Marine Oil Spill Response –Technology & Economics
Capt. Sekhar, Managing Director, AlphaMERS

This article provides an insight into oil spill response equipment to ports and oil exploration and production companies. The equipment are one kilometer of boom, skimmer, power pack, tow tank and other accessories to provide response capability to contracted clients.

Oil spill incidents catch the attention of an ordinary citizen when an incident worthy of television coverage occurs. However, behind the public domain, there is a regime of regulatory mechanism, international conventions, contingency planning, equipment stockpiling and response preparedness that is ongoing throughout the year in India, and in every coastal state or country.

Few characteristic features of this sector that explain ‘why we are, where we are’, are discussed here.

The response equipment is typically booms stowed on reels, skimmers and tow tanks. They are quite bulky. They are also usually self-contained for their power requirements, since they have to be operated in remote locations and on ‘vessels of opportunities’. The diesel hydraulic system is a favorite as portable power pack for turning the boom reel or the skimmer or even operating a blower to inflate the boom. Equipment in this sector is predominantly imported, at considerable costs, though these equipment are not ‘hi-tech’. Design innovation has been slow in this area around the world. Understandably, emergency response sector seeks reliability, mobility and versatility and not ‘automation’ in such equipment. Recent innovations around the world have been propelled skimmer units with remote hydraulic drives, to direct the skimmer towards the oil patch. Bio remediation, while useful on the beaches, has not been a favorite in tidal or coastal waters due to the challenges of containing the floating oil for long periods, until the bio remediation agent completes its work.

Inventory optimisation by pooling of resources is one route towards cost optimisation. However, the equipment for spill response is characteristically bulky and not easily moved across geographies. Moving a loaded boom reel weighing up to 3 tons and of typical sizes of 15 cbm, is not ideal for airfreighting and is not fast enough by road. This has resulted in this industry model being ‘pool resources for larger spills’ called Tier 2 and Tier 3, and retain minimum mandated equipment on-site for Tier 1 spills.

When spill occurs, oil may be pouring out of a pipeline or a crack or overflowing from a small air pipe and can be contained within a small area. But beyond half a day it may have hit kilometers of the coast, or thickened to an unpumpable viscosity or on the way to becoming a ‘mousse’. This will magnify the scale of the problem, besides rendering itself unfit to use of dispersants. Once the oil hits the coast, the response is predominantly manual and consequently slow. Thus, the time sensitivity of a spill response mobilisation and adequate on- site containment equipment inventory can never be overemphasised.

Oil spill response organisations (OSROs) are mostly private players, providing requisite equipment and trained manpower on a timescale ‘service’ model. Being domain experts, these organisations are in the know of the latest knowledge in this subject. The OSROs usually have additional inventory and manpower to scale up the response if required. This service provider model ensures professional maintenance and deployment of resources, which is extremely vital during an emergency. As ports move towards ‘landlord’ model, such specialist service providers will be more in demand from the port sector.

Being an emergency response mechanism and not directly contributing to revenue, many organisation would limit this budget to the extent necessary to manage the risks and ensure regulatory compliances, similar to insurance cover. Nothing wrong with that, if the budget is well spent.

With the scale of oil EnP activity in India, it is viable to support a Tier 2 or 3 inventory in India, provided the oil industry seeks and supports such a move. In times of emergency, a response equipment stockpile within India will be far easier to mobilise than international inventory. There is ample scope for Tier 2 stockpile in oil handling hubs in the country. OSROs signing up multiple clients within one region, can afford to place a ‘shared pool of resources’ in addition to meeting the mandated inventory of each facility. It must be reiterated that revenue model of an OSRO is from the monthly or annual retainers and fees charged to the client. There will be few OSROs if any, who will set up inventory and await its cash flows only from response to stray incidents from uncontracted clients.

AlphaMERS has filed for patent for a special boom designed in house that can be produced in large quantities in short timeframes from available off-the-shelf raw material. The company is an OSRO providing response capability to two oil companies. The company is active in oil spill response, marine EIA and offshore renewable energy sector. The company seeks to progressively set up tier 2 and Tier 3 inventory in India, subject to support from industry players.