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Waste not: RGS Nordic on North Sea water management

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With environmental rules tightening and companies keen to take charge of their carbon footprint, RGS Nordic believes a holistic approach to water management could drive change in the North Sea

While the offshore industry is primarily concerned with the management of hydrocarbons, water is often a close-run second place. The UKCS generated almost 200 million cubic metres of produced water in 2018 (representing around 70% of total well stream fluids), and while much of this can be safely treated on site and released to sea or reinjected into hydrocarbon reservoirs, a sizable proportion requires further treatment to be made safe.

Typically, produced water may contain dispersed oils, treatment chemicals, heavy metals, salts and other organic and inorganic compounds. As such, thorough treatment processes are necessary to ensure compliance with environmental regulations – some of which will require specialist facilities.

The need for such remediation in the North Sea is set to grow as the basin matures, both as more water is required to support output from ageing reservoirs and as older facilities are decommissioned. As such new solutions and a more collaborative approach may be needed.

Employing around 300 people, OGUK member RGS Nordic is an environmental company working across the Scandinavian soil, construction and water sectors. Its main site at Stigsnæs, south west of Copenhagen, includes a recycling facility and specialised water treatment infrastructure. Although similar to a municipal facility in its function, its bacterial cultures and processes are tuned to tackle industrial and oil and gas needs, being able to treat high salt content, chemical oxygen demand (COD) content and hydrocarbons in general.

Supported by another aggregation facility in Mongstad, Norway, RGS serves clients across the Nordic region, but is looking increasingly outwards to new partners in the North Sea. As Director of Water Solutions Jonathan Cope explained to Wireline: “We see water treatment in the oil and gas sector very much as a North Sea basin challenge.” With new hubs planned in the Netherlands and UK, its goal is to become a “one-stop shop” for water services across the region.

“The ability to export water rather than invest heavily in ageing equipment, in a sustainable controlled traceable manner is an interesting proposition to the market.”

Reduce, reuse, recycle

While the fundamental processes for water treatment at Stigsnæs are typical, it is the combination of recycling elements that support RGS’ environmental credentials. “We’re able to utilise waste fractions in a different manner than many UK facilities are able to do,” Cope notes. For example, excess sludge from the treatment process is recovered for use in Denmark’s district heating system, while recaptured hydrocarbons can be re-refined and turned back into useful products.

Moreover, other waste products are also recovered to regulate treatments – used caustic soda for example, helps regulate ph levels – all which supports a more circular approach to waste management. “It’s very much tuned to minimising the use of virgin resources and using as much as we can from industry to facilitate the treatment process,” he says. Using this holistic approach, energy and material recovery is vastly improved compared with remediation alone.

In terms of its offering to clients, scale is important. Owing to its portside location, Stigsnæs can accommodate large vessels and up to 100,000 tonnes of water in one delivery, with flexible storage for up to 140,000 tonnes prior to processing. Coupled with around 600,000 tonnes per year of plant throughput, Cope is confident the site is flexible enough to handle varied demand from across the basin.

RGS Nordic Director of Water Solutions, Jonathan Cope.

Traceability is key too. As more companies look to record, report and improve on their environmental performance, understanding the inputs and outputs of their assets is increasingly useful. Danish regulations mean RGS operates on a “kilo-in, kilo-out” basis – everything is recorded and accounted for throughout its process and Cope sees this as a major differentiator: “We can give operators a full appraisal of what was in [their water] and we’re able to document what comes out the other end and what was removed, so you get full traceability. That gives them security… and that’s a big thing for us being able to say where this waste goes.”

Altogether, this can help drive significant reductions in overall carbon emissions. Cope draws particular attention to the benefits of single-shipment deliveries (as opposed to trucking material to various facilities onshore), which coupled with the treatment and re-use of recovered materials can have a measurable impact. “All in all, it gives the most cost-effective and sustainable solution, and that’s what we are taking as a value proposition to the market,” he explains.

 

Export market

A flexible, basin-wide approach to water management will be of growing importance in the coming years. With new EU Best Available Technique Reference documents (BREFs) set to come into force in 2022, operations across the bloc will evolve, and RGS hopes to be at the forefront. “The EU are working on increasing trans-frontier shipment [TFS] abilities because waste is more now being seen as a resource,” he adds. “They want to be able to send usable resources to the right facilities than can use it. It doesn’t have to be everyone doing everything locally, we have a European infrastructure that we can draw on.”

Most notably, Cope says the group is currently seeking export approvals from the UK Environment Agency (EA) and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to export waste water and other materials more freely from UK operations to sites like Stigsnæs for treatment. These permissions, also known as TFS approvals, can only be approved if there is a recycling component, which RGS is confident the facility can meet, given its capabilities. If granted, it would the first company to be able to do so with waste water, marking an important step forward in the basin-wide approach for which the company has been advocating.

So far, Cope says, engagement from the regulators has been very encouraging: “It’s been an extremely positive experience talking to them… We only see a very proactive, dialogue-based approach where we’ve been welcomed into trying new options in the name of increasing the holistic environmental impact.”

“This licensing process is going to be crucial to a flexible market in future. The ability to export water rather than invest heavily in ageing equipment, in a sustainable controlled traceable manner is an interesting proposition to the market.”

Sustainable partnership

RGS’ flexibility and experience in the sector is of particular interest to the decommissioning market. Having been involved in major Danish operations for several years, Cope says the benefits of planning and securing water processing along with other major contracts in advance are significant – especially given the potential for encountering unplanned environmental hazards on older assets.

“Having the ability to go in and sit at the table at the pre-planning phase of these projects has been very beneficial for the whole process of decommissioning activity that’s been happening in the Danish sector,” he continues. Whether that’s the opportunity to analyse expected chemicals to determine facility treatments, confirm volume expectations, arrange logistics providers or examine risk factors, he argues strongly that water and other environmental partners should sit round the same table as the operators and removals contractors. “Operators need to be able to know they are working with partners who can take 50,000 tonnes [of water] on a specific weekend. If they think there’s a risk that you can only take 10,000 tonnes, then everything else will stop.”

Good communication and planning, combined with the flexibility to move materials across the North Sea, are likely to prove invaluable as operators and contractors continue to grapple with the scale and cost of decommissioning in the coming decades. RGS is confident that its experience in the Danish sector puts it in a strong position to be part of that value chain.

In the coming years, Cope believes there will be much greater engagement with the waste remediation process, in oil and gas and in other sectors. This will be driven by a mixture of tougher regulations and by companies looking to truly get a handle on their environmental outputs, but it’s encouraging to see companies like RGS engage with both sides to make sure that can be made a reality.

In aligning itself and its operations with the UN’s Sustainable Development goals, Cope is confident that RGS’ services will be of growing interest to increasingly conscious industries. “I think it’s been a ‘nice to do’ but it’s got to move to a ‘must do’ task. That’s where we believe it will go, it’s getting so much airtime and column inches that it has to move forward, and that means treatment processes and practice will change.”

“We advocate planning and that industry sets clear high requirements of the supplier base. We want more commitment, tighter legislation, more planning and openness up front, and then the supplier base has to get its act together to live up to that. That’s how we see our position and we think we’re at the forefront of that.”

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2020 Issue of Wireline.

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