Norway’s offshore drilling puts Arctic Ocean at risk

by Richard Steiner

A fin whale surfacing and approaching a Greenpeace inflatable. Fin whales are the second largest whale and the second largest animal. Females can grow to 24 metres. These whales are most likely feeding on small schooling fish like capelin, or plankton. Gulpers, open their mouths and take everything and press out through balleens. * Photographer: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace

© Nick Cobbing / Greenpeace

As Norway pushes further into the Arctic with offshore oil drilling, the corresponding environmental risks have increased significantly.

The Barents Sea is one of the richest, most unique marine ecosystems in the world, with remarkable concentrations of seabirds, marine mammals, fish, and other marine life. The potential short-term energy potential here is truly not worth the long-term environmental risk from offshore drilling.

This summer, Statoil has drilled three exploratory wells in the northern Barents Sea, about 300 km southeast of Svalbard. A fourth well is being drilled at present, together with the Russian oil company Rosneft. So far these exploratory wells haven't reported significant hydrocarbons, but the company plans to continue exploratory drilling in the central and northern Barents Sea next year.

And the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate commissioned an oil exploration seismic survey of the northern Barents Sea that began this summer. This seismic survey projected extremely loud sound (thousands of times louder than a jet engine) into the water from a towed air gun, and we detected the seismic air gun blasts with our hydrophones several hundred kilometers away from the seismic ship. Fin, Minke, and Humpback whales in the area can also hear the seismic air gun sound, which is the same low frequency they use to communicate. This low frequency oil exploration seismic noise can travel for several thousand kilometers in the ocean.

Given our current understanding of the risks and impacts of offshore drilling and major oil spills across the world, Norway may be gambling more than it may realize in the Arctic.

For instance, we know that regardless how safe government and industry believe they can conduct offshore drilling, there will always be the chance of a major oil spill. People make mistakes, and equipment fails. And so far, Norway has not required highest international standards in its Barents Sea exploratory drilling program.

Thus, there remains a real possibility of a catastrophic exploratory well blowout, such as that which we experienced in the US Gulf of Mexico in 2010 with the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, that cost the lives of 11 crew and spilled over 4 million barrels of oil.

The same risk exists in Norway's Barents Sea drilling program. And if a major spill were to occur here, it would cause severe and long-term environmental damage. As comparison, the damage from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska persists today, more than 25 years later.

We also know that there is no way to effectively contain or clean up a major marine spill, particularly in sea ice, or to restore environmental damage caused. Put simply, oil drilling in the northern Barents Sea could forever change this productive, unique Arctic marine ecosystem, which is already struggling from effects of climate change, overfishing, whaling, and other activities.

Yesterday, the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate announced an end to its 2014 Barents Sea seismic survey programme, one month ahead of schedule and despite not having completed the mapping in the area to the east of Svalbard. This is great news, but likely not an end to Arctic oil exploration in Norwegian waters.

It is hoped that Norway will make the right choice here, and say "no" to further offshore oil exploration or development in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean.

Rick Steiner is a marine conservation Professor based in Anchorage, Alaska.Rick is currently onboard the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, in the Barents Sea.

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