research Ltd. of Ottawa, Canada, which then partnered with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks to design, construct and implement an oil spill and recovery simulation.
The experiment used manned and, for the first time ever, remote-control helicopters to apply herders and ignite oil slicks in one seamless operation.
There were important onlookers for part of the simulation that took place in late April, including representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and Alaska Clean Seas, to name a few.
All were curious to see if the industry had mastered a more effective and safer way to respond to oil spills in the Arctic.
Simulating the Arctic Environment
To conduct the experiment, a 300- by 300-foot tank with an impermeable liner and three-foot gravel berm was constructed last September. It is located at the Poker Flat Research Range, which is a launch facility and rocket range for sounding rockets. Owned and operated by the University of Alaska – Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, it is one of three locations in the United States approved by the Federal Aviation Authority to test drones.
The tank’s size was important, as the Arctic JIP needed sufficient area to release enough oil to simulate a spill and to provide enough maneuvering room for manned and remote-control helicopters to safely spray herders and ignite oil slicks.
Roughly 10 percent of the tank had to be filled with ice to simulate the Arctic’s floating sea ice – and this was no easy feat.
“You can’t just go to the 7-Eleven and get ice,” Mullin said.
Rather, containers of various sizes, including swimming pools and man-made crates, were filled with water and left to freeze. Some ice blocks were 11 feet tall and wide and four feet thick. To avoid having the ice floes drift and accumulate on one side of the tank, the water depth was kept at approximately 10 inches so the ice would remain in place.
A square enclosure was constructed in the center of the tank to hold 26 to 53 gallons of oil. When it was time to create a spill, a wire connected to the enclosure was pulled, and oil quickly spread across the water.
Spraying, Burning … and Results
A Bell 407 helicopter, based in Fairbanks, was fitted with a custom herder tank, pump and retractable hose reel with spray nozzles.
When applying the herders, the hose was let out 120 to 200 feet beneath the helicopter. The helicopter then flew around the oil slick about 40 feet above the water’s surface.
As the oil contracted, the helicopter landed and retrieved a Helitorch, which was used to ignite the oil approximately six minutes later using gelled fuel from a 45-gallon tank. The tank was mounted on the Helitorch frame hanging from a freight hook on the belly of the helicopter. (The Helitorch was invented about 40 years ago for the U.S. Forest Service and is routinely used for fire control purposes.)
The first two tests in the manned helicopter used 26 gallons of oil, and the remaining three tests used 53 gallons. In each test, approximately 95 percent of the oil was effectively burned, said David Dickins, chair of the Field Research Technology Working Group (TWG) for the JIP.
Dickins, who works for Chevron’s Arctic Center, has researched the subject of oil spills in ice since 1974.
Early results show that one herder, a silicone-based product called Siltech OP-40, has a potentially broader operating window, as it is not highly sensitive to sub-freezing temperatures, Dickins said. The second herder, called ThickSlick 6535, needs to be applied at or above freezing temperatures.
Both products, however, produced the desired effect: rapidly thickening the oil to a minimum of three millimeters.
Residue from each test was collected, and the results are currently being assessed to determine exactly how effective the herders and in-situ burning techniques were.
In a companion project, the Arctic JIP also is studying the ultimate effects of the herders in terms of their ability to biodegrade, to burn off during the igniting process, or to disperse naturally into the water column, Mullin said.
Unfortunately, the helicopter that was equipped for the unmanned part of the experiment suffered an electrical malfunction that took several days to repair. It was eventually able to spray the herders and ignite the oil, but not during the same test.
“Technically it’s possible, but there were just a few glitches,” Dickins said.
“The manned system worked perfectly, though,” he added. “This is the first time we have applied herders around a free-floating oil slick using equipment on a helicopter and then subsequently burned it.”
On the Horizon
The initial motivation behind the “herd and burn” system was to create a rapid response tool for remote areas to avoid relying on relatively slow moving vessels. Not only would such a tool expedite an oil recovery response, it would improve safety conditions for the people running the operation.
“We need a rapid response tool without relying on resources from the ground,” Dickins said. “We need a response tool that totally delivers from the air, so we have no one exposed to often severe working conditions on the deck at sea.”
Furthermore, if herder application and in-situ burning can be performed by a remote-control helicopter, rather than using a pilot, then the safety of an oil removal operation is further enhanced, Dickins explained.
A fully operational system will require that the helicopter, remote or manned, applies the herder and ignites the oil slick in a single flight – rather than having to return to the ground to retrieve a Helitorch or ignition device.
“In real life, a helicopter far offshore can’t easily go back and land and exchange equipment,” Dickins said. “We need a helicopter that can combine both functions: applying the herder and then igniting it right away.
“We think it’s technically doable,” he added. “We hope to show this within the next year.”