A disaster waiting to happen: Preparing for oil spills in Norway’s Arctic waters

Posted on enero, 19 2006

Concerns about high oil prices and instability in the Middle East have meant that the Arctic has become one of the final frontiers for natural resource exploration and exploitation. In the search for more oil and increased tanker traffic, oil spills are inevitable. Find out more about WWF's work on preparing for oil spills off the coast of northern Norway.

Concerns about high oil prices and instability in the Middle East have meant that the Arctic — home to a quarter of planet’s untapped oil and natural gas — has become one of the final frontiers for natural resource exploration and exploitation. In 2004, some 12 million tons of oil were shipped from northwest Russia through the Arctic waters of the Barents Sea and down towards Europe following the Norwegian coastline. Such cargo is expected to nearly double this year, and by 2010 it could be as much as 200 million tons.

“Several years ago you would hardly see a Russian tanker passing our coast,” recalls Ole Berglund, a fisherman from Norway’s Lofoten Islands, an archipelago of remote islands north of the Arctic Circle. “Now you can spot them daily, heading to markets in Europe and North America.”

Extending dramatically out into the Atlantic Ocean, these islands — marked by rugged mountainsides, sheltered inlets and quaint seaside fishing villages — are among the most picturesque of travel destinations. The sea dominates life on the Lofotens and many of the islands’ 24,500 inhabitants who depend on it for their livelihood. However, increased tanker traffic and the potential of a major oil spill in one of Europe’s last wild seas have people worried.

“The oil industry’s claim that it can prevent any negative environmental impact from their activities is false,” says Dag Nagoda, head of WWF’s Barents Sea Ecoregion Programme. “Since 1990 there have been more than 2,500 acute oil spills on the Norwegian shelf. Searching, drilling and transporting oil is inherently risky and the consequences for people and nature are likely to be disastrous.”

So far there has not been a major accident, but as more and more ships appear on the horizon, the risks of the Arctic having its own major oil spill, like the Prestige in Spain or the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, are growing.

Waiting for disaster
The Barents Sea is among the cleanest and most undisturbed oceans in the world. It has a high density of seabirds, some of the world’s richest fisheries, and a diverse community of marine mammals.

The Lofoten Islands, in particular, are surrounded by waters that are home to the world’s largest cod and herring stocks, as well as pods of sperm and killer whales, puffins and cormorants. It is also an area where the largest cold-water coral reef was recently discovered. Running over 40km long and 2–3km wide, the fragile and slow-growing Rost Reef is currently protected under Norwegian law from fishing activities.

An oil spill, whether from a blow-out, pipeline leak or shipping accident, could not only severely damage the reef and surrounding environment for years to come, but would also ruin the local economy, which is built on tourism and fishing.

“One oil spill would be the end of us,” adds Ole Berglund, who has fished the waters off the Lofoten Islands for the past 40 years. “We have seen what happened after other major oil spills in other parts of the world — the fishing industry suffered.”

The people of Lofoten are well aware of the disastrous consequences if an oil spill happened at the wrong time in the wrong place, particularly in January or April when cod and herring spawn.

For environmentalists, a spill close to the breeding grounds of whales, seals, and seabirds could have a serious impact on wildlife populations, not to mention the impact it would have on the islands’ community and booming tourism industry.

“Lofoten lives off tourism,” explains Harald Strom of the Lofoten Aquarium. “People come from all over the world to marvel at our natural untouched beauty, clean water and abundant wildlife. It would a disaster for us if the water became polluted.”

Government readiness?
According to WWF, the Norwegian government is not as prepared as it should be in the event of a major oil spill off Lofoten. Most state-owned equipment is at least twenty-five years old and there is just not enough of it.

“It is shocking in this oil-rich country that the government has not taken the risk of oil spills seriously,” says Nina Jensen, a marine officer with WWF-Norway.

“In northern Norway there are just two tug boats to pull adrift tankers from the rocks and we certainly don’t have enough people trained to handle spills. The authorities are very much focused on spills out at sea rather than along the shoreline, but the majority of oil spills tend to move towards the shore and end up damaging the coast.”

WWF believes the long-term solution to reduce the risk of oil spills is through more stringent regulations and monitoring of shipping lanes in Arctic waters, particularly the designation of Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSA), a scheme run by the International Maritime Organization. A PSSA designation — which requires ships to take special care when navigating through areas of ecological, economic, cultural or scientific significance — can be used to protect a variety of marine and coastal habitats and would give Norway the right to decide on the location of shipping lanes as well as powers of traffic surveillance.

WWF is currently lobbying for the Barents Sea, Europe’s last large, clean and relatively untouched marine ecosystem, to get PSSA status.

The global conservation organization would not only like the shipping lanes moved from the current 12 nautical miles from the coast to 50 in order to give a greater response time in the event of an oil spill, but it is also keen for a series of petroleum-free zones to be set up.

There has been some success in ensuring that there is no oil and gas exploration around the Lofoten islands. However, a moratorium is only in place until 2009 and environmentalists are concerned that Norway’s new centre-left coalition government, which has already opened up the southern Barents Sea to exploration, may bow to considerable pressure from the powerful oil industry to do the same around Lofoten.

“Norway’s politicians are petroholics,” says Rasmus Hansson, head of WWF-Norway. “They forget that in northern Norway ten times as many people work in the fishing and tourism industries. These are permanent jobs and in the long term more sustainable than the revenue from oil.”

