This time in Australia:
WA Premier Colin Barnett was quoted in local media on Tuesday as saying he believed the environmental risks with [Floating LNG] were higher than piping offshore production to onshore infrastructure.
“I don’t think it is safe environmentally to have such a massive offshore production and storage facility for gas and oil,” he was quoted as saying in The West Australian newspaper.
“Hopefully, it never will but accidents do happen, like the Gulf of Mexico and also Montara.”
Where to begin?
Okay, storing large quantities of oil offshore does pose an environmental risk. But Shell’s Prelude FLNG – which will be the world’s first – is expected to produce 35,000 barrels per day of condensate (similar to crude oil, but has a tendency to “flash” and evaporate, at least in part, when spilled). Any oil spill offshore Australia would be bad, but it’s hard to see how the risk of storing a week’s production (about 250,000 barrels) represents a risk unique to a stationary FLNG facility when you have oil tankers moving about the place carrying twice that and more. By all means worry about the risk of an oil spill from an offshore vessel, but don’t single out FLNG.
However, most of what is stored in an FLNG facility is, as the name suggests, liquefied natural gas. I’m not sure exactly what the environmental impact of spilled LNG is, but it is a heavy gas which gets carried by the wind until it is either dispersed or ignites with an almighty bang. The main risk associated with LNG (both at the liquefaction train and the import terminals) is leaking gas being carried into a built-up area, where it then ignites. You really don’t want that. But as for the effect of the gas on the natural environment, it’s hard to see what the concern is, even if the leak is subsea: the gas will merely float in a bubble to the top. I’m not sure you’d want to be a fish caught up in a rising bubble of LNG or a bird flying into the gas cloud, but we’re not going to be getting marine life destroyed in a replay of Exxon Valdez with FLNG.
Mr Barnett mentions The Gulf of Mexico – presumably Macondo – and Montara. Both of these spills came from drilling rigs, which will be used offshore Australia regardless of whether FLNG is used instead of an onshore facility. You need to drill the wells to supply the facility with oil and gas, there’s no avoiding it, and if the reservoir is offshore, then you need to drill offshore. Building the LNG plant on the beach isn’t going to help in that regard. Also, both incidents mentioned involved oil wells. Whereas there will be some condensate production on Prelude, most of what is coming out of the wells will be gas, which as the Elgin-Franklin leak in the North Sea earlier this year showed, doesn’t pose anywhere near the same environmental risk as oil.
Assuming Mr Barnett isn’t just spouting nonsense because that’s what politicians do, I suspect his comments are related to the rocketing costs of Australia’s onshore projects and the decisions of an increasing number of companies to put the facilities offshore, having first constructed them abroad.