Building strong environmental foundations

Article published in the Regulator | Issue 1: 2013 

Companies commence planning their engineered infrastructure for offshore petroleum development well in advance of construction proceeding. The need for this forward planning for complex and high risk offshore petroleum activities is well understood and accepted.

Compared with the level of planning for engineered infrastructure, the same level of effort is not always applied to building strong environmental foundations. This encompasses data collection and other information about the environment that operators gather to:

  • support environmental approvals

  • demonstrate readiness to mount appropriate responses to environmental emergencies, such as oil spill

  • be able to measure their environmental performance throughout the activity.

It is important to recognise that building a strong environmental foundation is not simply limited to data and information about the physical, biological and ecological features of the environment. It also encompasses information regarding the quality and societal values of the environment, such as its social, cultural economic and heritage features.

While some dedicated work is likely to be required, operators should consider opportunities to make the most of work they typically carry out to support planning for engineered infrastructure, to also build environmental foundations. Examples of where opportunities may exist include activities such as metocean, geotechnical and pipeline route surveys.

There are considerable benefits for the offshore petroleum industry and regulators alike associated with building strong environmental foundations. A strong foundation can allow operators to present scientifically sound arguments for the environmental acceptability of their activities. This in turn can lead to more efficient and timely environmental approval processes that deliver high standard outcomes for the environment.

Following the Montara blowout and spill in 2009, there are higher community expectations that industry is well prepared if things do not proceed as planned. Preparedness with respect to baseline environmental data and operational and scientific monitoring has been highlighted as an area for improvement. Completing this work could be viewed as an important step in the processes of building strong environmental foundations by the offshore petroleum industry.

Environmentally-responsible planning and management of operations is an ethic reflected in the environmental policies of many petroleum operators. Strong environmental foundations may serve broader purposes including demonstrating environmental stewardship to the broader community and in doing so helping to maintain the social licence to operate.

With the above in mind, operators are encouraged to plan for and build environmental foundations well in advance of lodging environmental approval documents and commencing activities that pose risk to the environment.