Monday, 16 November 2009

As the price of oil goes up, it becomes worth the cost for resource companies to spend billions of dollars exploring and drilling in deeper and deeper water.

And the huge financial cost is only the start of a host of differences between drilling in relatively shallow water and exploring the deeper water – with seabeds more than 500 metres below the surface.

But what of the environment? It is a question that has been on many lips over the past two months, as an oil spill off WA’s far north coast grabbed headlines.  The first extensive and long-term scientific studies into the ecology of the deep is taking place in more than a dozen off-shore drilling regions around the world, including the Gulf of Mexico, the Barents Sea and the north-west coast of Australia.

The SERPENT project is a world-wide collaborative program between scientific partners and a network of major oil and gas producers, It makes use of ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicles) technology to make data more accessible to the world’s science community, to develop deep-sea research responsibly.

SERPENT stands for Scientific and Environmental ROV Partnership using Existing iNdustrial Technology. In Australia, the project is dubbed SEA SERPENT (for South East Asia) and the Chief Investigator at UWA is Winthrop Professor Chari Pattiaratchi from the School of Environmental Systems Engineering.

While his project colleagues are discovering some weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the deep water, Professor Pattiaratchi looks at the physical side of drilling in this environment.

“We are studying the water column structure (changes in temperature, salinity and oxygen content) and the seabed (looking at the current and sediment transport),” he said.

“When companies drill through the earth under the sea, whether it’s for exploration or production, they discharge back into the ocean whatever they drill out. It is not just earth, because they use chemicals for lubricants and in cooling the drills.

“We want to find out what the impact of his ‘drill spoil’ is on species which live in the deep waters. How far does it move? Does it move once it has settled on the sea bed?

“This is quite a new phenomenon because of the depth. In shallower water, strong currents will disperse the drill spoil quickly and it will have little effect. But we don’t know what happens at greater depths.”

SEA SERPENT, a collaboration between UWA, the University of Sydney , University of Technology Sydney and the University of Wollongong , started as an ARC linkage project with $800,000. Chevron has recently given the consortium more than $1 million for the next three years, for research related to its Gorgon project. Other major sponsors are Woodside , Santos and Inpex .

“It has been about five years since we signed an MOU together,” Professor Pattiaratchi said. “We actually started going offshore to collect data a couple of years ago.”

His group includes a PhD student, Saif Farooqui, who started this year, and an Honours student, Sanjeewa Senanayake. While their research is focused on the north-west, other groups in SEA SERPENT are working in the Southern Ocean and Bass Strait.

All the projects use the ROVs that are owned by the resource companies and are attached to every drilling platform. They are used for routine maintenance on the rig and are always on standby emergencies. So, for more than half the time, they are lying idle on the surface, a resource that is ideal for scientific research.

“Australia has just one dedicated research vessel, so this is a great opportunity to do research from the platforms, using the ROVs and their technology, to help us understand and record what’s going on down there,” Professor Pattiaratchi said.

In a report in AIR magazine, Mark McCallum, deputy CEO of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association , said his members were backing the work because they needed to understand more about the oceans, even if there was a risk that the scientific findings would not be to their liking.

“We can use the knowledge to better plan, time and execute our projects with lower environmental impact,” he said.

Honours student Kate Swain, supervised by Professor Pattiaratchi last year, conducted studies on the turbulence generated close to the sea bed at well sites near Exmouth.

She gathered data on sediment resuspension due to turbulence in low current environments.

“These studies revealed valuable data on how drill spoil deposits change with time in the deep sea,” Professor Pattiaratchi said.

• From UWA News 16 November 2009


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