A workshop model simulating fate and effect of drilling muds and cuttings on benthic communities

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Oil and gas exploration and production at marine sites has generated concern over potential environmental impacts resulting from the discharge of spent drilling muds and cuttings. This concern has led to a broad array of publicly and privately sponsored research. This report described a cooperative modeling effort designed to focus information resulting from this research through construction of explicit equations that simulate the potential impacts of discharge drilling fluids (muds) and cuttings on marine communities. The model is the result of collaboration among more than 30 scientists. The principal cooperating organizations were the E.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Minerals Management Service, the Offshore Operators Committee, and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

The overall simulation model can be conceptualized as three connected submodels: Discharge and Plume Fate, Sediment Redistribution, and Benthic Community Effects. On each day of simulation, these submodels are executed in sequence, with flows of information between submodels. The Benthic Community Effects submodel can be further divided into sections that calculate mortality due to burial, mortality due to toxicity, mortality due to resuspension disturbance, and growth of the community.

The model represents a series of seven discrete 1-m2 plots at specified distances along a transect in one direction away from a discharge point. It consists of coupled difference equations for which parameter values can easily be set to evaluate different conditions or to examine the sensitivity of output to various assumptions. Sets of parameter values were developed to represent four general cases or scenarios: (1) a shallow (5 m), cold environment with ice cover during a substantial fraction of the year, such as might be encountered in the Beaufort Sea, Alaska; (2) a shallow (20 m), temperate environment, such as might be encountered in the Gulf of Mexico; (3) a deeper (80 m), temperate environment, such as might be encountered in the Gulf of Mexico; and (4) a very deep (1,000 m) environment, such as might be encountered on the Atlantic slope.

The focus of the modeling effort was on the connection of a reasonable representation of physical fate to the biological responses of populations, rather than on highly detailed representations of individual processes. For example, the calculations of physical fate are not as detailed as those in the recently published model of Brandsma et al. (1983). The value of the model described herein is in the broad scope of processes that are explicitly represented and linked together. The model cannot be considered to produce reliable predictions of the quantitative impacts of discharged drilling fluids and cuttings on biological populations at a particular site. Limitations of the model in predicting integrated fate and effects can be traced to three general areas: level of refinement of the algorithms used in the model; lack of understanding of the processes determining fate and effects; and parameter and data values.

Despite the limitations, several qualitative conclusions concerning both potential impacts and the importance of various remaining data gaps can be drawn from the modeling effort. These include:

(1) Simple, unequivocal conclusions about fate and effects across geographical regions and drilling operations are difficult, if not misleading, due to the large amount of variability in characteristics of discharged materials (e.g., oil content and toxicity), discharge conditions (e.g., duration of drilling operations), physical environments (e.g., water depth, current direction, and sediment disturbance regimes), and biological communities (e.g., intrinsic growth rates). Different combinations of these characteristics can result in substantial differences in simulated environmental fate and biological effects. For examples, simulated recovery in some high-energy environments occurs within months after the cessation of discharge operations, even at heavily impacted sites, whereas simulated recover in some low-energy environments takes years at heavily impacted sites.

<2) Considerable difficulties remain in the reliable extrapolation of results from laboratory toxicity experiments to predictions of population effects in the field.

(3) The volume of material discharged and duration of operations in the production drilling operations simulated by the model are sufficient to produce substantial simulated biological impacts at some plots, both in terms of differences from a control plot during the period of discharge operations, and in terms of the recovery period following the perturbations.

Evaluation of the significance of potential effects involves the following factors:

• Definition of a specific spatial and temporal reference frame (e.g., What is the natural variation? Is 1 year to be considered a "long" or "short" time? Is 50 m to be considered a "large" or "trivial" distance?

• Consideration of rare or unique resources and particularly sensitive biotic assemblages.

• Consideration of the potential for long term, cumulative effects.

Some of these aspects are clearly beyond the scope of this modeling efforts (e.g., the model does not simulate the long term fate of resuspended material). The model does, however, contain an internal "reference frame" by comparison to simulated behavior at a control plot. The model, in general, simulates substantial "natural" variation at the reference or control plots, both over time, due to sediment disturbance events in medium to high energy environments, and over space, due to geographically varying conditions, such as water depth and current regime.

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Report
Title A workshop model simulating fate and effect of drilling muds and cuttings on benthic communities
Series number WELUT-85/W02
Year Published 1984
Language English
Publisher U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Western Energy and Land Use Team
Publisher location Fort Collins, CO
Description 189 p.
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