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The Need to Detect and Mitigate Oil Spills

The global energy market has been extremely unstable over the past year. The warmer-than-average winter in Europe this year helped to escape a gas crisis, but the outlook for the coming winter is uncertain as instabilities linger. 

Close-up of the desalination and liquid natural gas export infrastructures in Qatar. Image Credit: Thomas Anselain, Essam Heggy, Thomas Dobbelaere, and Emmanuel Hanert

A recent study published in the journal Nature Sustainability by a group of researchers from the University of Louvain, the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering, and the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute identifies the location of a “high vulnerability zone,” where an oil spill could prompt liquefied natural gas export facilities and desalination plants on the coast to be totally shut down for several days.

Tankers cannot navigate through thick oil slicks and desalination units, which rely on seawater intake, cannot operate normally in a substantially polluted water source.

According to the researchers, the shutdown might cause severe disruptions in worldwide gas supply as well as an unprecedented water crisis for residents of the Qatari Peninsula, while also endangering containment efforts.

According to the researchers, being aware of such a vulnerability is important. In the next five years, Qatar’s export capacity is predicted to grow by around 64%. As a result, this major port will remain a key hub in the global energy supply chain.

The investigators also express concern about the growing number of tanker accidents in the Gulf, especially how such accidents may influence vital coastal infrastructures that guarantee the safety of desalinated water for one of the world’s most arid climates.

The study utilized sophisticated numerical modeling to correlate maritime data transports, ocean currents, atmospheric circulation, waves, and seafloor topographic map data collected over a five-year period to identify specific offshore areas of the Qatar Peninsula susceptible to oil spills and identify possible disruptions to the global supply of liquid natural gas.

According to the study, tankers passing through this area provide the greatest risk of oil spills, rather than the many oil rigs in the northern section of the Peninsula. If there is an oil spill in this location, the experts believe Qatar will only have a few days to stop the spill before it reaches the country’s major liquefied gas export facility and key desalination plant.

According to the authors, these events could create disruptions or even a complete shutdown of desalination plants for the day, forcing the country to rely on its limited freshwater supply and driving up liquefied natural gas costs.

To put the magnitude of the problem into perspective, experts say that the largest liquid natural gas tankers from Qatar have enough energy to heat London for one week.

The study proposes expanded remote sensing in the Gulf’s most vulnerable locations, employing satellite and airborne images to provide early warning of spills and better simulate their evolution. According to the researchers, the aforementioned measures are critical in guiding mitigation efforts to avoid detrimental repercussions both locally and worldwide.

The Middle East’s sensitivity to environmental and climatic dangers, according to co-author Essam Heggy of the USC Arid Climate and Water Research Center, is vastly underestimated.

Global containment of major oil spills has always been challenging, but it is even harder in the shallow water of the Gulf where any intervention has to account for the complex circulation currents, a harsh operational environment, and the presence of highly-sensitive ecosystems on which three million humans rely for drinking water. I hope serious resources are put into resolving this vulnerability.

Essam Heggy, Study Co-Author, Arid Climate and Water Research Center, University of Southern California

Oil spill vulnerability in the Gulf could exacerbate both the global energy crisis and the local water crisis in Gulf countries.”  He added, “Energy and water security are deeply intertwined, and both are at risk of being disrupted by a major oil spill. We identified sea areas in the Gulf where an oil spill would be the most dangerous to desalination and liquified natural gas export facilities. Satellite surveillance should focus on detecting oil spills as early as possible and hence limit their impact,” adds co-author Emmanuel Hanert of the University of Louvain.

Journal Reference

Anselain, T., et al. (2023) Qatar Peninsula’s vulnerability to oil spills and its implications for the global gas supply. Nature Sustainability.


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