Too much regulation, not enough environmental protection?By Dr Henry Craddock, HC Oilfield and Chemical Consulting - 6th August 2018
In the offshore oil and gas industry in the North Sea and North East Atlantic, regulation has been crucial in delivering health and safety to the work force. The question remains, however, whether it protects the marine environment.
In the UK sector, there are 18 primary legislative instruments1 in force, of which over a dozen are directed at marine conservation and environmental protection. A further nine relate to data collection and reporting, and the main UK regulator, the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), issues a plethora of guidance to these regulations. All of this is in addition to the many regulations governing the manufacture, supply and distribution of chemicals.
The bureaucracy required to place a chemical product for use in the North Sea area could be acceptable if there was true environmental protection, and if it involved the application of sound scientific principles. However, there are many examples where this is not the case, and where companies and regulators are blindly following regulatory requirements.
For example, polymers (but not monomers) are exempt from registration as new molecules under European regulatory frameworks.2 However, it is likely that the substances which have an environmental impact when applying and using polymers and copolymers are the thermal, chemical and other breakdown products – not the polymer itself or the constituent monomer. Also, chemical manufacturers are driven to improve biodegradation in polymers with inevitable loss of performance, and still with the potential to increase environmental burden.
Many low molecular weight organic molecules ultimately biodegrade to carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and water. The release of further carbon gases is not considered in the environmental assessment of any of the chemicals used in the upstream oil and gas industry, and perhaps it should be.
The upstream oil and gas sector has relied on environmental models or expert judgement to assess the environmental impact of solvents. In Europe, many such products have been placed on a list not requiring further assessment and can be used with the minimum of environmental scrutiny as they are deemed to pose little or no risk to the environment – the so called PLONOR list.3 However, many volatile solvents have detrimental effects on atmospheric quality and can disturb the climate. Many others are water miscible and can pollute the aquatic environment. Many are difficult to remove from waste stream due to the very characteristics which are utilized for their use, namely their solvency. These characteristics often also make many solvents poorly biodegradable and therefore persistent in the environment.4
Undoubtedly, there has been a reduction of chemical products discharged in overall tonnage terms, into the marine environment. In the UK continental shelf across the period 2009-2013, the tonnage of chemicals discharged reduced from over 129,000 tonnes to over 83,000 tonnes. However, in this same period, the reduction of chemicals used that were identified as candidates for substitution was only 2%.5 In recent years this percentage has increased but still a number of chemicals of environmental concern continue to be discharged. The dilemma here is the possible reduction in efficacy coupled with increased unit costs associated with the use of ‘greener’ products. Countering this argument for the use of green products are the many unexplored possibilities for ‘greening’ the product portfolio and the potential of the application of alternatives without loss of efficacy. However, again this is driven by the cost of research and development and the prohibitive costs of introducing new chemicals into a market place regulated through REACH and associated legislation.
The OSPAR Intersessional Correspondence Group has been examining a Risk Based Approach (ICG-RBA) including comparisons of Whole Effluent Toxicity (WET) and Substance Based Assessment (SBA), experiences with the MARA/LumiMARA tests, and a look at the whole effluent assessment toolbox and experiences from downstream operations. This would appear to be placing even more regulation and burden on industry, and again the question is, at what cost and to what environmental benefit?
Surely it is time to reassess the fundamentals of the regulatory approach and to examine a more sustainable approach where regulation is driven by both environmental protection and providing a framework for sustainable economic practice. The continued additional, iterative approach is only leading to further expansion of regulatory controls, with more burden and cost to industry and more importantly with little or no bearing on environmental protection.References
1. UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. Oil and gas: offshore environmental legislation. 26th July 2018 (www.gov.uk).
2. ECHA. Press release, 27th April 2012 (echa.europa.eu).
3. OSPAR Commission. The PLONOR List (www.cefas.co.uk).
4. US Department of the Interior and US Geological Survey. Open File Report 2006-1338.
5. OSPAR Commission, 2015.