Reducing costs of environmental recovery operations to promote growth and productivity while achieving best practice environmental outcomes for the energy resources sector is the aim of a collaborative agreement to facilitate regulatory reform in Australia.
NERA has entered the $1.9 million funding agreement with partners BP, Caltex, Quadrant Energy and CRC CARE.
The 18 month long project aims to verify the effectiveness of natural biodegradation of petroleum hydrocarbons under Australian conditions.
Current regulatory requirements
Petroleum hydrocarbon contamination can be caused by oil spills, storage tank and pipeline leaks and other handling incidents. If the volume spilt is large enough, a “pool” of hydrocarbon will form at the groundwater interface.
Risks from hydrocarbon releases include groundwater contamination and aquatic toxicity, as well as impacts to human health from exposure to hydrocarbon vapours and contaminated groundwater and soil. Site remediation occurs to mitigate these risks in situations where they are considered to be material.
However, current environmental regulatory policy requires active recovery of petroleum hydrocarbon from contaminated sites, with an overall goal of zero hydrocarbon contamination in monitoring wells.
Petroleum hydrocarbons are complex mixtures of chemicals that variably partition into water and gaseous phases when released into subsurface environments.
Retention of residual hydrocarbon in the substrata and slow release to the monitoring wells mean that a goal of zero contamination is practically unachievable and may not be necessary to guarantee environmental protection.
Ongoing environmental recovery operations can continue for decades with ever diminishing recovery rates, incurring huge costs with no environmental benefit. This can also unnecessarily delay decommissioning and relinquishment of titles for onshore oil and gas production and storage facilities.
What NERA hopes to achieve
NERA's Sector Competitiveness Plan identified regulatory framework optimisation as a knowledge priority for the energy resources sector. This project aims to address this priority.
To date, there has been no study to adequately demonstrate the rate of natural biodegradation of hydrocarbons in Australia, and current regulatory approaches are yet to acknowledge the effectiveness of the process and associated monitoring technology.
The rates of biodegradation that can be achieved under Australian conditions and the sustainability of the processes need to be verified. If the biological processes can be proven to be sustainable, there is a strong case for gaining regulatory acceptance of relying on biodegradation once monitoring has indicated active recovery is no longer beneficial.
Once biodegradation has been verified the project will develop technical guidance documents on cost-effective methodologies for monitoring. The regulatory community will be engaged throughout the life of the project to ensure the technical guidance documents are acceptable and suitable for rapid uptake into state policy frameworks.
Total Project: $1,900,000
In Kind Support: $843,000
- NERA (National Energy Resources Australia)
- CRC CARE.
- Quadrant Energy
- Technical guidance on methodologies for monitoring petroleum contamination removal rates
- Report on biodegradation rates at three west coast sites