Protecting the Barents and Baltic Seas from oil spills

Arrangørene representert ved Bellonas Paal Frisvold og Europaparlementariker Diana Wallis.
Foto: Bellona

Publish date: March 19, 2004

Written by: Thomas Deflo

Europe must join forces in protecting the Barents and Baltic Seas from oilspills. This was the conclusion when Bellona Europa this week hosted a hearing in The European Parliament focusing on how to improve preparedness to oil pollution incidents.


European Members of Parliament,or MEPs, industrial representatives and marine administrators convened Tuesday March 16th in a parliamentary hearing to discuss prevention and clean up of oil spills in the Barents and Baltic Seas. Organised by The Bellona Foundation, the meeting was attended by Bellona president Frederic Hauge and chaired by Bellona Europa European Policy Advisor Paal Frisvold. MEP Diana Wallis co-hosted the event. She is the Leader of the UK Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament.

Broad attendance

Bellona’s gathering of MEPs, petroleum industry representatives and administrative stakeholders, improved awareness and sharpened readiness for future oil spill contingencies. The meeting lasted from morning until 1:00p.m. and took place in a wing of European Parliament. Stakeholders from many sectors attended the meeting:

  • Riitta Myller, Finnish MEP from the Social Democrats, is currently vice-chairwoman of the European Parliament and Member Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy.
  • Matti Wuori, representing the Finnish Greens, is the chairman of the Delegation for relations with Switzerland, Iceland and Norway.
  • Tor Christian Sletner, Deputy Director of the Norwegian Coastal Administration.
  • Odd Raustein, representing the External Environment of the Norwegian Oil Industry Association.
  • Svein Ringbakken, Deputy Managing Director for Intertanko, a company representing 70% of the world’s tanker fleet.
  • Willem de Ruiter, executive director for the European Maritime Safety Agency.


Fossil fuel sources in the Barents and Baltic

As much as 25% of the world’s undiscovered petroleum is located in the Arctic region, with the Barents Sea holding one third of exploitable resources (see fig. 1). The Norwegian government opened the Barents Sea to three oil and gas exploration projects recently. Norway is the second largest oil exporter in the world.

Baltic transit from Russian oil pipelines to the West is rapidly increasing, with oil tanker traffic through the Gulf of Finland and the Danish Straits increasing considerably. An additional pipeline from Russia to the port of Primorsk, is estimated to move 300,000 tonnes of oil per year through the Baltics by the year 2010.

At the moment, around 2 000 cargos – hazardous material ships, oil tankers, and ferries – are plying in the Baltic Sea (HELCOM, Helsinki Commission). The number of goods transported through the Baltic will double by 2017.

The risk of a major accident involving oil tankers in the Barents and Baltic Sea is growing. The probability of a collision involving tankers is estimated to increase by 20 percent by the year 2020. According to current trends and statistics an accident involving major oil spills will happen within the next 5-10 years. Accidents of this nature are bound to cause severe and even irreversible marine and coastal damage.

The Barents and Baltic ecosystem

Indeed, the Barents and Baltic regions are particularly sensitive to any release of oil or other harmful substances. These seas comprise many of the richest and most pristine marine ecosystems in the world. The Barents Sea, for instance, is home to the world’s largest cold-water coral reef. The Barents and Baltic seas are particularly vulnerable to pollution, due to local climatic conditions and the fragility of the food chain mechanisms.

Drilling for oil can physically restructure sea bottoms. In the beginning of March 2004, Russia’s LUKoil opened the first Russian oil-drilling platform in the Baltic Sea. This has most likely resulted in semi-severe coastline pollution .

A Prestige-type disaster in any of these regions would cause irreversible damage. Many parts of the Barents Sea – are low-lying, ice-covered islands that absorb leaked pollutants for a very long time. Major oil spills would undermine the ecological long-term viability of the entire region.


State of the companies

Svein Ringbakken underlined that Europe’s phasing out of single hulled tankers provides no absolute guarantees for safety: double-hulled tankers can equally well be hit and pierced. Even though the risk of oil leaking into the sea is significantly reduced, the usage of double-hulled tankers does not offer any guarantees that accidents will not take place.

