The oil and petrochemical industries have unquestionably been key drivers in the development of the complex, modern world we live in. They have helped power our cities, transport our goods and provided the raw materials for the development of countless pharmaceuticals, dyes, plastics and consumer products. In fact, many of the advances made in general health, and in improved living standards around the world, can be traced to the wealth generated by the oil industry. However, while few recognise this contribution, many people do worry about the risks posed by the search for, and exploitation of, hydrocarbon deposits. Indeed, despite its importance, the oil industry has, to some extent, been "demon-ized" by certain groups and subjected to disproportionate criticism. However, while the industry has a generally good pollution record, when compared to other major businesses, there is no room for complacency. Oil itself is usually perceived to be the biggest acute environmental threat, due largely to the volumes involved in occasional, highly-publicised spills and their distressing effects on wildlife. On the upstream side of the supply chain, the escape of oil is still a risk but, in addition, there are many wellsite operations that involve the use of chemical additives. In common with many industrial chemicals, some of these materials are toxic and some may not biodegrade at acceptable rates. With an increasing awareness of the potential environmental impact of chemical additives, particularly in the marine environment, there is a continuing need to develop more efficient, less toxic alternatives.
We have been actively pursuing this goal since the early 1990's, replacing many additives with environmentally-friendly alternatives. This has been achieved by combining our knowledge of structure-activity relationships with our knowledge of polymer, surfactant and solvent chemistry and ecotoxicology. As a result of these efforts, many potentially harmful chemicals have been removed from active service and replaced with new, field-proven and eco-friendly systems that have been tested in accordance with OSPARCOM guidelines, or their equivalents. Use of such materials offers benefits in terms of health and safety and, ultimately, potential cost reductions when disposal and waste handling charges are factored in. Use of appropriate materials can even improve job results, as witnessed by several operators, and helps to demonstrate what can be achieved when a commitment to "green" principles is made. However, it should be recognised that there are inevitable development costs in the design, testing and manufacture of new additives. Operating companies need to give due consideration to encouraging and rewarding those suppliers and service companies who, ultimately, help them comply with current and future pollution-control regulations.
There can be little doubt, in the public mind, that oil represents one of the most acute threats to the environment. Its commercial exploitation involves tapping reservoirs capable of producing at the prodigious rates needed to supply worldwide consumers. Also, being a major world commodity, whose source is often far-removed from the end-user, it is transported around the globe in vast quantities. Thus, any serious accident tends to involve discharge of substantial amounts of oil. The aftermath of such events, as portrayed by the media, is particularly harrowing - oil -soaked marine mammals, pathetic sea birds, dead fish and a blackened, uninhabitable coastline. The Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Alaska in March, 1989 is one of those incidents that springs to mind or, perhaps, the deliberate release of oil into the Arabian Gulf and the systematic destruction of wellhead control equipment by retreating Iraqi forces at the end of the Gulf war. But there are many earlier instances that have caught the world's attention. The Torey Canyon and the Amoco Cadiz, were two tankers that sank in, or around, the English Channel (actually off the Brittany coast) in 1968 and 1978, respectively. The fact that they are still remembered demonstrates the long-term ability of such events to shock us when we see the appalling effects that oil can have on the environment. The Torey Canyon was carrying 120,000 tonnes of crude oil, the Amoco Cadiz, 223,000 tonnes.