Offshore drilling in the Arctic region : the European Union sets a precedent


One of Surfrider Foundation Europe’s longest battles might come to an end, as the European Union (EU) plans to ban the exploitation of gas, coal and oil in the Arctic region. For years, Surfrider Foundation Europe has been calling for the prohibition of offshore drilling in the EU and in the Arctic waters. Indeed, the Arctic zone hosts vulnerable ecosystems with spawning areas for keystone species, which would be severely impacted by increased offshore exploitation activities. In order to better understand the stakes of this environmental milestone, Yana Prokofyeva, European outreach officer at Surfrider Foundation Europe provides us with some insights. 

The new European Strategy has no legal value for Member States, including Denmark (Greenland), Finland and Sweden, which own some territories in the Arctic region. Do you think that these countries will support the European Commission’s proposal? 

Y.P. : The new Arctic Strategy was indeed adopted by the European Commission and has no direct legal force in the Member States. However, this document remains of major importance for several reasons. This is the first time that the European Commission proposes a ban on fossil fuels. It sends a strong political signal on its environmental priorities and will put pressure on the EU Member States, as well as on the European Economic Area (EEA) countries such as Norway and Iceland.

Secondly, the EU Strategy can now be supported by representatives of the EU countries. It will therefore gain political and legal weight, thus eventually becoming the European Union’s official position. This has already been the case with previous strategies such as the EU Biodiversity Strategy or the EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate change. 

Furthermore, the EU Strategy can serve as the basis for the European Union’s foreign policy in the Arctic region. This means that the European Union will put pressure on other countries and hopefully manage to reach an international consensus on this issue that goes beyond just the EU territory . 

More generally, Arctic waters are divided between six countries such as Canada, Russia, the United States and Denmark, with different – and sometimes competitive - interests over this zone. The Arctic region has a major economic potential in terms of fossil fuel energy, and as the ice melts, it opens new roads for shipping activities. Subsequently, the Arctic zone is also a strategic place for military activities, thus attracting both economic ambition and geopolitical interests. In this perspective, could the EU success in rallying other non-European countries to its Strategy over the region?  

Y.P. : During the Strategy’s presentation, Virginius Sinkevicus, the EU Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said: “We must lead by example. We cannot expect others to act and take hard decisions if we won’t take them ourselves”.

In the past, the European Union has already shown its internatioanl leadership on environmental issues, for example by committing to climate neutrality by 2050 – a commitment which was rapidly followed by other countries such as the United States, China, and Canada. 

In any case, we don’t really have much choice. The recent oil spill in California reminded us that offshore drilling is always a disaster waiting to happen, and no country can afford for it to occur in the Arctic waters. 

Do you think that the new EU Arctic Strategy might pave the way for more ambitious measures related to marine conservation in European waters?  

Y.P. : Surfrider Foundation Europe expects the proposed offshore drilling ban for the Arctic region to be extended to other High Conservation Value Areas (HCVAs) in the EU seas, namely Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Their protection is key in order to strenghten the Ocean’s resilience and mitigation role against climate change. It goes without saying that ongoing oil and gas operations are not compatible with the conservation of those fragile ecosystems.

If we are serious about tackling climate change, we must aim for the reduction in energy consumption and search for sustainable energy options rather than drilling for fossil fuels off our coasts. A ban on offshore drilling in the Arctic is a long-awaited first step but it needs to be followed by a coherent European plan for phasing out current offshore oil and gas drilling activities, starting with their immediate prohibition in the MPAs.

Beyond a ban on fossil fuels exploration and exploitation, does the EU strategy introduce other measures for marine biodiversity conservation in the Arctic region ?  

Y.P. : The EU Arctic Strategy also aims for reducing the global shipping's impact on this region – an initiative that Surfrider Foundation Europe strongly supports. However, we expect the EU to go beyond the enforcement of the International Maritime Organization’s ban on heavy fuel oil. Besides being extremely harmful for marine ecosystems, heavy fuel oil accelerates climate change and ice melt, as black carbon particles deposed on ice reduce the reflection phenomenon.

At Surfrider Foundation Europe, we also believe that for the Arctic environment to be effectively preserved, the EU should push for an international agreement to completely prohibit the use of the Arctic maritime route. The new European Arctic Strategy represents a real progress, although pursuing the ambition is key to meet the global environmental challenges we face today.


To learn more on offshore drilling, discover Surfrider Foundation Europe's Manifesto

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