Local solutions to global problems
We must push the boundaries of geotechnical science and practice to secure the UN’s sustainability goals, says Changiz Roohnavaz
Environmentalists would not usually associate oil and gas exploration with sustainability, but, given that the UK and other European countries are increasingly relying on importing supplies, we need to ensure production is carried out in ways that minimise risks to the environment. In fact, we aim to go further and use projects to help deliver the social sustainability agenda.
According to the International Energy Agency, demand for gas will grow by 1.6% a year over the next five years, with consumption reaching almost 4,000 billion cubic metres (bcm) by 2022, up from 3,630 bcm in 2016. In its 2016 World Energy Outlook, the agency forecast that if signatory countries to the Paris Climate Agreement upheld their pledges, gas demand by 2040 would be 50% higher. The UK consumed 67 bcm in 2015, with the fuel used in 80% of homes, mainly for heat. With supplies from the North and Irish seas depleting fast, the country is importing more. It is a similar picture in the rest of western Europe.
To meet growing demand, the oil and gas industry faces the constant challenge of locating new resources, often in remote corners of the developing world. Firms operate under fixed-period concessions, which creates huge time pressures as revenue only starts being generated when production gets under way. This puts exploration on the critical path. But host countries are now challenging oil and gas firms to apply a more sustainable approach.
Innovative and unorthodox
Projects in central Asia and the Middle East demonstrate what can be achieved when sustainability issues are considered early on and could provide a model to achieve some UN sustainability goals.
In both cases, large onshore processing and exploration facilities had to be established. Typically, these comprise large heavily loaded platforms, extensive earthwork structures, internal and external roads and drainage systems, office and accommodation units. Construction tends to use large volumes of imported aggregates, steel and cement. The projects in the Middle East were in remote locations and hard to access. The easiest to reach was 30km across virgin desert from the nearest highway and other sites were more than 70km into the wilderness. The challenge of hauling materials was enormous; thousands of lorry journeys covering hundreds of kilometres, resulting in huge costs and carbon emissions.
Establishing each site resulted in large volumes of excavated soil and rock, which is normally discarded. But we set out to understand the engineering properties of site-won materials that enabled reuse in earthwork structures. At each site, our approach enabled the reuse of approximately 100,000 cu m of material. This eliminated the need to import an equivalent volume of aggregate and transport it in lorries across the desert. The environmental benefits of reusing site-won materials were obvious in terms of fewer lorry movements (10,000 per site), but it also enabled faster construction – reducing the time taken to build each exploration platform by 25%.
An innovative engineering solution also saved on importing and transporting materials to a site in central Asia, located south of the River Ural. Soil underlying the site and the surrounding area was initially not considered usable because it would potentially collapse when wet – something that climate change would make increasingly likely. But stabilising the material enabled potential reuse of huge amounts of excavated material, reducing the time taken to construct the facility. Sub-zero temperatures (averaging -15°C) and spring thaw flooding, as well as poor transport infrastructure, also made reusing onsite material an attractive option in terms of speeding up construction.
In both locations, there were concerns about the ability of local contractors to deliver large infrastructure projects in these remote settings. Usually, international firms and expertise would be hired to build the infrastructure. This has huge cost, carbon and programme implications.
The first step was to assess what was available locally, using a specially developed sustainability management and resource training diagnostic tool. It identifies where the skills gaps are, before developing a strategy to deliver the facilities using as much local labour and industry as possible. Elevating the skills base was essential, so knowledge transfer underpins the approach and involves on-the-job training and improving the skills of local contractors. The approach for the project in the Middle East also benefited from specifying which excavation techniques and construction plant to use in different ground conditions.
Enhancing the capabilities of firms created local jobs and a new skills base for future projects. Local companies were encouraged to embed new skills as widely as possible across their business, rather than having them rest in the hands of the few who initially learn them.
Involvement in drilling and field testing by local companies in the project in central Asia was 50% higher compared with early phases of the development. This resulted in 20,000 additional hours of work by local teams, and local contractors’ share of laboratory testing increased by 65%.
The 17 UN sustainability goals (SDGs) were adopted in 2015 and are a universal call to action over 15 years to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that people enjoy peace and prosperity. The approach adopted helps to achieve some of the objectives.
Goal 12 is focused on ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns, and its associated 2030 targets include: the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources; and a substantial reduction in waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse.
Upskilling the local workforce also supports goal 8, which centres on delivering inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work, as well as goal 4 and promotion of lifelong learning. The education goal calls for a substantial increase by 2030 in the number of youths and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills. The local firms building the processing and exploration infrastructure were encouraged to embed new skills in these regions, where unemployment among the adult population is often high and frequently even higher among those aged 15 to 24.
In East Africa, a water abstraction scheme from Lake Albert for a new oil and gas processing facility 8km away raised environmental and socio-economic concerns. The original proposal involved building a pipeline that passed through densely vegetated ravines and down a cliff over 50m high before entering the lake via a jetty. The jetty would have restricted boat movements, severely hampering fishing activities that provided a livelihood for local communities. The pipeline would also have left an unsightly scar down the cliff face and harmed biodiversity.
After studying landform and geohazards, an alternative route was identified. Blending the pipeline into the surrounding natural environment and removing the need for a jetty mitigated any adverse socio-economic impacts on local communities, prevented scarring of the landscape, and resulted in significant cost savings.
In North Africa, the framework was used to develop generic designs for oil and gas exploration platforms that replaced traditional reinforced concrete. The innovative design combined rockfill from project sites, high-density polyethylene liners and prefabricated steel cellars. This saved time and money and will significantly improve the ease of decommissioning the plants.
The adoption of more sustainable solutions for constructing energy infrastructure in developing and remote regions may seem common sense, but it has often been hard fought. The nature of the oil and gas industry means such solutions are still seen as an exception rather than the rule.
If the UN SDGs stand any chance of being realised by 2030, such approaches need to become the norm, being adopted widely by other sectors such as mining and hydropower and embedded in the procurement process.
Changiz Roohnavaz is a geotechnical adviser and project director at global consultancy Mott MacDonald
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