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Tue 16 Mar 2010 04:00 AM

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Man with a plan

Khamis Juma Bu-Amim, CEO of the Regional Clean Sea Association calls for a unified national emergency response plan.

Man with a plan
Khamis Juma Bu-Amim, CEO, Regional Clean Sea Association.
Man with a plan
The Gulf War oil spill is regarded as the worst in history. (Getty Images)
Man with a plan
Offshore Arabia attracts top level delgates from around the GCC’s energy sectors.
Man with a plan
Clean up operations can become extremely complex.

Khamis Juma Bu-Amim, CEO of the Regional Clean Sea Association calls for a unified national emergency response plan.

The scale of devastation a coastal oil spill could do to the reputation and economy of the UAE is greater than ever. As the population base has grown rapidly in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the Northern Emirates, so to has the coastal infrastructure which supports that growth. Power stations, desalination plants and the lucrative - but highly vulnerable - tourism industries all rely on clean seas.

Given the vast amount of upstream activities and midstream oil and gas activity in the Gulf, it is unsurprising that the major oil industry players clubbed together back in 1972 to form RECSO, the Regional Clean Sea Association.

Sitting at the helm is CEO Khamis Juma Bu-Amim, who says the organisations goals are simply to play a leading role in the process of oil spill and incident response under the mutual aid concept.

"RECSO was officially set up in 1972 by 13 founder members. The oil companies in the region at that time recognised a need for collective response to major oil pollution incidents and thus came together to achieve a common objective - protecting the Gulf's resources from oil pollution," says Bu-Amim.

In addition to arrangements for mutual aid in times of oil spill emergencies, provision was also made for reimbursement of costs incurred by member companies in responding to oil spills originating from another member's installation or facilities - a pioneering development for the organisations role to promote mutual cooperation.

Today, though the original objective of the organisation remains the same, the circumstances in which the oil industry operations are conducted these days are significantly different from the conditions that prevailed in the period from 1972 to 1990. It was against this changed background that RECSO has been forced to expand its activities in a more pro-active direction.

The prime responsibility of RECSO today is to protect the marine environment in the Gulf from oil pollution emanating from operations of the RECSO member oil companies in the Gulf region.

"I honestly believe, given the volume of oil which is produced and passes through the Gulf, the region would have seen some sort of environmental catastrophe were it not for the important work of RECSO and its stakeholders, and the visionary leadership displayed back in 1972 by its founders," Bu-Amim says earnestly.

Most organisations are keen to blow their own trumpet, but it is hard to argue with that logic. Disasters relating to the transportation of oil have a fairly consistent history of cropping up every few years, despite the best efforts of operators and tanker owners. Often extreme weather-related, it is with unfortunate certainty we can say there will be another major accident. Against a backdrop of regional tensions, rivalries and even armed conflict, not to mention cyclones, and inevitable technical and man-made errors, it is indeed remarkable the Gulf has been relatively immune to an oil spill disaster, despite the billions of barrels of oil which flow through it on an annual basis. The largest spill to have occurred was back in 1991.

Each member oil company, ranging from the local giants, Saudi Aramco and ADNOC, to international partners, such as Maersk Oil Qatar and Chevron, right through the oil and gas logistics chain to tanker firms like National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia and the oil spill experts all share the responsibility of ensuring a long-term commitment to the Clean Gulf concept.

The most pressing issue on Bu-Amim's mind is the urgent need to ratify and enact a national emergency response plan for when the worst inevitably happens.

"There is a problem. There is a nightmare situation which exists. Both oil and increasingly chemical spills are a huge concern in this region. When you think about the ports, urban developments, power plants and desalination infrastructure which are all reliant on access to clean sea water - a chemical spill would be disastrous."

Gulf War Oil Spill - 1991

The Gulf War oil spill is regarded as the worst oil spill in history, and resulted from actions taken during the Gulf War in 1991 by the Iraq military.

It caused considerable damage to wildlife in the Persian Gulf especially in areas surrounding Kuwait and Iraq. Estimates on the volume spilled range from 42 to 462 million gallons; the slick reached a maximum size of 101 by 42 miles and was 5 inches thick. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the size of the spill, figures place it 5 to 27 times the size (in gallons spilled) of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and more than twice the size of the 1979 Ixtoc I blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to a study sponsored by UNESCO, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, the spill did little long-term damage. About half the oil evaporated, a million barrels were recovered and 2 million to 3 million barrels washed ashore, mainly in Saudi Arabia.

On January 21, 1991, Iraqi forces opened valves at the Sea Island oil terminal and dumped oil from several tankers into the Persian Gulf. The apparent strategic goal was to foil a potential landing by U.S. Marines.

The oil moved southward, ending up on the north coast of Saudi Arabia, endangering the fragile intertidal zones and mangrove forests and destroying wildlife habitats.

