Oil and ice

by Frida Bengtsson

February 28, 2011

Oil and ice

On the evening of February 17th, the Icelandic containership Godafoss ran aground in the Hvaler national park in southern Norway and started leaking heavy oil. One of the biggest challenges of the cleanup operations has been to clean up oil from ice covered areas. This clearly illustrates that we can’t let the oil industry move into the Arctic.

I know that coastline well and I have been there with the Rainbow Warrior to document the unique cold-water coral reefs in the area. The same summer the Norwegian government decided to make the area a national park – the only one at sea. This national park is home to more than 6,000 marine species – around 220 of which are on the Norwegian national redlist of endangered and threatened species. Yesterday I visited the same area but on a coast guard ship struggling to get oil up from the ice.

Since last Friday we have seen a heroic effort from staff from the Coastal Administration, Coast Guard and local fire brigades to try to clean up and limit damages to the environment. It’s not an easy battle. Temperatures have been down to minus 20, days are short and the fjord is full of ice.

Over the course of the week it has become clear that one of the biggest challenges in the area is the ice that covers the fjord. 

— The ice gets into the booms and fill them with ice;
— The oil gets in under the ice and makes it difficult to find it;
— Ice covered in oil needs to be clean up with excavators;
— The cold conditions makes it difficult for staff on site.

These problems are hard to solve in Norway’s most densely populated area and only a few hours from the capital Oslo.

The challenges to clean up an oil spill in icy conditions are one of the reasons we are against letting oil companies into the Arctic. Many say it’s virtually impossible to clean up an oil spill in Arctic conditions.

Standing on the bridge of the coast guard ship and watching the crane lifting up one piece of oil covered ice at the time in the beautiful surroundings of the national park made me sad but also more committed to fight the oil industry. On our way out to we passed a seal pup on an ice flow – baby seals are much more dependent on their fur than older seals to keep them warm since they don’t have enough blubber to keep them warm.

The pictures we see from the south Norwegian coast is in sharp contrast to what Shell use in their promotion video on their Arctic oil spill cleanup plans for Alaska. In Shell’s movie we see how they easily operated booms and that they are well prepared to handle any spill. The things that struck me with that video are that none of the images from Alaska are taken in winter, the sea is very calm, it’s not that cold and there is no sea ice.

The images they do show from icy areas are taken from the Norwegian Arctic island Svalbard, there you see burning oil and thick smoke rising to the sky. The fact is, there’s very little oil and it’s a planned exercise with Coast Guard and Norwegian Polar Institute on site. That is not the reality in the Arctic.

An accident is never planned and in the far north the preparedness is limited and the areas vast. This should be enough to keep oil companies out of the Arctic.

Looking at the mess from the ship, I can see why Shell use their own carefully constructed images and not these scenes from the mess of real life. Standing here, I’m reminded that nature is random, unexpected and hard to predict. It’s obvious that Shell would try and lead us believe that they are in control, by showing such structured images instead

I would suggest to Shell to update their Arctic spill response video with some pictures from Hvaler, an area far from darkness, icebergs and thick sea ice but where challenges around oil and ice are a big problem.

Frida Bengtsson in an Oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Nordic based in Norway.

Photo: © Kent Inge Olsen / Greenpeace, Jon Terje Hellgren Hansen / Greenpeace

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