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Spate of Spills at Sea for Brazilian Oil Industry

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 2 2012 (IPS) - An accident at an ultra-deepwater drilling platform spilled 160 barrels of crude off the coast of Brazil this week, deepening fears about safety in this new frontier of oil and gas production.

According to the state oil company Petrobras, the oil spill is small in volume, and was caused by a rupture in the production column on the Dynamic Producer, a floating production, storage and offloading vessel conducting tests in the Carioca oil field.

The spill occurred 300 km off the coast of the southern state of São Paulo, at a depth of 2,140 metres in the Atlantic Ocean, in the Santos basin. There is no possibility of the oil reaching the shore, Petrobras said in a communiqué. The well “remains closed and in safe condition,” it said.

The undersea oil deposits found in rock layers rich in fossil fuels located beneath a thick layer of salt are known as “pre-salt” reserves, and may be as much as 7,000 metres below sea level.

“After the rupture the safety systems automatically shut down the well, which remains closed and in safe condition,” the Petrobras communiqué said. “Emergency plans were immediately activated and the necessary resources mobilised to contain the oil spill at sea and clean up residual crude in the upper part of the column,” it added.

In the view of Adriano Pires, the head of the Brazilian Infrastructure Centre, an energy industry consulting firm, the issue “is not whether it was serious,” but that “it made it abundantly clear to the government and Brazilian society that oil spills do occur, and extraction is a high-risk activity,” something that appears obvious but is not always appreciated.

“This is the first time there has been an oil spill in a pre-salt field. It’s yet another alarm call for policies to be adopted to prevent and mitigate accidents, to assess whether our legislation is adequate, whether regulating bodies are equipped for their work and to create a centre for oil spill prevention, supervision and control,” Pires told IPS.

The discovery in 2007 of the pre-salt deposits, hailed by Petrobras as “a new frontier for oil exploitation”, fanned expectations that Brazil will become an energy power. The reserves are estimated to contain at least 50 billion barrels of crude.

Leandra Gonçalves, coordinator of Greenpeace Brazil’s climate and energy campaign, fears that the incident, detected Tuesday Jan. 31, is only the first indication of a future scenario with “beaches covered in oil because of the absence of safety measures.”

“The government has not yet tabled an agenda to discuss a general emergency plan for potential spills,” Gonçalves told IPS.

Such a plan, involving several ministries, was announced with great fanfare in 2010, after the disastrous spill of five million barrels of crude in the Gulf of Mexico in April of that year.

As over 90 percent of Brazil’s oil is extracted from undersea deposits, the plan was aimed at reinforcing safety provisions for maritime operations, especially drilling. But according to Gonçalves, “it never got off the drawing board.”

Greenpeace criticises the government’s investment in exorbitantly expensive technology for pre-salt extraction when the country “has the potential to develop 100 percent clean energy sources” like wind and solar energy and biomass.

“The government needs to ensure that there are adequate structures for exploiting the pre-salt reserves, and it needs to seek cheaper alternatives using renewable sources,” Gonçalves said.

According to Pires, the deeper the undersea drilling, the higher the likelihood of oil leaks. Therefore the authorities must urge state and private companies to reduce the “gap between the technology used for production and that used for accident prevention,” as the latter is “very backward” in comparison with the former.

The accident happened a few days after Transpetro, a subsidiary of Petrobras, acknowledged responsibility for a spill of 1,200 litres of oil on the shores of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, during the transfer of crude to a terminal. The oil slick reached the beach.

In November the U.S. company Chevron spilled 2,400 barrels of crude in the Frade field, off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state.

Engineer and oceanographer Segen Estefen, head of technology and innovation at the Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute for Postgraduate Studies and Research in Engineering (COPPE) of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, says the pre-salt reserves “are a wealth that Brazil simply cannot forgo.

“But at the same time, we have to protect the environment. This is the big challenge, to produce pre-salt oil safely and with an excellent level of environmental protection,” he told IPS. The newly discovered oil fields mean that Brazil will triple its undersea oil production in 15 years, Estefen said.

To attain that excellence, COPPE is negotiating with the Ministry of Science and Technology to create a centre for safety regulation and accident prevention at sea.

Estefen said Brazil is a leader in deepwater oil exploration and production, and because of this, “no excessive risks are currently being taken” in extracting oil from the “pre-salt” reserves. However, it is necessary to “seek to continually improve our procedures for minimising spills and dealing with them as quickly as possible.”

“The level of activity is going to increase, and the frontier is a great challenge because we will be working further from the coast, at greater depths, and the drilling conditions mean that it will take longer,” he said.

The centre proposed by COPPE, which has a number of excellent oil research laboratories, would have the goal of boosting safety through procedures that include satellite monitoring – which has already been developed – and continuous sea monitoring to detect leaks.

The causes of accidents will also be investigated, as “various scenarios are possible,” and procedures for containing spills and determining where oil slicks are heading will be optimised.

“We have to work at improving the safety of equipment and operations,” Estefen stressed.

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