Effective communication and coordination between governments and industry is essential if oil spills are to be both prevented and remedied.
In the unfortunate event of a large oil spill, fast response is of the upmost importance in order to minimise the resulting impact, and in all seriousness, damage to the surrounding environment. Whether onshore or offshore, a crude oil spill is an event that should not be taken lightly.
It is imperative that all companies involved in the industry know the number to call, the plan of attack, the equipment to use and the personnel to use it. All of this alongside a thorough risk assessment to minimise the likelihood of a spill in the first place.
All evidence suggests that more and more companies are seeking the advice of experts to help in doing this, but the system is far from perfected with communication and coordination still lacking.
Admittedly, major oil spills are infrequent, but given the monumental consequences that can result, the issue warrants much attention. Effects are not only environmental, but also economic and human and with coastline becoming ever more precious throughout the region, then energy industry and governments are addressing shortfalls through reaching out to outside HSE consultants to advise them.
"Consultancy has gained more attention over the last ten years or so. HSE work is critical, particularly at the initial stage to make sure that companies have the right contingency plans in place and the right design and equipment.
There is no rule of thumb as to how to deal with a spill, no one case is the same, which makes it all the more important for companies to have the right experts to advise them at all times," says Farooq Mahmood, an HSE consultant for companies including Emirates National Oil Company (ENOC) and Saudi Aramco.
The creation of Oil Spill Response (OSRL), originally by BP, may be seen as a reaction to the worldwide oil industry's decision to look for outside providers and consultants.
The non-profit organisation is now comprised of 33 companies including Shell, Saudi Aramco and Dubai Petroleum who pay retainers for guaranteed ‘tier three' reaction to major spills, training and advice.
"As time has gone by, the oil industry has reduced the size of its dedicated oil spill response teams, so has fed work out to third party providers rather than do assessments and major operations in-house," explains Robert Self, Middle East regional manager for OSRL.
"That said, unlike other regions, many companies in the Middle East have significant in-house capabilities to deal with spills. Saudi Aramco, for one, has a large amount of specialist expertise and equipment which means they can deal with spills of a fairly considerable size - tiers one and two - without calling in any outside help," adds Self.
Whilst OSRL concentrates on tier three responses, companies such as SEACOR are on-hand to provide for the whole spectrum of spills. That is, emergency response, management and clean-up of tier one spills that could impact ports, marinas and beaches, and tier two spills that have the potential to impact significant parts of a country.
In seeking to prevent a spill, Self explains that it is first critical to undertake environmental impact and risk assessment studies so that the company knows where likely spills may occur, how to minimise any risk, and the short-term and long-term effects should there be a spill. Second is to have a thorough contingency plan for all eventualities so that anyone at the site of the spill can turn to the corresponding page and follow a ‘things to do' check-list.
"The single most important aspect of preparedness is generally thought to be the oil spill contingency plan or emergency response plan. This should be updated regularly and minor and major exercises should be undertaken as well as a comprehensive training programme for employees.
Most companies think that preparedness for an incident is solely about having equipment, but equipment is useless without personnel who know how to use it and deploy it, and the training of personnel is too often overlooked," explains Alex Spence, general manager of SEACOR Environmental Services Middle East.
"I think we need to promote institutional strengthening and capacity building within companies. This needs to start with training, putting the right procedures in place and then ensuring that companies are able to disseminate the required information throughout all levels and make sure that all staff have the appropriate level of awareness and skills," declares Mahmood.
Despite vast improvements in the preparedness of many companies in the industry, shortfalls are still readily identifiable. Whilst operating companies may be better prepared, service companies that work alongside them are often unaware of the policies and plans, thus creating a loop-hole in the system.
"The onus is often on major oil companies and shipping merchants to respond to spills, but this needs to change. Responsibility must rest with the whole line of companies working in the sector - both upstream and downstream, those involved in logistics, handling and servicing. We need better communication and cooperation down the whole supply-chain and between industry and government," says Mahmood.
The buck stops here
In the dire emergency that is an oil spill, particularly at sea, time is of the utmost essence, thus lacking an adequate plan of attack and equipment can cost dearly. Examples abound of worryingly tardy responses, for example, the Pontoon 300 spill in January 1998.
Whilst under tow off the coast of the UAE, a barge ran into trouble, sank and it is estimated that it released 8000 tonnes of crude oil into the sea in the process. Oil eventually swept inshore - affecting beaches in five of the emirates and afflicting vegetation.
It was the hesitation of the UAE's government that causes alarm, with delays of seven weeks due to the barge not being registered or insured and no National Contingency Plan being in place to outline the chains of command and operational procedures.
Alongside this, the government's Federal Environment Agency had no equipment or expertise to deal with the spill, making them reliant on ADNOC's facilities.
Improvements in the UAE's government response have doubtless been made since the case of Pontoon, with the signing of various international protocols including the Kuwait Convention for all countries bordering the Gulf and arrangements assigning spheres of responsibility in the case of a spill.
Mahmood for one is satisfied with such arrangements, saying, "I do believe that governments across the region have more than amply fulfilled their responsibilities and overall all of the appropriate regulatory tools are in place.
The issue I am afraid is with companies, and not just the oil companies and refineries, but all levels of users across the logistic chain ranging from transporters to stockists and distributors."
It is certain that companies throughout the industry can do more, but the government too is not perfect - lacking equipment of their own and failing to establish adequate communication channels with industry.
"We have faced a range of challenges over the years in dealing with various governments. In one case, we were helping to clean-up a spill offshore and collecting the offending oil and storing it in tankers onshore. Customs authorities then came to us and insisted that we needed to pay duty on the oil that had been recovered.
When this happens, it only makes our response yet more difficult and time consuming. Certainly, more bridges need to be built between industry and government," explains Self.
"Governments have regulations and fines in place to deal with illegal dumping and other types of spills, but the main thing that is missing in the region, that is crucial, is some way of enforcing these regulations and monitoring illegal discharge. They need knowledgeable personnel equipped with aerial surveillance and patrolling ships to do this, else spills with continue to occur like the one in Bahrain in 2003 from an unknown source," adds Self.
Spence echoes Self's concerns. "There is a need for greater enforcement of the regulations, but there is also a need to develop new laws and regulations to implement the conventions that have been signed. It is only possible to enforce penalties on offenders if the penalties will act as a deterrent."
Over the last decade, significant efforts have been made to address the shortfalls in oil spills response and one can now be assured that there will be a response. Companies and governments alike are getting serious when it comes to preventing spills and creating contingency plans - with training, regulations and equipment all helping. There are a variety of numbers to call in the case of a spill, although given its reach and capabilities OSRL is leading the pack.
"Oil spill prevention and response has certainly improved in recent years," says Self. "What remains is for companies and governments to build bridges and work together to put in place response provisions that are as effective as possible. We are working to address this shortfall."
In the event of an oil spill, call OSRL on +97317730961.
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