Published September 16, 2016 | Version v1
Journal article Open

Environmental Impacts of the Deep-Water Oil and Gas Industry: A Review to Guide Management Strategies

  • 1. Department of Biology, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, USA
  • 2. National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton Waterfront Campus, Southampton, UK
  • 3. School of Science and Engineering, University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore, DC, Australia
  • 4. Department of Oceanography, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI, USA
  • 5. Departamento de Oceanografia e Ecologia, Centro de Ciências Humanas e Naturais, Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo, Vitória, Brazil
  • 6. Florida State University Coastal and Marine Lab, St. Teresa, FL, USA
  • 7. Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, USA
  • 8. The Lyell Centre, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK
  • 9. Laboratorio Biodiversidad y Macroecologia, Instituto de Ciencias del Mar y Limnología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Ciudad de México, Mexico
  • 10. Departamento de Biologia and Centro de Estudos do Ambiente e do Mar, Universidade de Aveiro, Aveiro, Portugal
  • 11. Department of Life Sciences, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago
  • 12. Centre for Marine Biodiversity and Biotechnology, School of Life Sciences, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK
  • 13. Centre for Environmental Epigenetics and Development, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 14. Fuqua School of Business, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
  • 15. Department of Marine Sciences, University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA
  • 16. The Biodiversity Research Group, ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions and NESP Threatened Species Hub, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, Australia
  • 17. Centre for Marine and Environmental Research, Faculty of Science and Technology, University of Algarve, Faro, Portugal
  • 18. Department of Oceanography, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada
  • 19. Centre for Biodiversity Conservation, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Claremont, South Africa
  • 20. Oceanlab, Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, School of Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Newburgh, UK


The industrialization of the deep sea is expanding world wide. Increasing oil and gas exploration activities in the absence of sufficient baseline data in deep-sea ecosystems has made environmental management challenging. Here, we review the types of activities that are associated with global offshore oil and gas development in water depths over 200 m, the typical impacts of these activities, some of the more extreme impacts of accidental oil and gas releases, and the current state of management in the major regions of offshore industrial activity including 18 exclusive economic zones. Direct impacts of infrastructure installation, including sediment resuspension and burial by seafloor anchors and pipelines, are typically restricted to a radius of ∼100 m on from the installation on the seafloor. Discharges of water-based and low toxicity oil based drilling muds and produced water can extend over 2 km, while the ecological impacts at the population and community levels on the sea floor are most commonly on the order of 200–300 m from their source. These impacts may persist in the deep sea for many years and likely longer for its more fragile ecosystems, such as cold-water corals. This synthesis of information provides the basis for a series of recommendations for the management of offshore oil and gas development. An effective management strategy, aimed at minimizing risk of significant environmental harm, will typically encompass regulations of the activity itself (e.g., discharge practices, materials used), combined with spatial (e.g., avoidance rules and marine protected areas), and temporal measures (e.g., restricted activities during peak reproductive periods). Spatial management measures that encompass representatives of all of the regional deep-sea community types is important in this context. Implementation of these management strategies should consider minimum buffer zones to displace industrial activity beyond the range of typical impacts: at least 2 km from any discharge points and surface infrastructure and 200 m from seafloor infrastructure with no expected discharges. Although managing natural resources is, arguably, more challenging in deep-water environments, inclusion of these proven conservation tools contributes to robust environmental management strategies for oil and gas extraction in the deep sea.


This document is the accepted Authors’ Copy of the paper published in Frontiers in Environmental Science 4:58. DOI: 10.3389/fenvs.2016.00058. The original manuscript was received on 28 April 2016, accepted on 22 August 2016 and published on 16 September 2016. This paper has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the MERCES (Marine Ecosystem Restoration in Changing European Seas) project, grant agreement No 689518. This paper reflects only the authors’ views and the funders cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained there in. Copyright © 2016. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license (http:// /licenses/by/4.0/).


Cordes et al. 2016_FrontiersEnvSci.pdf

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MERCES – Marine Ecosystem Restoration in Changing European Seas 689518
European Commission