The Millennial On An Oil Rig: An Unconventional Approach To Sustainability

As an Oceanographer and nature enthusiast, working offshore on oil rigs has always been a mix of joy and guilt – like eating meat now a days. On one hand, I am immersed and as close as possible to the real ocean and over the years, I have seen massive shoals of fish, playful dolphins, curious sharks, majestic whales, mysterious deep-sea creatures, as well as countless breathtaking sunrises and sunsets

Offshore Brazil Santos Basin (Source: André Bae)

On the other hand, I am up and front on a very invasive and massive carbon footprint activity. It always baffles me to think that we navigate 200 miles off the coast, dive 2 kilometers deep to drill another 3 kilometers of soil to extract this black, thick liquid made from pre-historic organisms because we built a world dependent on it.

Thankfully, when western societies became aware of the environmental impacts from the O&G (oil and gas) activities, the industry had to adapt to keep their stakeholders satisfied. Public and private regulations in the 90s helped shape the status quo and most companies in the O&G industry now have a QHSE (Quality, Health, Safety and Environment) and/or Sustainability Department.

The number one priority and most valuable asset offshore, constantly emphasized, is human life. With this, a strong community culture is created, where offshore personnel are always aware of their own activities and of others too. Staff is encouraged and empowered to stop any activity if a potential risk to human life, equipment or environment is identified, no matter how high or low you rank.

Source: André Bae

It was not always like this though. There is a long record of accidents, deaths and huge environmental impacts from O&G – I was on-board not too long ago when I witnessed a human fatality, which just reminds us how dangerous this activity is. To us and the environment.

Nowadays, a constantly re-enforced recycling culture is also part of the day-to-day activities on-board oilrigs and every waste, organic or inorganic, is segregated. This is majorly due to harsh regulations and penalties (at least in Brazil) that try to keep the human impact as low as possible. Plastic, glass, metal, organic, non-recyclable, oil polluted equipment and any other material have their designated, colored identified trash can – and whoever’s seen discarding waste material in the wrong place or in the ocean, will be adverted and the rig/vessel could be heavily fined.

Source: André Bae

This is interesting because most offshore personnel usually have a technical education background and the reality of this in Brazil means that most offshore personnel come from lower income families, with limited access to higher education. Notions of sustainability, environmental impact, global warming and other social-environmental concerns are not a common topic offshore. However, since oilrigs are obliged by legislation in Brazil to train their workers on PEAT (Programa de Educação Ambiental dos Trabalhadores – Environmental Education Program for Workers), they learn a little about the social-environmental impacts of O&G activities and hopefully transfer the knowledge back to their homes – however, to be honest, this is more wishful thinking than actual proven fact.

Ok, so all waste offshore is segregated and non-organic are sent onshore for recycling. Non-oiled organic waste is treated, grinded and then discarded to the sea, which might sound bad but the ocean takes care of it (MARPOL 73/78 – Figure 2). A small microenvironment around oilrigs is created, providing food and shelter to smaller organisms. It is common to find small fishing vessels illegally close to oilrigs due to this. Some say this is a positive impact from O&G activities.

MARPOL 73/78 (Source: André Bae – picture taken offshore on-board an oil rig)

So what other activities offshore could be considered sustainable (and I stand-by UN’s definition of sustainable development from 1987)?

I think that is it. Due to strict health inspection standards and cost-effectiveness, plastic is everywhere offshore. We drink out of plastic cups, utensils are packed in small plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic tie-ups, plastic plastic plastic. The only “R” offshore is recycle. There is no control whatsoever on single-use plastic consumption, I could very easily use 10 plastic cups a day and no one would really care. Quick math; on average offshore personnel spend 6 months onshore and 6 offshore, therefore 182 days a year; 10 cups a day, 1820 cups a year; 5 years I would have consumed 9100 plastic cups, which is approximately equivalent to 100,1 tons of plastic. Oilrigs can hold up to 180 people. You finish the math.

At the social level, women and LGBT are clearly a minority offshore. Male x Female ratio is roughly 100 x 1 and there is a very strong, male culture offshore. Conversations fluctuate around soccer, politics and women. Personally, I have never seen or heard of any sexual harassment case offshore, but this is definitely a topic best detailed by the women that do work offshore.

Source: André Bae

The offshore culture is also a very carnivorous one. Barbecues on Sunday are as religious (used sometimes as a time reference “oh there’s only one more BBQ left until we disembark”) and there are at least two options of meat protein on every meal. Yeah, there are some vegetables (usually boiled and boring), fruit and salads but I still have not met a vegan offshore and clearly, a more balanced diet is not promoted – offshore a lot of leisure is neglected, so it seems like food is an anxiety outlet. Most people offshore are overweight; I can say from personal experience that sticking to a diet and daily exercise offshore is hard.

There is also a dominating thought that “you’re not supposed to care about the environment if you work for the O&G industry”. Funny how people think; we would rather be less sustainable than a hypocrite.

Regarding environmental legislation, there has been a recent controversy with the new government and environmental regulatory agencies in Brazil. The main agency, IBAMA, has been heavily criticized for their “fine culture”. Not to get much into this but in a recent talk with a Brazilian OIM (Offshore Installation Manager), he expressed his sincere thoughts and valid points. As previously mentioned, the regulation and inspection on oilrigs is strict – companies are penalized if they are responsible for pollution and can even face criminal charges. Therefore, there is a strong control by governmental agencies.  

Now take Rio de Janeiro as an example, considered the O&G state in Brazil.

Source: André Bae

In my most recent offshore period, I was on-board a drill ship that was anchored in the Guanabara Bay for about three months. As previously stated, oil rigs cannot discard any inorganic waste or oil to the sea – and here is the hypocrisy. Guanabara Bay’s pollution is shameful to Rio de Janeiro. Every day, tons of untreated sewage and waste are dumped into the Bay’s water. Wildlife struggles to survive there and, even though there is still a small group of dolphins still in this habitat, they are destined to extinction and I will be a witness. However, if any untreated waste from the oilrig touches this water, the company would be fined. Therefore, the public sector demands from the private sector what they themselves cannot or choose not to do. Hard not turning into a neoliberal when you realize this.

Is the O&G sustainable? Not in the long term. The O&G supply chain, however, is huge and there is an estimate that more than 500.000 people work directly with O&G in Brazil (IBP, 2017). What is the future of this industry in Brazil, which started in 1970? What is the future of the highly trained, technical and operational work force?

Source: André Bae

Recently, Brazil’s leading O&G company released an announcement stating they will now start to invest R&D on offshore wind energy, with a major multi-national O&G company that is on its own path to explore renewable energy around the world as a partner. This feels like the logical path, where offshore knowledge from O&G would be transferred to offshore wind, solar, current, tide, wave and even thermal (OTEC) energy. I am definitely trying to follow this path while still working in the O&G. I am fully aware, however, that patience and persistence will be my strongest virtues in the days to come.

“Hi! My name is André Bae, I’m from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As my name, I am part Brazilian (mom) and part Korean (dad). Growing up in a city like Rio de Janeiro fueled my passion for the environment, reflected by my favorite sport (surfing) and career choice (oceanographer). Currently concluding my Masters in Energy Planning, focused on Offshore Wind Energy Supply Chain in Brazil, and working in the O&G industry, where hopefully in a short future I’ll be able to merge both skills.”

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