Calls for Independent Monitoring of Deep Sea Oil Exploitation

By Mike Campbell - 13 May 2011 22:33:0 GMT
Calls for Independent Monitoring of Deep Sea Oil Exploitation

As a child growing up in the seventies, I was confidently told by my teachers that oil reserves would be completely depleted by the end of the century. However, this bleak prediction turned out to be ill-founded since the extent of reserves had been under-estimated; new fields were discovered and technological development meant that hard to exploit reserves could be tapped. Nonetheless, fossil fuels are a finite resource. Increasingly, deep sea oil fields are being exploited to help meet man's unslakeable thirst for oil.

Exploitation of hydrocarbon reserves at great depth below the ocean is technically very demanding. Problems are much more difficult to resolve at depth than they would be on a land-based oil field not least because of the great pressures involved.

With the recent ecological disaster caused by the Deep Water Horizon exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico last year in mind, UK Marine scientists have called for the independent monitoring of deep-sea exploitation in a recent Nature issue (Nature vol. 73, 154 (12 May 2011)). Dr Henry Ruhl of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton and Professor Monty Priede of the University of Aberdeen, argued for independent monitoring of the deep-sea hydrocarbon industry as a means to gain a better understanding of its potential ecological activity and as a means of providing early warning of problems.

Dr Ruhl pointed to unforeseen consequences of the Gulf of Mexico spill as justifying the need: ''The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year and the subsequent discovery of unexpected hydrocarbon accumulation at mid-water depths underscores the need for independent monitoring of the ecological effects in the deep sea.''

In the past, the industry has been accused of following an ''out of sight, out of mind'' policy to potentially harmful excursions of hydrocarbons, but the potential damage to sensitive marine ecosystems from such pollution means that such an attitude is no longer acceptable. Fortunately, advances in the technology for underwater monitoring systems mean that data (and images) from the deep seafloor and the water column can be captured and relayed, often in real time, to on-shore laboratories and be made available to the wider scientific community or the general public over the internet.

''Scientists need observations to help differentiate natural and human induced changes. Remote sensing could both facilitate sustainable resource use and provide an early warning of potential impacts,'' explained Dr Ruhl.

The authors call for increased discussion of independent, remote monitoring of deep-sea hydrocarbon exploitation and foresee a role for bodies such as the UN and EU in this context.