Heriot Watt to develop new environmental tool to boost safety of N. Sea oil and gas exploration

Dr. Kate Gormley, Heriot Watt University
Dr. Kate Gormley, Heriot Watt University

A new tool which will enable the UK oil and gas industry to estimate what effects oil and gas exploration will have on the marine environment is to be developed by a scientist at Heriot-Watt University.


Dr Kate Gormley of the university’s Centre for Marine Biodiversity & Biotechnology has secured a NERC Oil and Gas Knowledge Exchange Fellowship worth nearly £250,000 to develop a new environmental data management platform.


It is expected to transform environmental impact assessments and monitoring, both routine ones and those during major incidents on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon spill.


Currently oil and gas developments are subject to permit and environmental impact assessment (EIA) requirements under a strict legal framework of national, regional and international regulations, both before and during exploration – and decommissioning. 


The UK industry is required to determine if any activity is likely to have a significant impact on the environment or on the conservation objectives of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) under the Scottish and UK Marine Acts. 


Baseline data are fundamental to assess these potential impacts, yet there is currently limited guidance to state how or when, environmental monitoring should be conducted.


Dr Gormley’s Fellowship builds on the NERC project “North Sea Interactive ” co-ordinated by Heriot-Watt University in collaboration with the British Geological Survey (BGS), the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) and the industry’s representative body Oil and Gas UK.


NSI merges industry environmental survey data held in the UKBenthos Database with BGS sediment data and with NOC oceanographic data into a Geographical Information System (GIS) database for the North Sea; an approach embraced by Oil and Gas UK. 


Dr Gormley’s Fellowship will focus on pertinent policy, industry and research questions in relation to decommissioning and ongoing monitoring. Her work may have useful applications beyond oil and gas, including in offshore renewables and the emerging deep sea mineral mining industry.


Speaking about her fellowship, Dr Gormley highlighted that ensuring that environmental data are collected and stored in an efficient and easily accessible manner will be increasingly important.

She said “For the last three decades, EU environmental policy has focused on how to determine, manage and mitigate adverse and undesirable impacts to the environment as the result of human activities.


“However, with the introduction of new production techniques, combined with offshore exploration expanding into deeper waters around the UK, there are increased risks to the environment, such as an oil spill incident.  


“These developments may highlight a requirement for a change to the current environmental procedures and for more stringent environmental monitoring going forward.


“The UK oil and gas industries will need to be able to set an environmental baseline in these relatively unknown territories in order to ensure their conservation. 


“Furthermore, over the coming decades, a number of offshore oil and gas installations in the North Sea will be decommissioned, presenting economic as well as environmental challenges.


“That’s why we need transformative new tools and a coherent environmental data platform, so that data – particularly local environmental data – can be quickly accessed enabling scientifically rigorous and accurate monitoring, analysis and assessment of impacts, both on a day-to-day basis and for major incidents.”

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