North Sea oil industry seeks mud solution

UK offshore operators launch study, stakeholder dialogue, on contaminated cuttings

Oil firms operating in the North Sea have launched what they describe as a "major new phase" of research and consultation on what to do with contaminated drill cuttings on the sea bed. Up to 1.5m tonnes of oil-contaminated cuttings are accumulated around rigs in the deeper, more northern, parts of the North Sea, the industry estimates, though the problem is no longer worsening since oil lubricants in drilling mud were phased out in the mid-1990s.

The UK Offshore Operators Association (UKOOA), with support from the Norwegian Oil Industry Association OLF, is now aiming to spark a debate and determine sustainable solutions. "We have been working on this issue for many years," Lyn Arscott of the international oil industry representative body E&P Forum, which is also associated with the project, told reporters yesterday. "Now it is time to make a major effort to bring in stakeholders and hopefully arrive at the right solution." "We don't know what that is yet," he added.

The Environment Council, a group that organised a structured stakeholder dialogue over the fate of the Brent Spar oil storage buoy, has been employed to support the process. A first "dialogue event" could be held by September, five months before European governments are due to discuss the issue under the auspices of the Oslo and Paris Commissions (Ospar).

Seven options for dealing with the contaminated cuttings were set out in a consultancy report prepared for OLF last year. They include leaving the piles undisturbed, covering them, respreading on the sea floor, retrieval for land disposal, and removal followed by reinjection in a well. In parallel with a structured dialogue, the industry is to funnel a further UK£1m (Ecu1.5m) into technical research on the issue.

The industry has "no pre-conceived ideas" about what will emerge from the process, according to Eric Faulds of UKOOA, but "will buy into whatever solution emerges". Nevertheless, oil firms are convinced that none of the seven options assessed in the latest report will be applicable to all cases. The study "concludes that decisions should be made case by case," said Mr Arscott, "a lesson we have learned many times."

While stressing its commitment to the process, the industry is playing down the scale of the environmental problem. It is "not terribly serious, though measurable," said Mr Faulds, who added that were the North Sea the size of a football field, then the area of sea bed covered with contaminated chippings would be the equivalent of a small coin. "The problem is a peanut compared with land runoff," said Mr Arscott.

Follow Up:
UKOOA, tel: +44 171 802 2400; OLF, tel: +47 51 84 65 00; E&P Forum, tel: +44 171 292 0600.

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