As it seeks to realize its ambition of becoming the responsible energy major, Total is creating best practices to reduce its environmental and operational footprint.
The Group may have to operate in sensitive environments, either on new or existing projects. In order to assess and minimize operational impact, specialists have to take an in-depth look at the biodiversity of a site, describe existing habitats and get a global understanding of the way the ecosystem functions.
Frédéric Perié, environment, societal & water management R&D manager with Total, outlines the Group's focus on developing biomonitoring using environmental DNA (eDNA). "An appropriate metaphor would be, with more pixels and better resolution you can learn more, to ultimately perform better," he says. "eDNA gives an exhaustive and comprehensive picture to work from. It allows us to better know the ecosystem and therefore allows us to track even small changes as they happen. We can assess impact and take corrective measures if necessary."
For the last decade, Total has been watching the leaps forward in molecular ecology and the use of environmental genomics for environmental studies. Since 2017, a dedicated R&D team has been working to improve knowledge and accelerate the implementation of environmental genomics in the industry. Total R&D is conducting studies using eDNA in all departments, targeting all species and habitats to improve biodiversity monitoring practices.
Environmental sampling processor pilot in Denmark
In the middle of the North Sea, 200 kilometers off the coast of Denmark, 15 meters down, a barrel size lab is sampling seawater, filtering it, then extracting and analyzing material to track traces of organisms' DNA. It is pre-programmed to collect and analyze samples once a day. After each analysis, it transmits eDNA results to researchers back in the laboratory, showing them if the target species' DNA is present.
This "lab in a can" houses the first Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) in Europe. Originally developed to monitor harmful algae, it has been adapted by the team in Denmark to collect and analyze DNA traces from fish and porpoise underwater. It also stores and conserves samples which researchers can further analyze once the ESP is brought back on land.
The Nordic countries are leaders in environmental policy development and legislation, so it was a natural choice for Total to get involved in Denmark.
In 2019, Total started working with the Danish National Institute of Aquatic Resources (DTU Aqua) and water environments specialist DHI, to test the application of eDNA to monitor and protect marine biodiversity in the North Sea using a submersible and fully autonomous laboratory. Matthieu Povidis Delefosse is the environment advisor at Total E&P Denmark and is coordinating the pilot; he presents the Environmental Sampling Processor (ESP) which allows classification of specific marine species: "Here we test eDNA for biodiversity monitoring in combination with remote controlled capabilities of sampling, analyzing and reporting on a broad range of marine species. The combination of eDNA with the ESP has the potential to improve our understanding of the environmental sensitivities of the sites where we operate, as well as how we should manage our operations to reduce our environmental footprint."
The benefits are huge, in the past, researchers had a limited view of the environment, a snapshot of an area each time samples were taken. Scientists used to spend days, if not weeks, taking water samples to the laboratory and carrying out analyses. However, by enabling eDNA analysis in-situ with the ESP, collection and analysis happens automatically. What might have taken months in the past might now take four hours and happens without human interference.
Future biodiversity vision
"Research in this domain is moving very rapidly, the digital revolution has been very powerful," says Frédéric Perié, "What we are doing is already incredibly complex and we are probably only scratching the surface. Thanks to the rapid progress in molecular biology and artificial intelligence, we now have extraordinary capacity in terms of analysis and data treatment."
eDNA based monitoring in the vicinity of an industrial site provides Total with the most complete picture of the ecosystem. Spotting rare, protected or key species, as well as understanding food chain or reproduction areas, leads to science-based decision making and adapted biodiversity policies can be developed accordingly.
Total's biodiversity vision involves both internal and external stakeholders, results and databases are shared with the scientific community.
With the data gathered from eDNA, Total will be able to characterize biodiversity in depth and operate sustainably. These approaches will help shape tomorrow's biodiversity policy and will allow Total to fulfil its biodiversity commitments.
Total plans to bring eDNA based monitoring to its routine operations, once applications are approved. "Just look at how far we have come with DNA testing on crime scenes," says Frédéric Perié, "Law enforcement just wouldn't be without it these days would it? Soon, we'll be saying the same about environmental monitoring and eDNA."