Pilot project – A systematic review on environmental impact of drilling discharges in the Arctic

The exploration and production of oil and gas in the Arctic region involves numerous challenges related to environmental, socio-economic and cultural issues as well as good governance. High quality knowledge about the potential environmental impact of exploration and production activities is a prerequisite in order to make informed decisions. Existing research available from literature can provide viable and effective insights, as an alternative and/or starting point for conducting further original research. In order to use information from literature in a way acceptable for all stakeholders, it is vital that information is of sufficient quality and relevance. It is also essential that information is collected and selected by means of a transparent and structured approach.

Systematic review

In this pilot project Wageningen University and Research centre assessed the existing literature body by carrying out a systematic review. A systematic review is a literature review focused on a research question that identifies, appraises, selects and synthesizes all high quality research evidence relevant to that question. Systematic reviews were first applied in the field of evidence-based medicine. The systematic review was modified to address environmental impact issues as well as support evidenced-based policy making, and has to our knowledge never been conducted for the oil and gas sector. The difference with a common literature review is that the systematic review follows a standardized procedure embedded in a protocol. Therefore it is more reproducible and more transparent with respect to the literature that is included and analysed in a systematic and comprehensive fashion.

Case of the pilot project

The systematic review was applied to address a specified case: the impact of drilling fluid discharges in the Arctic and more specifically in the Greenlandic region. The aim of this pilot was to map the existing literature in order to identify the topics and issues that are and are not covered. It was explicitly not the aim to perform an environmental impact assessment of drilling discharges at this stage. The systematic review was applied to the level that includes the assessment of all the studies in terms of availability, quality, reliability and relevance but individual study results were not analysed in depth.

Project result

The systematic review identified a total of 200 relevant and retrievable documents of studies. These studies have been analysed on the basis of pre-defined aspects that provide a systematic and concise classification of the literature body. This yielded topic-themed maps visualising the literature body. The references and the classification of the associated studies were collected in a database, from which the data can easily be reused and reanalysed. Some gaps in the available literature were identified (which are not necessary knowledge gaps):

  • Experimental (mesocosm) and field studies with relevance to water-based drilling discharges and the Arctic environment.
  • Fate is not often specifically published for the Arctic, i.e. it is mostly covered in generic terms (not specific for the Arctic).
  • Few studies deal with population effects, food web (interactions), microbes (bacteria and micro-organisms) and sea ice habitat (although the latter may not be the most relevant for drilling discharges).

Future perspective

This pilot study has shown that the systematic review approach is applicable to environmental issues related to oil and gas activities. The value of such a structured and transparent approach is mainly for disseminating the findings. For internal use, it creates a comprehensive structured overview of the literature retrieved, rather than just a long list of references. With this insight on availability of relevant literature on discharges of drilling mud and cuttings it becomes possible to efficiently utilise existing research findings and thereby enable better informed decisions based on current state of the art knowledge. The systematic review protocol developed in this project offers the opportunity to re-use the same method in other domains, e.g. oil and gas activities in other geographical regions of interest.