Cyber security and oil spills of the future in the spotlight

Oil spill in the Baltic 2009. Credit: Finnish coastguard

Major oil spills have decreased dramatically in recent years, but new threats are on the horizon, participants at the SpillCon, the Asia Pacific oil spill response regional conference in Perth, Australia, heard in May.

Major oil spills from shipping have dropped from about 80 a year in the 1970s to about six a year in recent times. However, with the advent of autonomous unmanned ships, regulators, including the International Maritime Organization (IMO) are looking at potential risks to come, that may reverse this trend.

“The focus this year was on leadership in times of crisis,” Nick Lemon, manager systems safety, Australian Maritime Safety Authority, told SAS. “I was speaking to a group of people dealing with oil spills. They recognised they are much less frequent in recent years, but they are aware of the need to preserve that. Not to relax. The risks are not diminishing. Any oil spill is one oil spill too many.

Lemon said industry leaders also wanted to look more broadly at things still to come.

“People are aware that there is a lot of change taking place. Climate change means weather events will be more severe than before, according to scientists,” he said. “They are drilling in deeper waters, further offshore and away from assistance in the event of an accident. Obviously breaches in cyber security too can affect anything, including increasingly automated maritime operations. In the case of automated vessels, we are looking at how best to regulate them to ensure safety.” Safety assurance has to be built in to new technology, he said.

Spillcon 2019 brought together about 450 local, regional, and global environmental and shipping representatives, government, and non-government organisations, including IMO-sponsored representatives from Asia and the Pacific.

It focused on the need for collaboration between industry and government as essential to effective marine based oil spill response. It also examined crisis leadership, planning and management, spill science, and advances in new technologies.

Topics covered IT, artificial intelligence and automation in the industry, the differences new generation of low-sulphur shipping fuel oils posed, dispersements, liability, widgets, satellite monitoring, and social media that enabled news of a crisis to spread internationally within a day, sometimes within the hour.

SpillCon was organised by the Australian Institute of Petroleum and its subsidiary the Australian Marine Oil Spill Centre, with support from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, and the IMO.