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Could robots help decide if oil rigs could become reefs?

19th May 2017

Basket star on a subsea oil structure

The UK National Oceanography Centre (NOC) has launched a joint science-industry project that aims to develop a guide for using ocean-robots to assess the impact of decommissioned oil structures on marine life.


Decommissioned oil structures can have positive impacts, such as providing a habitat for marine life in a similar way to a reef, or negative consequences – such as marine pollution. In the North Sea, for example, structures are rapidly colonised and typically develop highly productive ecosystems that often include priority species, such as the cold-water coral Lophelia pertusa. On the other hand, large piles of oil-enriched sediments lie underneath many oil and gas installations. The environmental impacts of these piles are not well known, nor are the relative impacts of re-disturbing partially recovered systems while removing structures. Marine robots have great potential to investigate these impacts.


NOC scientist Dr Daniel Jones, who is leading the project, said: “This is an excellent example of the NOC’s on-going commitment to working with industry to help provide the best possible evidence to underpin critical policy decisions in this area, as well as providing the high-technology solutions required to facilitate assessment and monitoring.”


Policymakers face a difficult challenge – the ecological role of structures needs to be assessed as part of the environmental impact assessment required for decommissioning. However, there is no standard approach for making these assessments and current assessments have not led to clear conclusions.


It is anticipated that this one-year project will help industry transform how it approaches monitoring by using autono-mous systems to provide a low-cost, high-quality solution for repeat assessment.

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