Saudi Arabia: Environmental Issues
Environmental protection issues in Saudi Arabia are strongly linked -- but not limited -- to the production, processing and transportation of oil and natural gas. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been increasing its efforts aimed at protecting the country from various environmental hazards, while attempting to balance these concerns with the country's heavy dependence on hydrocarbon production and export. On the whole, Saudi Arabia is striving to minimize the impacts of the country's hydrocarbons sector on its environment (including the waters surrounding Saudi Arabia). Saudi Arabia also is attempting to safeguard the health of its rapidly growing population..
Saudi Arabia is keen to protect the environmental safety of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and the Saudi petroleum industry--led by Saudi Aramco, the state oil company--has contributed to environmental protection through safety measures, early warning systems against possible leakage, and advanced methods to control and contain any pollution. Saudi Aramco's Environmental Conservation Policy directs that the company not create undue risks to the environment, and that operations be carried out with concern for protection of the land, air, and water. Aramco has developed an array of operational requirements, engineering standards, and performance guidelines to implement this policy, including sanitary codes, environmental assessments, bioremediation, air quality and emission standards, noise-control regulations, landfill standards, water recycling procedures, hazardous material disposal rules, and oil spill contingency plans.
As world oil demand increases, however, Saudi Arabia is increasing its production and export capacity, leading to an increasing volume of oil being shipped through pipelines and via tankers. As shipping traffic becomes more congested, the odds of spills and accidents increases, putting the environment at greater risk.
Environmental Impact of Oil Exploration and Production
Although technological innovations have reduced the impact that oil exploration and extraction have on the environment, risks still remain. Offshore drilling can affect the integrity of the coastal shelf, as well as have a negative effect on marine life. Transporting oil to world markets -- via barge, supertanker, or pipeline - -runs the risk of spillage. Although improved ship design and better cleanup techniques have reduced the impact of oil spills, oil discharges in the Persian Gulf -- both accidental and otherwise -- have been on the increase, posing a threat to Gulf ecology and environment.
Offshore Development and Marine Life
A relative lack of precipitation, human population, inflow from rivers, and other natural disturbances has helped keep Red Sea reefs generally healthy. However, reefs located along the Saudi coast are threatened by pollution from offshore hydrocarbon development, as well as from the de-ballasting of oil tankers and other ships moving through the heavily trafficked Red Sea and Persian Gulf regions.On the Persian Gulf side, Saudi Arabia has infilled more than 40% of its coastline, wiping out half of its mangroves, while dredging and sedimentation are causing major ecological problems in coastal habitats. Fewer coral species thrive in the Persian Gulf than in the Red Sea, with many living near their maximum tolerances due to high salinity and wide temperature swings.
Environmentalists have warned that a significant percentage of the oil produced by offshore oil rigs has been spilling into the sea (which is already prone to contamination due to a relatively shallow average depth of of 97 feet) because of seepages in the sea bed, cracks in rigs, illegal discharges by oil companies and vessels and accidental spills. In addition, salt-laden wastewater from the oil production process that is dumped into the Gulf is increasing the salinity of the water and posing a grave threat to marine life. The Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment, a leading Arab environmental organization, warns that a September 1999 die-off of fish in the northern Gulf, due to high salt level in the water and 100-degree water temperatures, is the result of global warming compounded by indiscriminate dumping of wastewater in the region by oil companies and unchecked oil seepage. Although the latest industrial techniques go a long way to ensure that waste is handled in an environmentally-responsible fashion, many oil companies in the region have yet to implement these technologies.However, Saudi Arabia is beginning to take steps towards protecting its marine habitats while exploring for offshore oil. In 1997, Aramco began a study with the Research Institute at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran to determine whether shallow marine habitats along the Red Sea coastline can be mapped reliably using satellite remote-sensing data and sophisticated image-processing techniques, thereby minimizing costly and damaging fieldwork. Such mapping is part of the company's ongoing effort to minimize the impact of shoreline and offshore activities on the marine environment.Aramco is undertaking a number of studies to determine how better to minimize its impact on the marine environment. Major marine studies include the 18-year-old Bioaccumulation Monitoring Program, which monitors the entry of hydrocarbons and heavy-metal toxins into the food chain of Gulf Coast clams. The Bioassay Toxicity Testing Program, the first of its kind in the region, tests the effect of drilling muds on laboratory-raised kin of the Gulf shrimp. The study has helped in the development of nontoxic drilling muds. Aramco also has worked with the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development to plant mangrove trees along the Persian Gulf coastline of the Ras Tanura Peninsula, providing a nursery for fish and shrimp, and expanding the biological habitat in Tarut Bay.