Odd Raustein, representative for the External Environment of the Norwegian Oil Industry Association OLF, insisted that oil companies have their own prevention and contingency plans. Leaks from drilling sources and waste discharges are included in their assessments.

The Norwegian Clean Seas Association for Operating Companies (NOFO) is the petroleum sector’s inter-cooperative framework in the Barents Sea. NOFO undertakes large-scale contingency preparation, promotes participation with invited fisheries and disposes equipment and staff to those affected. According to Raustein, development of oil and gas activities in the Barents and Baltic seas will contribute to better technical developments, hence improve damage control efforts should hazardous situations arise in the future.

The case of Russia

Finnish MEP Riitta Myller warned that Russia’s lack of oil spill preparedness is tangible. Russia is benefiting from a rapid increase in oil exports, but is not equipped with prevention and clean up modalities, is lacking clean-up material, and is in dire need of equipment modernization. Russia provides few concrete contingency plans in relation to the most probable disaster scenarios.

Nevertheless, there is a promising level of cooperation between Norwegian and Russian administrations. Both nations have signed a mutual notification agreement and have established a Joint Planning Group to plan and organize their efforts. Combined efforts by Russia and European members are necessary to avoid future accidents. More cooperation is absolutely pivotal.

fcc65fa9ca6d56592bf8ea3147b43228.jpeg Photo: Foto: Bellona

Short- and long-term solutions

Participants seemed to agree that eventual oil spills in the Barents and Baltic seas must be dealt with on an international level, in a cooperative and participatory spirit. Area specific measures have limited usefulness: In the event of a big oil spill, all Barents and Baltic sea regions will be affected, and contaminants could drift to other North Sea countries.

According to Willem de Ruiter, executive director for the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), the current vacuum in European contingency management need to be countered by a specialized agency at the European level, synchronising contingency plans for all the implied countries. The current International Maritime Organization (IMO) is more of a standard setting than a real executive organisation, and is therefore not particularly well suited for this task. According to de Ruiter, we are in urgent need of an EU bureau, managed by experienced people. Such a bureau would be better suited for rapid decision-making, and could coordinate rescuing and cleaning efforts more seamlessly.

MEP Diana Wallis closed the fruitful morning by stating that the European Parliament must prioritise this urgent issue. She emphasised the need to formulate a common contingency strategy, and to aim for the creation of a European executive office that is specifically tailored to tackle the growing threat of oil spills at sea.

Strategies with non-EU states can be streamlined and synergized under the European Commission’s Northern Dimension Policy, a framework of cross-border policies that covers the Baltic Sea region, Arctic Sea region and North West Russia. Recently, the United Nations called on the European Union to take action to preserve the Arctic from further pollution. Issued on the 15th of March, the request places high hopes on Europe to preserve what is described as “one of the planet’s last pristine areas”.

Results of the meeting

The unique intersectoral meeting produced some eye-opening findings. Bellona argues that preventing accidents is more important than developing damage control measures. Participating stakeholders followed the same line of reasoning.

The Committee suggested a number of preventive measures:

  • Lack of data on residual hull stress and strength of the Prestige contributed to the scope of its leak, and complicated rescuing operations.
  • Vessels should be kept at a safe distance from each other and from the coast. Spills at sea occurring close to land generally produce contamination of the shoreline. Containing the oil onshore is one of the most important tasks in case of an accident.
  • Establishing specific corridors for all transiting ships – oil tankers or others – is a highly effective measure in on order to prevent accidents from occurring. This will lead to simpler navigation and reduce collision probabilities between ships sailing in the opposite direction.
  • Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) for hazardous cargo must be implemented, as well as a general satellite surveillance system for coastal and harbor areas.
  • Anchoring solutions for all ships in open seas should be compulsory in order to prevent ships from drifting ashore.
  • Adequate ports of refuge need to be made available in order to safely evacuate wrecked tankers.
  • The Norwegian Coastal Administration underlined the need for bigger towage capacities, especially as forthcoming tanker weights from Russia are bound to increase rapidly.
  • More transparent and swift exchange of information is needed between ship masters and coastal administrations.

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