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Development of the Blue Economy
David Liddle
The current state of affairs in the oil industry leaves many of us wrestling with the issues of keeping the “business” going. Nevertheless, one can only surmise that this will be another blip in the economic cycle and waiting around the corner is some light at the end of the tunnel. Though there remains an increasing global energy demand, oil- and gas-producing assets around the world are maturing and moving into decline and so is the price of oil. There are challenges now facing the offshore oil and gas sector as never before.

Taking a larger view beyond just offshore concerns, our oceans cover about 70 percent of the planet’s surface and they are a source of health and wealth for millions of people around the world. They serve as waterways for trade and contain rich, valuable and diverse resources. In addition to producing nutritious food, the oceans and coastal areas provide many socioeconomic benefits in terms of employment, recreation and commerce, as well as other crucial natural resources.

The oceans encompass many facets of underwater technology that are part of the much talked about “blue economy” that could provide a potential new economic frontier. In the coming decades all our existing ocean industries will grow in parallel with growing population, global income and consumption (supply and demand).

It may not seem so at the moment, but the growth in offshore oil production is expected to exceed the growth in onshore production and amount to equal proportions of total oil production over the next few decades. This is in part due to the technological progress that allows exploration in deepwater, resulting in the majority of oil and gas discoveries being made offshore in the last decade.

Shipping could expand by two or three times over the next few decades, too. We can also add to our existing ocean portfolio a new set of emerging industries; the European Commission in particular has highlighted five key areas: aquaculture, coastal tourism, marine biotechnology, ocean energy and seabed mining.

Deep-sea mining presents something of a double-edged sword. While presenting the promise of a future “blue economy,” it also creates tension between growth and conservation of the sea. The first commercial mining operation is not scheduled to begin until 2018, when Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian company, will mine copper off the seabed in 1,600 m of water at its Solwara-1 concession off Papua New Guinea.

Although deep-sea mining is still in its infancy, economic activities in this area will be driven by expected mineral supply shortages and is highly likely to show significant growth. New technological developments make prospects for seabed mining more feasible now than in previous years. This fledging industry will require the competencies of the underwater technology industries, such as ROVs, sensors and monitoring equipment, cutters and risers and offshore support ships.

Nevertheless, uncertainties and concerns linger in terms of the largely unknown environmental consequences and the outcome of current technology demonstration projects. Mineral resources on the seabed play a significant part in new frontier discoveries. Some key areas include the Arctic, which has much to offer in hydrocarbons, gold, base metals, iron ore and coal. The Antarctic could offer copper, gold, platinum, nickel, chrome, diamonds and iron; however, it is protected from mining under the Madrid Protocol (1998), which bans mining in the region for 50 years and will next come under review in 2041.

As for ocean renewable energy, the key to its future success relies on the rapid development of technological advancements and the successful completion of demonstration projects. Fluctuations in oil prices will have a significant impact on the future of this economic activity. The U.K. has a strong position in ocean renewable energy (wave and tidal), which is still in an early stage of development and has a strong focus on R&D. Prospects are most promising for the development of tidal current and wave energy.

Trends indicate that global aquaculture products are on the rise. Growing algae shows significant long-term growth potential for a range of sectors, including the health and cosmetic industry, the food and feed-processing industry and the green chemistry and energy industries. The strong growth in aquaculture is likely to come from Asia. Other areas of success will come from academic research into fish welfare and marine monitoring. There are also signs of excellent long-term prospects for growing algae coupled with biofuel research, in which some of the major oil companies have already invested billions.

There is no doubt that new technologies are opening up access to deeper waters. At the same time, science, policy and governance of the ocean struggle to keep pace, with the fear that ocean ecosystems will be damaged before they are properly understood, especially given that only a very small portion of the deep sea has been explored.

What is important is to focus on multidisciplinary connections. These ties among a variety of fields will pave the way for valuable dialog, research and new technologies to emerge that will enable us to progress our knowledge of the oceans such that we can benefit from them in a sustainable manner. Along the way, there is much opportunity for us all to grow our businesses together.

David Liddle is a business development executive at the Society for Underwater Technology (SUT). He has played an active part in the formation, implementation and development of the Scottish Subsea Technology Group (now Subsea UK), the National Subsea Research Institute in the U.K. and the Aberdeen Branch of SUT, where he has served previously as chairman.


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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.