Clean coast campaign
While the government seems more focused on oil income, concerned citizen are focusing on what to do in the event of a potential oil spill.

Fisherman Ole Berglund, along with 24 other volunteers, has joined the first ever oil spill response group as part of WWF-Norway’s Clean Coast programme. The training programme, which has already been introduced by WWF in Finland and in Murmansk in Russia, aims to enhance oil spill contingency plans in the Barents Sea region by establishing voluntary oil-spill response groups that can assist in the clean-up operations after an oil spill.

“Cleaning the shoreline is a very time- and resource-consuming activity, and it requires competent personnel and basic safety equipment,” says Nina Jensen, who is in charge of WWF’s programme. “There is a great need for more trained personnel that can be mobilised on short notice, and for proper equipment that can ensure safe and efficient operations in the region.”

The programme offers a professional, practical and cost-free training course for volunteers, giving them a broad insight into oil-spill clean-up strategies, including organisation, execution and general knowledge about the most common strategies for handling oil-spills in the open ocean, coastal areas and shorelines.

“I have learned how to scrub oil from rocks, operate a machine that spreads bark chippings to absorb oil washed up on the beach, and manoeuvre a boom that helps keep the oil slick in place,” boasts Jorn Gunnar Halse, a local teacher who has brought along some of his environmental studies students to participate in a mock oil spill exercise.

One of them, Cille Waaken, is struck by the time and effort required.

“It took all of us an hour and a half to clean 15 litres of oil from rocks in a 4km2 area. You can imagine how many months and people it would need to tackle a real onshore spill.”

If a spill happened during the winter months, when the sun barely rises above the horizon, clean-up challenges would be immense. There are no known effective methods for containing a spill in icy conditions as the ice impedes the booms that usually hold an oil slick in place. However, the ice does naturally contain the oil giving response teams more time to act.

“A spill is always serious,” warns Hugo Svensen of Norlense, a Norwegian company that provides technical equipment to oil refineries to deal with oil spills and is helping WWF stage an oil spill simulation exercise as part of the Clean Coast programme.

“In the Arctic, it will naturally take longer to clean up because there is less wave action and breakdown is slower in colder temperatures.”

WWF’s Clean Coast programme aims to train up to 300 volunteers in Norway over the next year in basic oil spill clean-up techniques. WWF-Norway hopes to emulate the success of a similar campaign run by WWF in Finland, which has trained up to 3,500 volunteers.

Volunteers and fishermen have proven to be an important asset in cleaning up oil spills. Such dedicated individuals helped clean up about 70 per cent of the 70,000 tonnes of oil spilt in the Prestige disaster off the coast off Galicia, Spain, in November 2002.

“The most powerful weapon to fight oil spills is people,” says Rasmus Hansson.

“When an oil spill reaches the shore, manpower is normally the main limiting factor for effective clean-up operations. All of those involved know their new found skills will be put to good use as it is not a case of if a major oil spill happens but when.”


• The Barents Sea is Europe’s last large, clean and intact marine ecosystem, but it is also a region subject to rapid industrial development. Escalating human activities such as commercial fisheries, oil and gas exploration, shipping and aquaculture add to the impacts from climate change and increasing levels of toxic chemicals, and pose serious threats to the marine ecosystem and biodiversity. The Barents Sea is one of WWF’s priority ecoregions for biodiversity conservation. Through WWF’s Barents Sea Ecoregion Programme (which is lead by WWF’s Arctic Programme in close cooperation with WWF-Russia and WWF-Norway), the global conservation organization is working for a balanced development of the Barents Sea, where the rich and productive ecosystem can continue to support the welfare of the human population while still maintaining its natural beauty.

• Oil and gas accounts for 18 per cent of Norway's GDP, compared to the less than 1 per cent brought in by the fishing industry. However fisheries are Norway’s second largest earner of foreign exchange and are viewed as a more sustainable resource.

• The Baltic Sea, as well as the Torres Straits, the Galapagos Islands and the Canary Islands, have officially been classified by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSA). The designation in Sweden’s territorial waters within the Baltic Sea — Hoburgs Bank and Norra Midsjöbanken — will now be “areas to be avoided”, especially by shipping activities. WWF is now urging Russia to add their waters to this designation, which would further safeguard the Baltic Sea. Other PSSAs that WWF has successfully advocated include: the Wadden Sea and the Western European waters of the Atlantic Ocean (from Scotland down to Spain).

• The next WWF Clean Coast programme's oil spill training course will be held in Vardo, Norway from 3–5 March 2006.
WWF-Spain volunteer cleaning up following the Prestige oil spill.
© WWF / Raúl Garcia
Coastline of Vestvågøy, Lofoten, Norway.
© WWF / WWF-Norway / Frode Johansen
Rasmus Hannson, CEO of WWF-Norway, scrubbing oil-smeared stones at the NordNorsk Beredskapssenter – a training centre where people learn how to clean up oil and gas spills in water and along the coast. Lofoten Islands, Nordland, Norway.
© WWF / Ronny FRIMANN/Zine.no
A boom to catch spilled oil on water laid out by WWF staff and volunteers practicing oil spill clean-up techniques at a a training centre. Lofoten Islands, Nordland, Norway.
© WWF / Claire Doole
Gorgon's head (Gorgonocephalus caputmedusae) in the Selligrunnen, a protected cold-water coral reef in Norway.
© WWF / Erling Svensen
Surfacing orca or killer whale. Tysfjord, Nordland, Norway.
© WWF / Ronny Frimann/Zine.no