In-Situ Burning of Oil

1. Synopsis

Several Arctic council reports conclude that oil spills are the most significant threat to the arctic ecosystem. Studies have shown that in-situ burning (ISB) on water can remove more than 90 % of the oil, and is as such the most promising technology for an efficient response to oil spills in the arctic region. However, few studies have been undertaken on the influence of ice on the ignition and burning behavior of oils and on the environmental impact of the residues. This study will therefore include both the “fire science” and the “environmental science” aspects of ISB in cold climates. The primary objectives are to evaluate the ignition mechanisms and the burning rate of oils on ice and to assess the environmental impact (e.g. on microorganisms, wildlife) of the residues. The results will improve the strategies and the net environmental benefit of, and thereby the success of, oil clean-up after an accidental spill. Finally, a forecasting model will be developed to assess the feasibility at full scale.

2. Motivation

There are several different marine activities that can lead to oil spills in the arctic region, and the recently enhanced activity in the region is expected to increase the probability of an oil spill, similarly to the findings of a recent study for the Danish waters [1]. In addition, oil companies have spent over $600 million in the last two years in oil exploration in the Arctic [2] and Russia recently signed a $1 billion deal with Exxon Mobil for oil exploration in the Arctic [3]. After this deal, analysts predict that the investment in oil exploration in the Arctic will reach more than $100 billion with many other countries (including the US) investing massive resources.

In the Danish Kingdom’s strategy for the arctic region 2011 – 2020 [4] it is stated that “it is essential to implement strategies that allow continued and increased ship traffic in the Arctic that can also effectively prevent and reduce the number of marine accidents and the risk of secondary damage to nature and the environment.” Furthermore, the project is a direct follow-up on the recommendation R26 in AMAP’s “Oil and Gas Assessment” to continue research on and development of efficient clean-up of oil spills in arctic/ice-covered regions [5].

If an oil spill were to occur under icy conditions in the Arctic [6], in-situ burning (ISB) may be the only option for efficient clean up, because the remoteness and harsh climactic conditions is likely to make it impossible for heavy machinery to be deployed immediately after a spill to facilitate either mechanical recovery or the use of dispersants, which are the two other primary response methods for off-shore oil spill cleanup.

When it comes to oil spill weathering, the presence of ice, ice channels, and ice slurries will cause changes in both the spread and burning behavior of the oil (Fig. 1). The consequent environmental impact of an oil spill can be disastrous for the wildlife and ecosystems as well as for the indigenous people living in these areas [5]. However, the knowledge about the chemical composition of the residues from the in-situ burning and their toxicological impact on the arctic environment, such as the wildlife and the underwater microorganisms, is limited [7, 8].

Finally, the project is in accordance with Denmark’s International obligations such as the CANDEN-agreement with Canada, which promises a joint emergency management of the waters between Greenland and Canada and pledge to develop suitable management tools and methods for this region and the Copenhagen Statement (Københavns Erklæringen) of September 2001, which includes a Danish promise to develop improved methods to deal with high-viscosity oils and fight pollution of ice and cold waters.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Possible oil/ice interactions [5]. Area circled by red oval depicts research focus of current study - ISB of oil within an ice channel (3-sided ice exposure).

3. Research Objectives

An oil spill can interact with ice in many different ways, as depicted in Fig. 1. However, the primary scenario for in-situ burning in Arctic conditions assessed in this study will be oil spills in ice channels (cracks) as shown by the red oval in Fig. 1. This scenario differs significantly from our fundamental knowledge-base on burning behavior over open water [9-12] due to the impact of changing geometry of the channel as the oil burns. The specific goals of this project are:

  1. To identify the controlling mechanisms governing the ignition and burning rate of combustible liquids in ice channels – a unique situation, which has never been explored fundamentally before.
  2. To establish the chemical composition and the acute toxicity after the in-situ burning.
  3. To develop a scaling/forecasting model of the suitability of in-situ burning.

In order to achieve these goals, a three-phase plan has been setup (Fig. 2) that combines the expertise and facilities of all involved parties. The main goals are to be reached through two Ph.D. projects at WPI and DTU.

Figure 2. Work outline.

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