While advancements in renewable energy are helping to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, oil and gas are not going anywhere soon. We still need petroleum products to fuel aviation and most of the transport on our roads. We also need crude oil to make materials like plastic and medicines, but extracting crude oil is an inherently messy business that has taken its toll on the environment in the past.
Fortunately, practices have improved over the past half century, and advances in technology for the exploration, production, and transportation of hydrocarbons, combined with tighter regulation and enforcement, have helped to reduce, or entirely avoid, the negative effects of oil and gas production.
Here are some of the recent advances that have helped create today’s cleaner oil and gas industry.
While exploring for oil can disturb the ecosystem, both at land and sea, recent advances have not only helped improve the efficiency of exploratory operations—they have also helped reduce the impact from them. For example, small, mobile rigs for slim-hole drilling can reduce the area affected by exploratory drilling, while innovations such as 3-D and 4-D seismic technologies, remote sensing devices, and GPS have enabled the continued discovery of new oil reserves with less exploratory drilling.
Technological advances like directional drilling, horizontal wells, and hydraulic fracking have aided oil production, but they have also contributed to more environmentally friendly practices. The abundance of shale gas in the US, for example, has enabled the country to incorporate more natural gas into its energy mix and substantially reduce its carbon dioxide emissions.
The advent of directional drilling and horizontal wells has also enabled a single well to cover a much larger area, reducing the area affected on the surface by drilling activities and enabling operators to consolidate equipment into fewer locations. ExxonMobil has taken this a step further with extended-reach drilling, which it uses for the Sakhalin-1 project off the coast of eastern Russia. By using these long wells, offshore fields can be accessed by drilling rigs on land, which not only improves production but also reduces the environmental risks involved and leaves the marine environment untouched.
Oil production is usually accompanied by natural gas, and in the absence of a way to process or use it, it was often flared or vented into the atmosphere in the past. Upstream oil operators have also worked on reducing their methane leakage in recent years, with a study by the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund estimating methane leakage at a comfortable level of around 1.5%. Statoil, for example, is also using extracted natural gas to power onsite equipment, meaning less is flared, and some shale producers are doing something similar to power their compression operations. In addition, more infrastructure is being built to process this energy source into useful products like liquified natural gas, enabling it to be transported without pipelines.
Anyone who is old enough will remember the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. This tragic accident marked a low point in ExxonMobil’s long history, but the company was quick to assume responsibility and spent over four billion dollars in the aftermath. More importantly, ExxonMobil, which also produces industrial lubricants for Mobil distributors, comprehensively reformed its operations to prevent future such incidents.
The following year, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was passed by the US Congress, requiring all new tankers intended for use at US ports to have a full double hull. This measure was also later adopted by the International Maritime Organization, and it is believed to have greatly contributed to the significant drop in oil spills from ships over the 1990s.
Some logical measures have also helped reduced the truck traffic needed for shale producers in the US. For example, the Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp. detailed in 2014 how it was minimising the environmental impact of its Colorado drilling, fracking, and production operations. It basically consolidated its operations into a smaller footprint, which would always be served by a pipeline. This reduced the need for diesel trucks to carry water and oil to and from production sites. It also used natural gas from nearby wells to power its fracking operations, again eliminating the need for diesel trucks to deliver fuel.
The creation of new reefs at closed offshore wells
When an oil field becomes depleted, continued production inevitably becomes economically unfeasible. The well is therefore plugged and older rigs are often decommissioned. These are then toppled and left to sink to the sea floor. They then soon become covered with various sea creatures— such as sponges, barnacles, clams, and coral—forming an artificial reef that attracts marine life and boosts fish populations. This also provides new recreational opportunities for divers and fishers.
Oil companies do more than just oil
Many major oil companies have diversified their operations in recent years. Examples of this include Scotland’s new Hywind offshore windfarm, whose revolutionary floating turbines were built by Statoil, Norway’s state energy company. Shell, meanwhile, has been investing in new windfarm projects and helping them to get off the ground.
In addition, ExxonMobil, the supplier behind Mobil distributers, has been pursuing using algae as a sustainable source of biofuel. This potentially offers a number of advantages over food-based biofuels. For example, it could be grown on land unsuitable for food production, it does not require fresh water, and it can result in much greater yields when compared with other biofuel sources. Moreover, the oil from algae can be processed in conventional petroleum refineries for use in existing diesel engines with only minor modifications, making it extremely practical.
While oil production has traditionally been regarded as a dirty business, things are clearly changing in this regard, as oil companies have become keener to demonstrate their corporate responsibility in recent decades by developing methods and technologies that not only improve their bottom lines but also reduce the damage to the ecosystems around drilling operations, demonstrating the industry’s resourcefulness.