Understand how to prevent oil spills in the ocean

  • 19/05/2020
  • 12 分钟

The disastrous incident that brought a kilometer of oil slick in the Brazilian Northeast in 2019, resurfaced the debate on how to prevent the oil spill. According to Petrobras itself, this is the biggest environmental tragedy in the country’s history, even surpassing the accident that occurred in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico with the Deepwater rig.

Since August 2019, when the first reports of stains were recorded, little is known about the causes of the disaster. The government even raised the suspicion that the leaked oil could have originated in Venezuela, however, the investigations are still inconclusive.

To enrich the debate, Wilson Sons invited Françoise Ferraz, lawyer and partner of the law firm Advocacia Fróes & Ferraz Law (AFFLAW), specialized in Maritime Law, and Pedro Campos, oceanographer and operations manager at Hidroclean. Keep reading!

Prevent oil spills on the platform

The Oil & Gas segment depends on an intricate logistics network, in which extraction, refining, distribution and transhipment operations are necessary. In this sense, Françoise clarifies that “marine oil pollution can originate in the transportation of oil by oil tankers, but it can also be motivated by failures in production facilities, such as wellheads, production risers, platforms and Floating Production Storage and Offloading (or FPSO) Units”.

In this sense, one of the reasons for the 2019 oil spill may have been a series of tanker failures, which are the target of investigations of the cause of the accident. On this point, the AFFLAW’s lawyer points out that the spills also originate “in the transfer of oil between vessels, known as the Ship-to-Ship operation. In fact, this is an extremely important issue and the subject of a recent public hearing at the National Waterway Transport Agency (Antaq)”.

Regarding the prevention of leaks on platforms, Brazil has a specific law, CONAMA Resolution 393/2007. It deals with the “continuous discharge of process or production water on offshore oil and natural gas platforms”, concludes Françoise.

It should be noted that, in the text of the resolution, important definitions are established about ecologically sensitive areas and disposal conditions, among other topics.

Prevent oil leakage during transportation

The transportation of O&G (Oil & Gas) is one of the major daily challenges that the oil industry needs to deal with. First, it must be considered that the extraction areas are located hundreds of kilometers from the coast — and thousands of meters deep. 

Thus, transporting the volume of liquid and gases that comes from the depths without a single cubic meter leaking is a task that requires the strictest control. This applies to upstream activities, including those related to transportation for processing.

However, it is on ship transport that attention is most often drawn. For this reason, the AFFLAW lawyer warns: “The difficulties present in maritime transport as a whole are also experienced in the maritime transport of oil. Sea conditions, atmospheric conditions, the duty to watch over the ship and cargo, training of teams and taking care of the main problems related to the crew, such as fatigue, are some of them”.

Containment actions in case the spill occurs

To prevent oil spills is, in a way, betting on a lottery, in which the risk of an accident must always be taken into account. Pedro Campos defends the rigorous training of the people who work in the area: “In one way or another, the root cause ends up being human error, neglecting safety and maintenance procedures and good practices, which takes operational conditions to the limit”.

He also warns that, often, these trainings are neglected. “Many are done only to meet schedules, but there is no commitment from the participants”, creating a risk that cannot be tolerated. 

Campos adds that “the operation, of course, must not stop; therefore, it is good to plan exercises regularly, in the quietest moments of the routine, so that, in an emergency, everything is brief”. When the solution to emergencies takes a long time, everything costs more for the finances and the image of the company.

Françoise Ferraz warns: “Due to the different origins of the leaks, the difference between the locations affected, the difficulty in predicting the event and the duration of the leak, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint the outbreaks”.

Once the accident is finished, there is a kind of protocol, by which the authorities are guided to point out the causes of a leak. The specialist in Maritime Law lists the main ones:

  • type of accident — shipwreck, stranding, errors during loading and unloading or supply operations (bunker) in port areas and terminals; 
  • place where it occurred — away from the coast or in areas such as coves and bays; 
  • dimension of the leaked volume and containment — a factor that depends on the context of the accident and on the meteorological and oceanographic conditions that make it possible to contain and collect the oil at the source of the leak; 
  • characteristics of the leaked product and its toxicity to aquatic life;
  • magnitude of affected areas and degree of sensitivity of affected ecosystems;
  • combat actions in the first 12 hours — measures to stop the leak, contain and collect the leaked product and protect sensitive areas.

In parallel with these measures, procedures for cleaning the affected environments must be defined. In the case of the 2019 leak, due to the immensity of the affected area and the commotion caused, there was a great mobilization of civil society. Volunteers, NGOs and residents of coastal regions organized a huge cleaning effort in addition to official activities.

International laws to be observed

Françoise Ferraz also highlights the role of international laws in the Brazilian context. For the specialist, the most important — and controversial — of them is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, better known as the Montego Bay Convention.

It is important because it serves as a world reference on oil spills and Maritime Law. The controversy, according to Françoise, arises from its imprecision: “The great criticism of the scholars was the lack of effectiveness of the norm, since it did not foresee concrete measures for the prevention of pollution from vessels. Likewise, there are no sanctions for polluting agents, a competence that is left to the National States to legislate”.

Another norm of international scope is the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. The lawyer gives more details about this law, better known as MARPOL: “It was created in 1973 and amended by the Protocol of 1978. It came into force on October 2, 1983, setting standards for the prevention of pollution from ships. It is considered to be a significant agreement in the control and prevention of marine pollution by new oil tankers and existing vessels”.

Françoise points out that, according to MARPOL, “since 1992, without exception, oil tankers with 600 tons of dead weight or more, built for delivery after July 1996, must have double hulls. For single hull oil tankers with 20,000 tonnes of deadweight or more delivered before July 6, 1996, the Convention requires that double hull requirements be met when they reach the age of 25 or 30”.

Historical evolution and perspectives launched

Finally, Françoise Ferraz highlights the evolution of the O&G industry, which, over the years, has been improving prevention methods: “The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPF) presented data that demonstrate progress. In the 1970s, 780 occurrences were recorded involving the release of volumes greater than 7 tons; in 1990, there were 360 cases; and, in the period between 2000 and 2010, that number dropped to 182”.

Thus, preventing oil spills is an orientation that accompanies the expansion of productive capacity on a global scale. Although the risk is permanent, the truth is that occurrences are expected to become rarer over the years.

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