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The exploration of resources is important for generating and sustaining economic growth, particularly that of refinery outputs like natural gas and oil. Petroleum is mined from sedimentary deposits comprising an intricate mixture of hydrocarbons that exist naturally beneath earth’s surface in gaseous, liquid, and solid states, as natural gas, crude oil, and coal, respectively.
The rapidly increasing demand for oil has necessitated increased production efforts, which include exploration, drilling, extraction and treatment of the hydrocarbons, leading to greater levels of environmental hazards and degradation (Madduri, 2003). This paper examines the various effects of oil exploration on the natural world.
The Process of Oil Exploration
Madduri (2003) refers to oil exploration activities as “scientific gambling” since it entails a series of steps that may eventually lead to complete abandonment of the project.
The oil exploration business is technology and cost intensive, and involves multiple stages including: a geological survey, a seismic survey, exploratory drilling, further drilling to assess the extent of the reservoir, preparation of a feasibility report, and additional drilling of wells and establishment of supporting infrastructure.
After exploration, the oil is produced and transported for refining. Exploration efforts take about five years, and the entire project can be abandoned if the reservoir is found to have limited natural resource to cater for the cost of production.
Most air emissions are a result of controlled flaring and venting, which is a necessary precaution for safe oil exploration activities. There are some instances when accidental emissions from well blowout emit massive quantities of hazardous gases like sulphur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen sulphide (H2S), carbon monoxide (CO), and a variety of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that interfere with vegetation growth, human settlement and wildlife.
Some of the offshore and onshore operations that release air emissions include fire protection systems, incomplete combustion processes, fugitive gas loses, generators and pump engines, dust from cementing operations, and flaring, venting and purging gases.
Air pollution is associated with the greenhouse effect and global warming, which interferes with climate patterns; acid rain, which destroys water catchment areas, soil and vegetation; and hydrocarbons in water, which contaminates underground water, leads to bio-degradation, and poisons marine life (Collins Center for Public Policy, 2010).
There are many sources of noise during exploration including drilling activities and vehicular movements that affect both human and wildlife populations. The huge amount of noise associated with seismic exploration is particularly detrimental to marine life depending on the proximity of operations to aquatic life. Seismic survey operations usually involve explosions of approximately 250 decibels, which 100db higher than the human threshold of 140db.
Madduri (2003) claims that different animal species have different levels of sensitivity to sound frequencies, with whales and grouper fish like cetaceans that depend on sound for navigation and communication being more susceptible to acoustic disturbances than other sea creatures. Such disturbance can cause the whales to be grounded or fish to be displaced, which disturbs their feeding mechanisms. Madduri (2003) states “loud blasts can also damage tissues like guts, lungs and ears for the mammals, and swim bladders in fish”.
In light of the harm caused by acoustic disturbance on marine life, there are various mitigation measures in place. In the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, explorer vessels are fitted with lookouts to inform operators when to cease testing the moment mammals are spotted. Another measure is the requirement of explorers to begin their tests using low-volume air blasts that cause marine life to disperse, before switching to higher volumes.
Destruction of Water ecosystems
Exploration activities disturb normal functioning of water systems, interfering with the manner in which local communities, wildlife populations and fisheries make use of the water.
Activities such as excavation and infill interfere with existing drainage patterns, which causes significant changes in both flora and fauna that has become accustomed to the environment. Additionally, exploration activities can lead to contamination of the marine environment. Avenues of sea pollution include waste water produced from the operations, fluids used for drilling and well treatment, and water used for drainage, process and washing.
The damage caused by oil spills and other contaminants starts from the moment they get in contact with sea water, and may extend for days, months, years or decades. Collins Center for Public Policy (2010) suggests that “progression of contamination is dependent on the composition of the oil, amount of oil spillage, and environmental conditions like wind, currents and temperature”.
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Other effects of exploration on water ecosystems include: altered drainage patterns caused by changes in topography; establishment of water and pool dominated landscaped caused by changes in topography; establishment of drier landscapes on higher altitudes caused by introduction of fill material into surface water overlaying permafrost; interference with water supplies owing to cleared vegetation; contamination of ground and surface water by drilling fluids, operational discharges, leakage, site drainage and accidental releases; and disruption of surface water drainage by vehicle tariff, impounding, and removal of vegetation (Collins Center for Public Policy, 2010).
Destruction of Soil Ecosystem
While soils are generally vulnerable to alterations in temperature and chemical composition, the level of degradation is also dependent on the soil type and geology of the region. Some of the major effects of exploration activities on soil include: alteration of drainage patterns; compaction; contamination from operational leakages, discharges, accidental releases and site drainage; and erosion caused by alteration of the landscape (Madduri, 2003).
Effect on Biodiversity; Flora and Fauna
Exploration activities impact both flora and fauna at different levels. One of the primary characteristics of oil exploration sites is the loss of flora, caused by disturbance of the ecosystem coupled with prolonged development periods.
The initial loss of vegetation causes further deterioration of the land through the removal of organic litter, interference with nutrient cycles, rapid soil erosion, and reduced habitat for wildlife. Further loss and alteration of vegetation can be due to construction activities like drilling and production sites, access roads, borrow sites and support infrastructure. In some cases, prolonged disturbance of vegetation cover can permanently destroy the stability of the ecosystem (Madduri, 2003).
The cumulative changes in soil, water, flora and noise levels interfere with the habitat, food supply, breeding areas, migration routes and camouflage patterns of animal populations.
These activities tend to remove vegetation and expose the soil to erosion, alter topology and hydrology, and limit access to animal habitats through construction works, resulting in irremediable loss of bio-diversity. In some cases, interference with the number and dispersion of particular wildlife species can have considerable effect on the livelihood of local people (Madduri, 2003).
The entire process of oil production is intricate, leading to both direct and indirect effects, risks and unprecedented impact at different stages including exploration, production, transportation, and refining. However, there has been a reduction of adverse oil exploration effects from the 1990s following the adoption of strict legal regulations and increased environmental concern. With better assessment technologies and management practices, the impact of exploring energy resources on the environment should continue to diminish.
Collins Center for Public Policy. (2010). Potential Impacts of Oil and Exploration in the Gulf. A report to the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, 17-26.
Madduri, V. (2003). An Environmental Assessment of Oil and Gas Exploration. Industrial Pollution and Policy: EERC Working Paper Series, 8, 18-37.