Should the European Union ban offshore oil drilling?

, by Théo Boucart, translated by Elena Vardon

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Should the European Union ban offshore oil drilling?
Image from the #DrillingIsKilling campaign, led by the Surfrider Foundation. Source: Surfrider Foundation Europe

INTERVIEW. In early November, the Surfrider Foundation Europe launched the second part of its Drilling is killing campaign against oil and natural gas drilling in European seas. For the occasion, our sister edition Le Taurillon talked to Yana Prokofyeva, the foundation’s European Outreach Officer, to discuss the campaign, but also the role of oceans in climate regulation.

Le Taurillon: April 20th, 2020 marked 10 years since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. On this occasion, the Surfrider Foundation launched its Drilling is killing campaign against oil and gas drilling in Europe. Could you tell us more?

Yana Prokofyeva: We have indeed used this tragic anniversary to relaunch our campaign against offshore drilling. The Surfrider Foundation has been campaigning against drilling for around ten years now and we carried out the first advocacy work after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform. Thanks to the pressure we put on them, in 2013 the European Union set up a Safety Directive for these types of structures.

This year was a good opportunity to relaunch this campaign and to educate the public on these topics. I think many Europeans still don’t know that hydrocarbon drilling takes place in European waters and that it can affect their quality of life.

This year, the Directive I mentioned is due to be updated. The Commission was supposed to publish a review report last year in preparation for this update. In October 2020, this review has still not been made public. For us, it is an opportunity to put this debate in the spotlight once again and insist on an update of the Directive, or even a total ban on offshore drilling.

How has the Directive been inadequate in ensuring the protection of marine environments, for example in the Arctic Ocean?

It needs to be recognized that this text was a big step forward, only possible in the aftermath of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform and the awareness campaign we, alongside other foundations, ran. Thanks to this Directive, the number of accidents has fallen sharply, and a European “Deepwater” is highly unlikely to happen - in contrast to the United States where the rules haven’t evolved much. However, this Directive was the first to regulate offshore drilling safety. Even though we pushed for environmental safety, we didn’t reach this objective, especially since this was before the signing of the Paris Agreement. Back then, the awareness of the public and politicians was much weaker.

The text therefore has shortcomings concerning the environment, in particular in arctic zones and marine protected areas. The latter make up “sensitive areas” where energy drilling should be immediately banned. However, the current Directive doesn’t prohibit them. We see this in countries like Greece, which continue to issue drilling permits in fragile zones. This represents a great inconsistency for us. To take another look at the Arctic more specifically, an oil or gas disaster in this region would be truly catastrophic, because we’d instantly lose a large part of the marine ecosystem and a rescue intervention in those waters would be very difficult due to the extreme weather conditions.

The problem with the Arctic zone is that it is divided into several sovereignty zones, including some that don’t fall within European law. How does one convince countries such as Russia, the United States and Canada to prohibit hydrocarbon drilling in areas under their own sovereignty?

That’s a very good question, which I, unfortunately, don’t have an answer to. We want first of all to impose a ban on drilling in territorial areas of the European Union and European Economic Area (EEA). The EU is also leading the negotiations on international ocean governance and climate protection. We are campaigning for a moratorium on exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons offshore to be part of European diplomatic priorities.

The EU is highly dependent on energy imports (55%), including natural gas (70%) and oil (90%). Would a prohibition on drilling for domestic energy threaten the Union’s energy supply?

It’s a question which we get asked regularly and which is relevant. Though I think it is necessary to recontextualize it: offshore drilling doesn’t significantly contribute to our supply of energy. In addition, around 75% of the oil extracted in Europe is located in the territorial waters of the United Kingdom. When the country voted to leave the EU, it wasn’t these energy issues that caused the most problems, unlike fishing and border controls.

I also think in terms of costs and benefits: given the small quantities of hydrocarbons extracted from European waters, is it worth endangering so many marine ecosystems, and our local economy? Instead of striving to drill to extract hydrocarbons, renewable energies should be developed from wind, sun or tides. A further step would be to reduce the subsidies for fossil fuels and redirect them towards supporting clean energy. The problem is rather insidious: France, a country that officially forbids hydrocarbon drilling, nonetheless massively subsidises a company like Total which does prospecting in several seas around the world.

As you said in the Conference on the Green Deal [1] organized by the Université automne of the Mouvement européen in Troyes, the oceans are the “most forgotten in the fight against climate change”, for instance in their role as a “carbon sink”. Have you seen an improvement in awareness, particularly since the Paris Agreement in 2015?

It is important to note that oceans have absorbed 93% of excess heat since 1970, hence their essential importance for climate regulation. However, we had to run a massive campaign so that the oceans were mentioned in the Paris Climate Agreement, even though we have seen an improvement in awareness about this issue since then. However, the year 2020 was supposed to be a kind of “Ocean Super Year” with many actions to raise awareness ran by our foundation at an international level. This year also marks the conclusion of important international negotiations, such as the UN treaty on the protection of the high seas, and the start of others, with UNESCO’s launch of an Ocean Decade. Unfortunately, these actions haven’t taken place due to the current health context, and we are waiting to see how this evolves once the situation is less tense.

At the European level, there is real awareness among politicians, as shown by the title of the portfolio of Lithuanian EU Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius (Environment, Oceans and Fisheries). However, a lack of knowledge of the ocean is still prevalent. The European Commission published a biodiversity protection strategy this year, which has an objective to reach the threshold of 30% of land and marine areas protected by 2030 was set. It is a very ambitious objective and it meets the expectations of many NGOs. However, while the Commission explains that at the moment 26% of the EU’s land area is protected (compared to 11% of marine areas) less than half of the proposed measures in this document concern the oceans. It is a discrepancy in the report, but also in the solutions suggested.

All of this is largely owed to the fact that oceans remain barely explored and incredibly unfamiliar. It is difficult to explain the importance of seas and oceans to people who live far away from the coast. These educational and awareness efforts aren’t easy.

What’s next for the Drilling is killing campaign? How has the manifesto co-signed by other associations changed the game?

The manifesto is our main campaign document. Many foundations, particularly Portuguese ones, have signed it. This is the result of increased awareness in that country and a large citizen mobilization that lead to the de facto ban on offshore drilling. At Surfrider Foundation Europe, we will resume our work on the ground, as well as with European institutions (particularly EU Parliament), as soon as possible, to push for a review of the Directive and encourage democratic debate around these topics.

Present in 14 European countries, the Surfrider Foundation participates in national campaigns, as will be the case in Spain in the coming months. The Spanish Parliament is currently examining a draft law to prohibit drilling in the Mediterranean Sea. This also shows that drilling is found in several European seas, not only in the North or Norwegian seas but also in ’closed’ ones, such as the Mediterranean or the Black Sea. While Norway, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Denmark are the ’champions’ of drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria continue to issue drilling permits in their territorial waters.

Let’s end on that note: with the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, where hydrocarbon prospecting is a source of increased tensions between Turkey and the European Union. Could the Drilling is killing campaign have any positive influence on these tensions?

That is a very interesting and complex question. The tensions in the eastern Mediterranean have to do with foreign policy of sovereign states. Our foundation should not intervene in these geopolitical considerations. Our main objective is to ban energy drilling in areas that don’t have conflicts, territorial or otherwise.

However, if we had had a total ban on hydrocarbon drilling in European waters, such tensions could have been avoided. Another argument in favour of the moratorium and the subsequent ban!

To learn more, find the link to the platform dedicated to the campaign here and the video below.

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