Spills and Response Preparedness
Oil spills are a major threat to both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Heavy oil tanker traffic through several chokepoints, including Bab el-Mandab, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Suez Canal and Sumed Pipeline, are a constant threat. In addition, the extensive shallow coastal waters limit on-water recovery methods, making preventive strategies all the more important to protect coastal resources. In November 2000, a Saudi environmental report estimated that one million barrels of oil and waste products were dumpted or spilled into the Persian Gulf every year by shipping. Pollution also stems from oil and natural gas extraction activities. Gulf countries have established 21 centers along the coast in order to collect waste coming from shipping, and are looking to tighten restrictions on oil tankers entering the Gulf.
Nevertheless, the Persian Gulf has experienced a number of moderate-to-large oil spills over the past 20 years. During the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, oil tankers in the Gulf were attacked, resulting in thousands of barrels of oil spillage. However, the damage done to the environment by that war was dwarfed by the catastrophic effects of oil spilled during the Persian Gulf War: on January 23, 1991, Iraq began intentionally pumping crude oil into the Gulf from the Sea Island supertanker terminal 10 miles off the Kuwaiti coast. The spill, described by then-Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams described the act as "the worst environmental disaster in the history of the Persian Gulf," is also the worst recorded oil spill in world history, with approximately 5.7 million barrels of oil dumped.
While a major international response effort recovered more than one million barrels of oil from Saudi Arabia's shoreline, the spill caused severe environmental damage, highlighting the need to respond quickly to future spills. MEPA is in charge of dealing with oil spills in Saudi waters--its reporting and response capabilities are outlined in the National Contingency Plan for Combating Marine Pollution by Oil and Other Harmful Substances in Emergencies. According to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF), this plan established Environmental Protection Coordinating Committees--one for the Red Sea coast and one for the Gulf Coast. Among their responsibilities are the preparation of area plans (including local plans for marine and coastal oil facilities), identification of necessary manpower and equipment, and training staff in response activities.
In addition, the Gulf Area Oil Companies Mutual Aid Organization (GAOCMAO), was established to protect the marine environment in the Persian Gulf from oil pollution emanating from operations of GAOCMAO member oil companies in the region. The organization was founded on the idea that each company shares the responsibility to ensure a long-term commitment to the "Clean Gulf" concept by preventing operational oil spills, stopping tanker discharges, safety of ships leading to cleaner seas, and total stoppage of industrial waste discharge to sea.
Saudi Aramco, which is a charter member of GAOCMAO, is also a member of several key regional and international agencies involved in oil spill response. Aramco is a member of the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association, whose main purpose is to inform members of environmental developments and facilitate communications between the oil industry and relevant organizations on environmental issues. The company also participates in the Oil Industry International Exploration & Production Forum, the Oil Companies International Marine Forum, and ITOPF.
In addition to its readiness training, Aramco maintains regional command and control centers for oil spill response, and houses emergency equipment, including dedicated aircraft, to battle spills at sea. Aramco engages in air and sea surveillance of all its offshore operating areas, and has a full-time oil spill cleanup group dedicated to the task of pollution control in and around the company's exporting terminals.
In February 2002, Saudi Arabia and Iran signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on environmental cooperation between the two countries. The MoU covers various envrionmental issues, including "protecting various species of animals and wildlife as well as other fields related to the environment."