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Oil Spills: Risks & Response Options

posted Nov 20, 2012, 4:33 PM by IDS Info   [ updated Nov 29, 2012, 12:31 PM ]
Options are useful when responding to any crisis. This is especially true for large oil spills because of their proportions and complexity.

Oil and water don't mix well. Oil is toxic, especially when unrefined; and the ocean is a sensitive network of living creatures and matter that we don't fully understand, and can't accurately model for predicting impacts. Or weather for that matter. But we rely heavily on both oil and the ocean. Oil for energy and it's chemical parts, and on the ocean for sustenance and transport among other things. The greatest proportion of living matter on earth also depends on the ocean. And after the sun's influence, our global thermal and climate and weather cycles are most greatly affected by the ocean.

Transportation and production of oil at increasing volume makes for persistent high spill risk; hopefully offset to some extent by improving technology and skills, acting to reduce the likelihood of operator at-fault incidents leading to spills.

Exploration, production and associated sea transport of oil is reaching further and deeper into hostile and sensitive environments such as the Arctic, and extreme ocean depths, adding to the existing risk of normal oil transport and production noted above.

Freak weather events, and rogue operators with decrepit tankers and equipment remain a threat. As do conflict, terrorism, sabotage and piracy. All very real but difficult to quantify added risks.

Public awareness of our role as stewards to the resources we rely upon is reaching a point of political force in many parts of the developed and developing world. When oil spills occur for whatever reason, we respond to the best of our ability. Clearly, our efforts usually fall well short.

Oil spills are often marred in legal, jurisdictional and propaganda battles from the get-go, and response is usually not at full capacity until well into the event. Coastal areas are often hit hard by spills because we can't contain and collect oil in time, or because conditions are too harsh for any response at the time of the spill.

Principal at-sea oil spill response techniques include containment and recovery (the only method that actually attempts to remove the pollutant), in-situ burning (creates toxic smoke and precipitant) , and chemical dispersants (adds chemicals to ocean but helps break down oil).

Source: Government of Canada report
Fig. 1: Oil Spill Response Methods   (Source)

Time is an important factor in oil spill response. Unless physically restrained by land or containment systems, all but the heaviest types of oil will spread at a rate proportional to sea currants and wind. Recovery of oil becomes ineffective when spill area increases beyond response capacity; dispersants (if approved for use) must be applied over an increasingly large area as oil spreads; and in-situ burning (if approved for use) becomes impossible as oil weathers.

Fig. 2: Oil Spill Response Effort & Costs Over Time (IDS)

Containment and barrier boom systems can help limit the spread of oil and impact on sensitive shorelines, especially when deployed quickly in suitable quantity. 

With containment, more response options remain available: With more highly concentrated, contained oil, in-situ burning remains a possibility for longer; dispersants need be applied over a smaller area; and collection and removal effectiveness is greatly improved. The more quickly containment systems can be put in place, the better. 

Aircraft can deploy hundreds or thousands of tonnes of spill response equipment, as necessary, to a spill site from central locations at speeds much more quickly than any ship could hope to travel. This combined with reliable autonomous and remote control technologies it is possible to put equipment to work even before people are there, or in the case of highly hazardous situations be used to prevent people from having to face unnecessary danger.

Fig. 3: IDS Offshore - Unmanned Spill Response Vessel (USRV) (IDS) 

We think that aircraft can help put operating response equipment at a spill site quickly "In time to make a difference". The air deployed oil spill response systems presently under development by IDS Offshore first began in 2005 as an engineering design project. For more on our story, see 'About'.

Copyright IDS Offshore Inc. All rights reserved.


Fig. 2 - Oil Spill Response Effort & Costs Over Time: IDS Offshore Inc, free for re-use.

Fig. 3 - Unmanned Spill Response Vessel (USRV): Copyright IDS Offshore Inc. Re-use with permission only.

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