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Meeting the Challenges of EIAs For Offshore Oil, Gas Projects

David Sell
Managing Director, BMT Cordah

Companies involved in oil and gas exploration and production increasingly have to push the boundaries of innovative technology to secure reserves in more challenging locations. The task of keeping up with present legislation and guidelines for environmental impact assessments (EIAs) is equally challenging. The EIA and the written submission known as the environment statement are key elements of the planning process and consenting procedure.

In the U.K., oil and gas EIAs adopt a risk-based methodology, providing an efficient means of assessing the significance of environmental impacts deemed to be acceptable or not to stakeholders with an interest in or influence upon the project. This can be facilitated by conducting environmental impact identification exercises, which are similar hazard identification studies that are carried out in formal safety assessment.

It is vital to note that an EIA follows a prescribed, but not always obvious, pathway and timeline. Certain types of information must be provided, and any inadequacies could delay the submission and approval of the environmental statement. Independent consultancies, however, can give clear and concise guidance on the information needed and steer operators through this complex process. Communicating with the appropriate regulator and key stakeholders as early as possible in the project schedule is paramount for eliminating 'show-stoppers' and ensuring that deadlines and budgets are met. Rigorous planning is key, as project approvals presently take around six months on the U.K. Continental Shelf.

Securing the environmental approvals for offshore oil and gas facilities can be complex, time-consuming and drawn-out. However, this process can be streamlined, and the chances of a successful application can be increased by careful planning and scheduling and by utilizing specialist internal and external resources with specific EIA experience. The knowledge base and resources required to achieve this are not always available in-house, and companies are therefore turning to independent, specialist environmental consultancies.

The best practice is to start the EIA process early in the project schedule, typically at the conceptual design stage. Collaboration between the environmental consultant and the project engineers is essential because it facilitates a clear understanding of the importance of the EIA to the project's success. Working with the engineers also captures the key design features, the environmental safeguards and any ongoing design changes in the EIA process. This requires agility, flexibility, persistence and a high level of attention to detail for those involved.

Additional challenges in meeting EIA requirements stem from ever-evolving policies that stem from recent offshore disasters. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico brought to light once again the catastrophic consequences that can occur offshore. The ripple effect of the disaster on the industry cascaded down to the EIA process, requiring modifications to spill modeling and assessment, and oil pollution emergency plans. Rapidly evolving technologies also present challenges in the EIA approval process as oil and gas operators seek reserves in much more challenging locations. Evaluation of the impacts of technologies, such as new types of FPSO facilities and deepwater separation and subsea processing, within the EIA process requires independent experts to stay abreast of the latest developments.

Offshore oil and gas companies are increasingly turning to independent consultants, as many companies do not have the breadth of in-house resources readily available. Furthermore, EIAs are becoming more complex with continuing changes in regulation and government policy, and more information being required for the environmental statement. Independent advice can support the timely completion and delivery of comprehensive environmental statements, enabling the oil and gas industry to fulfill its objectives of operating in an environmentally conscious, productive and cost-effective way.

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