The immediate reports from Baghdad said that American air strikes had caused a discharge of oil from two tankers. Coalition forces determined the main source of oil to be the Sea Island terminal in Kuwait. American airstrikes on January 26 destroyed pipelines to prevent further spillage into the Persian Gulf. Several other sources of oil were found to be active: tankers and a damaged Kuwaiti oil refinery near Mina Al Ahmadi, tankers near Bubiyan Island, and Iraq's Mina Al Bakr terminal.

In the UAE each Emirate is responsible for its own waters - both in terms of traffic and emergency response. In the event of a major catastrophe this segregation of obligation could hamper - or even wosrsen the cleanup operation.

"The UAE urgently requires a national plan. There has to be a federal agreement which brings all the stakeholders together as one. We don't want a scenario like the Exxon Valdez or Hebei Spirit in our national waters."

Bu-Amim stresses the urgent need for a unified plan - citing the many bodies which have influence and degrees of control. In each Emirate there are transportation ministries, environment agencies, marine patrols and coast guards, in addition to any upstream operators which may have concession blocks offshore, or coastal receiving terminals and port infrastructure.

"There is no single unit which can stand up decisively and say that it has complete executive authority over all of these in the event of a marine disaster. All of these players would remain part of the solution, but decisive leadership is urgently needed."

Leadership Role

Given that the upstream and midstream industries, along with their crack oil spill response teams, have taken the strategic lead so far, would it not be good idea for the oil companies to form a national plan?

Nu-Amim says no, whilst their role will no doubt be critical, a Federal Plan should be administered independently of any commercial interest.

"I do not think that it would be fair or right that such a plan becomes the responsibility of an oil company, national or otherwise. Of course, these companies have the technical capability and the resources to manage this - but this is not the core job or function of a national oil company. It has a bigger operation it should be concerned with - its fundamental business of finding, producing and selling oil."

Bu-Amim says the plan must take into consideration the best practices used worldwide, and examine why any of those measures failed in the event of a chemical or oil spill.

"From my experience most failures in a response scenario fail not because there is no plan, but because the language in the plan itself is clunky, misleading, or vague. Any response plan has to be absolutely clear about what each and every player is expected to do. Coordination, communication and executive powers are the vital ingredients in these cases."

When an incident occurs, the plan Bu-Amim advocates should ensure the response is not only executed in a timely fashion, but it should also be coordinated in a way in which the action is decisive. Response requires a lot of collaboration, and no single entity could handle a major disaster, so the plan must be a national undertaking. Getting a federal approach and solution is absolutely vital.

"Meeting that need and implementing a plan like this will go a very long way to protecting the Gulf. At the moment each Emirate has the responsibility for its own coastline. This isn't practical because an oil spill won't obey zonal waters. One central commander has to be in charge and that authority cannot be questionable."

Communication and coordination can prevent secondary disasters. For example if one firm goes rogue and thinks it should respond by using chemicals or foam, you may end up with a situation where the chemical clean-up itself becomes a bigger problem.

Historically there were sacrifice areas where an oil spill could be diverted away from water and power installations and cleaned up there. The UAE coastline is now densely packed with residential, industrial and tourism industries and it is unthinkable that this could be done today. The solution has to be mechanical and offshore.

"A national plan eliminates irresponsible practices - cowboy operations can do more harm than good. We need to be prepared for a situation like Oman saw when it was struck by cyclone Gonu in 2007. There needs to be a structure ready which caters for mobile phone outages, road access impairment and in a clear way that everyone knows their role. The positives that come out of this will be immense."

Offshore Arabia 2010


Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre, Sheikh Maktoum Hall and Sheikh Rashid Hall


29 - 31 March 2010



Offshore Arabia Conference and Exhibition, the international energy and environment event will once again receive the support and participation of OPEC.

"The unlimited support given by all national and international bodies and companies, institutions and authorities to Offshore Arabia Conference and Exhibition establishes the importance of these specialised kind of conferences. Offshore Arabia Conference and Exhibition 2010 will be held under the theme Global Partners for Energy and Environment- Change and Challenges 2010," explains Bu-Amim, chairman of the conference.

"In the Gulf region, the real challenge we face is the sustainability of the Gulf waters, which in turn sustain us today. The management of resources and protection of the environment and especially the marine environment is a vital part and a question of existence for the future generations.

"Living within our means should be a strategic issue; we can not continue to ignore the crucial importance of sustainable development to the economies of the regions," he added.

Offshore Arabia 2010 is a scientific, social, and economic event that addresses a number of pressing and dividing issues from a scientific perspective to the best practices and solutions for the benefit of energy and environment.

Special attention will be paid to  the oil industry and energy sectors, be it fossil fuelled or renewable, tankers and shipping industry, offshore installations and sustainable economic development in the region. The forum provides a platform for the latest developments.

For exclusive interviews and coverage live from Offshore Arabia, visit

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