In 1996 I was part of a Greenpeace team dispatched to document an oil spill resulting from the grounding of the Sea Empress on the coast of South-West Wales. Approximately 72,000 tonnes of crude oil were released into the sea, oiling seabirds and ruining beaches. I could smell the oil long before we reached Dale marine station where we were to be based and when we arrived the picturesque inlet was marred by the sheen on the water. The next few days were depressing; I remember feeling nauseous from the fumes as we filmed in the oil slick and also the pitiful sight of struggling guillemots, their feathers totally covered in glutinous oil.
Bearing witness to the Sea Empress was a profound reminder of one of the heavy costs of our dependence on oil, for as long as we continue to drill for oil and transport it around the globe there will inevitably be spills.
The big oil spills such as those caused by the Sea Empress grounding or the Deep Water Horizon are shocking, but perhaps even more shocking are the number and scale of smaller spills that occur as part and parcel of routine operations of the oil industry. This week the Guardian reported that it had obtained documents which reveal that serious oil and gas spills are occurring weekly in the North Sea. One of the platforms with the worst records belongs to Shell which, along with Cairn, BP and others, is currently preparing to drill for oil in the Arctic having plans for both the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.
Knowing the dreadful impacts oil spills can have in relatively accessible areas such as the south west Welsh coast, it’s not hard to imagine what might happen in the icebound Arctic. Unsurprisingly more and more scientists are voicing concern, including some members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Scientific Committee.
The IWC scientists have already been studying the impact of oil and dispersants on cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and next year are set to hold a three day meeting to address man-made impact on Arctic cetaceans. This is good news as oil industry not only poses a threat to the Arctic’s whales from oil spills, but noise and disturbance effects from seismic testing, drilling, aircraft and shipping and of course climate change, which is likely to hit the ice dependent species such as bowhead whales and narwhals especially hard. However to address these issues properly requires resources and it is high time that the IWC prioritises work such as this and becomes a true conservation organization and no longer spends time on commercial whaling – an unsustainable industry that should long ago have been consigned to the history books.
Richard Page is an Oceans campaigner for Greenpeace.