Environmental Challenges in Saudi Arabia’s Oil and Gas Industry

Despite the efforts of global society and scientists to reduce the dependency on oil and gas as a main source of energy and find new green and renewable energy sources, the oil remains the most effective one. The oil production rate has increased incrementally from the 1970s to the 2020s, which is driven by the demand for oil.

A Global Problem

The main problem with the dependence on oil and gas as a primary source of energy lies in the huge pollution caused by the industry. For example, oil enterprises and petroleum companies currently release about 2000 tons of chemicals in the atmosphere and discharge about 70 million tons of polluted wastewater to sea per annum.

This amount of continuous pollution, which is a result of normal activities, not accidents, forms the second major threatening to the entire ecosystem and humankind’s life. The major sources of pollution in across the world are vehicular emissions and industrial discharges. Infact, the urban atmosphere is 90% polluted with automobile transport residue, especially in the big cities.

The oil and gas industry is paying increased attention on protecting the environment especially after the new environmental regulations in the globe supported by specialist organizations like API, IPIECA, and OGP. Unfortunately, there is no practically 100% safe operation for plants and pipelines networks in oil processing. So, risks such as oil spills and gaseous emissions are essential features of the energy industry.

Situation in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Arabian authority for environment referred to as ‘The General Authority of Meteorology and Environmental Protection (GAMEP)’, pays great attention to protect the country’s environment. This is also reflected in Saudi Aramco pollution concerns where the importance is given to control and monitor pollution at both the coasts – eastern and western. It is well known that in Saudi Arabian oil and gas industry, most activities are located offshore. So, oil spills and potential accidents with pipelines, facilities, oil tankers, or rigs, are very much existent and having serious negative impact on marine life and public health.

Havoc Caused by Oil Spills

Oil spill is considered to be the most environmentally challenging aspect of oil production for two reasons. First, because offshore spills are usually hard to control due to the nature of the offshore environment and tide movement. Second, because of the huge harm that the oil spill puts on marine habitats which in turn is considered as the main source of food for the community.

Scientific studies have shown that when an oil spill occurs offshore, the oil film on the surface contains 60% of hydrocarbon of which 50% is evaporated into the atmosphere. In addition, below sea surface the hydrocarbon percentage reaches 30%, This percentage is decreases to 10% at a depth of 100 meters. Unfortunately, the below surface area forms the living area of marine growth which in turn forms the food for most kinds of fish.

Bioremediation is a popular method to treat oil spills in seas and on beaches.

Moreover, oil spills may occur at any time with no pretending or expectation. This is because they are a result of oil operation activities failures or accidents. For example, flaring and venting, decommissioning of oil and gas installations, oil storage tanks disposal, drilling activities etc. Oil spills can be a source of escalated accidents as well and entail potential risks. Oil spill in the offshore area requires international collaboration and pre-set contingency response plan to control it and limit its harmlessness. The governmental authority put oil spills in high priority accidents’ classification after the fire.

The Menace of Emissions

The second environmental challenge facing Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas industry is CO2 emission. As a result of necessary and ordinary flaring and manufacturing process activities that take place in refineries and gas oil separation plants, the increasing amount of CO2 is being released to the atmosphere. CO2 affects the quality of air and works to increase the global temperature.

The air quality improvement concept is part of article 2 of the General Environment Law. It is also linked to the 10th,11th, and 13th sustainable development goals (SDGs) for sustainable cities and communities in UN protocols. As a member of G20 countries, Saudi Arabia has submitted a national climate plan to the UN. It also committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 130 million tons by 2030.

It is worthy to mention here that the energy sector contributes about 92% of CO2 emission, and 66% of which is from electricity generation, desalination, and land transportation. The Saudi electrical company had also announced its plans to reduce the dependency on fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy. However, it seems challenging to fulfill the huge need for electricity from solar energy despite the sunny weather that Saudi Arabia enjoys.

The Way Forward

The boom in industrial activities and investment in Saudi Arabia is demanding more power. As we know the modern factories and manufacturing processes require increasing flux of electricity, other than the expanding cities. Globally, it is challenging to continue on hydrocarbon production with low cost and simultaneously adhere to environmental regulations and social responsibility.

Therefore, the balance between booming industrial activities in Saudi Arabia and its demand for power and the CO2 emission reduction need is challenging to go through. One of the alternative power sources which are being discussing by the Saudi government is the nuclear power as it can produce power more efficiently than fossil fuel and solar energy despite its controversial nature.

The two issues, oil spills, and CO2 emission carry negative effects on the global climate. That is why global collaboration and united regulations should be followed to ease tackling these issues or reduce their negative impacts.

As a conclusion, the Saudi Arabia transformational movements to meet the objectives of Vision 2030 can be a fixing tool for the environmental challenges it faces. For example, utilizing artificial intelligence in designing environment-friendly factories, increase the awareness of global environmental concerns among the business sector, or investing in industrial recycling facilities, besides developing new environment protection legislation and policies. Saudi Arabia’s approach facing the environmental challenges and the global climate issues is encouraging and promising and reflects its role as a member of the G20 country group.

Information Sources

Kapsarc.org. 2017. [online] Available at: <https://www.kapsarc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/KS-2017-MP04-GCC-Energy-Overview-2017.pdf>  [Accessed 20 March 2020].

Gossen, L. and Velichkina, L., 2006. Environmental problems of the oil-and-gas industry (Review). Petroleum Chemistry, 46(2), pp.67-72.

UNDP. 2018. Sustainable Natural Resources Management | UNDP In Saudi Arabia. [online] Available at: <https://www.sa.undp.org/content/saudi_arabia/en/home/climate-and-disaster-reslience.html> [Accessed 26 March 2020].

About Salim Al Shammary

Salim Al Shammary is an Oil and gas professional having 25 years experience with Saudi Aramco as offshore operation unit head, oil production coordinator, evaluator. He holds MSc International Management from Oxford Brookes University. Currently, he is oil wells consultant at KJO.
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One Response to Environmental Challenges in Saudi Arabia’s Oil and Gas Industry

  1. Pingback: Prioritising the Health and Safety of Workers Across All Energy Sectors | EcoMENA

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