Environmental Risk Assessments of Oil and Gas Activities Using National Security and Civilian Data Sources

The national security systems (NSS) of Russia and the United States have been used for more than three decades to monitor each other's military and economic infrastructure. These high-resolution imaging systems can provide unique data for assessing a wide range of environmental issues. In 1993, Vice President Albert Gore (USA) and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin (Russia) held talks on the environmental utility of both nations' classified imagery data. As a result of these meetings, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) was formed in 1995. Its mission was

to explore approaches of the two countries to the uses for environmental purposes of unclassified information products derived from classified national security systems as well as procedures for joint studies utilizing such products.

In response to the formation of the EWG, the intelligence communities of both countries worked out procedures and policies whereby unclassified environmental information could be extracted from otherwise classified data. Current EWG projects are using the unclassified maps, diagrams, and declassified imagery to address the following topics: military base cleanup, forestry, arctic climatology, disaster monitoring, and oil and gas development in arctic and subarctic regions.

In this paper, unclassified derived products from the oil and gas project are presented in the form of a Geographic Information System (GIS) database of the Priobskoye oil field in western Siberia. The Priobskoye oil field was chosen as the demonstration site because this recently discovered oil deposit is located beneath the ecologically sensitive Ob River floodplain. Consequently, another objective of the project was to assess the ecological risk of the Priobskoye oil field development using GIS technology with NSS-derived products. Typically, risk assessments are driven by management questions. For this demonstration project, the stressors and receptors were arbitrarily chosen with the intent of reflecting expected management priorities. In one risk assessment example it was found that the risk to rare and economically valuable fish in the event of an oil spill is very seasonally dependent because of the annual flooding of the Ob River. Another risk assessment example-road construction in the Ob floodplain-showed that drainage-sensitive engineering practices can lessen the ecologically destructive ponding that typically occurs when roads are built in a floodplain. At the project management level, risk assessment methodology enables managers to more accurately balance environmental risk with economic considerations, and it enables local and Federal environmental agencies to participate in pinpointing the most sensitive areas in the oil development region. Finally, the use of ecological risk assessment is proposed as an instrument for regulatory reform.

The conclusions of this study are:

  1. Remotely sensed imagery with between 1- and 2-meter spatial resolution (such as that soon to be available from commercial satellite vendors) is an essential ingredient for a reliable GIS-based environmental risk assessment. This type of imagery can lessen the need for expensive and time-consuming field-collected data and can enable risk assessments to be accomplished more quickly, cheaply, and reliably given the ability to extrapolate high spatial detail into broad-area-coverage SPOT and Landsat scenes.
  2. Historical imagery data available only from national security sources are essential to developing accurate information on baseline ecological conditions and change over time. The U.S. and Russian approaches to ecological risk assessment constitute complementary methods of optimized environmental management. Both methods provide a comprehensive picture of threat probability for physical and biological aspects of the environment, and both provide an opportunity to jointly evaluate quantitative, temporal, spatial, and economic features of ecological risk.
  3. GIS technology as demonstrated by the U.S.-Russian Priobskoye GIS database- is an excellent tool for managing and displaying data to be used in risk assessments of oil and gas exploration and production activities in fragile arctic and subarctic ecosystems.
  4. Example assessments of the risk to fish, waterfowl, and forests from stressors such as oil spills, soil sprays, and road construction showed the interplay of the dynamic Ob flood plain cycle (freeze, thaw, flood, dry) with the receptor critical intervals (spawning, migration, nesting, and new growth).
  5. Cooperation between U.S. and Russian government agencies and oil companies will lessen the environmental impact of oil and gas development. Government regulatory agencies and oil and gas companies will be able to use risk assessment methodology to identify and manage risk in an effective fashion.


U.S. EPA. Environmental Risk Assessments of Oil and Gas Activities Using National Security and Civilian Data Sources. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC.