Environmental protection issues in Saudi Arabia are inseparable from natural resource development. Saudi Arabia's vast petroleum reserves have provided the country with significant economic wealth. As a result, environmental protection in Saudi Arabia is viewed with an eye towards the development of the country's oil and gas reserves.
As global environmental awareness has increased, the "Desert Kingdom" has placed more emphasis on protecting its citizens from environmental hazards.
While environmentalists increasingly point fingers at fossil fuels as being harmful to the environment, Saudi Arabia has attempted to forge a delicate balance--the country depends on oil and gas exports for its economic growth, but the Saudi government is also trying to develop its natural resources in an environmentally-friendly way.
Saudi Arabia is striving to minimize the effects of oil and gas production on its delicate desert environment, as well as to safeguard the health of Saudi citizens.
The Meteorology and Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA) is responsible for all environmental matters in Saudi Arabia, including planning for the conservation of natural marine and coastal resources.
The country 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.
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, several 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 : Although the relative lack of precipitation, human population, inflow from rivers, and other natural disturbances has kept Red Sea reefs healthy overall, those along the Saudi coast are threatened by pollution from the increasing development of poorly regulated Saudi and Egyptian oil fields and related population centers, and from the de-ballasting of ships moving through the heavily trafficked Suez region.
On the Persian Gulf side, Saudi Arabia has infilled more than 40 percent of its coastline, wiping out half its mangroves, while dredging and sedimentation are causing major ecological problems in coastal habitats.
Fewer coral species thrive in the 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.
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.
According to Municipal and Rural Affairs Minister Dr. Muhammad Al-Jarallah, pollution in Saudi cities is the lowest in the Middle East. Aramco operates 10 Air Quality Monitoring and Meteorology Network (AMMNET) stations and 15 meteorology-only stations throughout the Kingdom.
AMMNET stations ensure facilities meet national and company air quality standards for limits on sulfur dioxide, inhalable particulates, ozone, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide, among other pollutants.
Air quality in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province has benefited greatly from several initiatives. Aramco's Master Gas System, which significantly reduced the need for flaring, recovers more than 3,500 tons of elemental sulfur per day from gas produced in association with crude oil.
Also, in July 1999 the Saudi Consolidated Electric Company announced that all service and repair workshops in the city of Jubail, including some at the Jubail Industrial City itself, would be relocated to a new site outside the residential areas and far from the city zones in order to protect the population from pollution and hazardous waste.
Saudi air quality should continue to improve with the introduction of unleaded gasoline in the country in January 2001. Currently, importers immediately remove catalytic converters from newly arrived cars and trucks so that they do not cause fires when choked with leaded gasoline.
With the total phaseout of leaded gasoline scheduled for the end of 2001, the switch to unleaded gasoline will result in a need for an estimated 3 million catalytic converters in order to reduce pollution from vehicle exhaust.
In addition, the first natural gas-powered car will come into use in Saudi Arabia in March 2001. The project to replace gasoline with natural gas was adopted by the Chamber of Commerce Council (CCC) in cooperation with Saudi Aramco, and the experimental operation will start at the Riyadh premises of the CCC.
While Saudi Arabia imported almost 114,000 new and used cars in 1998, up 37 percent from 1997, many of the new cars are relatively small and environmentally-friendly. As the price of gasoline has risen in Saudi Arabia (in March 2000, the average price of one gallon of premium gasoline in Saudi Arabia was $1.51), smaller cars with better gas mileage have become more popular. So although there are more cars on Saudi roads, those cars are more fuel efficient and less-polluting than in the past.
Note: The material is best available from July 2000.
Source: United States Energy Information Administration.
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )