Mixing Oil and Water, Part I: Examining Interactions Between Offshore Petroleum and MPAs

MPA News

Discussions of MPAs often focus on the management of fishing inside and outside of protected areas. But the growing presence of another extractive sector - the offshore petroleum industry - contributes its own set of interactions with MPAs, both negative and positive. The 50-year-old industry of exploring and drilling for oil and natural gas from the seafloor continues to expand, with new areas - such as West Africa and Western Canada - either in active development or under consideration for development. As the industry grows, so will its interactions with MPAs.

In a two-part series beginning below, MPA News examines the relationships that exist between the offshore petroleum industry and MPAs. This month, we provide an overview of the negative environmental effects posed by the offshore industry, as well as the potentially positive opportunities that can come from the industry and MPAs working together. Next month, we will examine how some resource managers are involving industry in MPA planning to balance ecological and economic concerns.

MPAs as protection against offshore oil impacts

Although the environmental and safety record of the global offshore petroleum industry has improved over time, there remain numerous environmental impacts associated with the development and production of offshore oil and gas. These include, among others:

  • Immediate and long-term ecological effects of oil spills, either from drilling platforms or pipelines;
  • Physical damage to coastal wetlands and other fragile shore areas by drilling-related infrastructure and pipelines;
  • Physical damage to seafloor communities;
  • Discharge of contaminants and toxic pollutants present in drilling wastes, such as lubricants containing heavy metals;
  • Emission of pollutants from fixed facilities, vessels, and helicopters; and
  • Impacts on marine mammals and other wildlife from seismic exploration (using powerful sound waves to test below the seabed) and general production noise.

In cases around the world, the risk of these impacts has been viewed as serious enough to warrant designation of MPAs with restrictions on drilling. Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, for example, was designated in 1975 to protect the reef from proposals to prospect there for oil (as well as to mine coral for limestone). Simon Woodley, former director of research for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, says the park's enabling legislation effectively banned all drilling and exploration by the petroleum industry within the protected area, which totals 344,000 km2.

"The risks to the environment from petroleum activities were judged to be too high," he says. "There have been some attempts since then to develop shale oil deposits on the coast adjacent to the park, but these have proven costly and have not resulted in a viable industry to date." (More information on the history of the park is available in the book The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park: Finding the Right Balance [2002, Melbourne University Press], which Woodley co-authored with David Lawrence and Richard Kenchington.)

Other cases of using MPAs to prevent impacts from the oil and gas industry include:

  • US: The 13 national marine sanctuaries in the US generally prohibit drilling for oil and gas. There are some exceptions, such as where activities pre-dated designation or where development is confined to a small zone. Although none of the sanctuaries was designated exclusively to thwart oil and gas interests, the issue of oil and gas exploration was a leading factor in some designation processes, including for the sanctuaries in Monterey Bay and the Florida Keys.
  • Norway: In September 2003, Norway designated the Hopen Nature Reserve, comprising Hopen Island and its territorial waters in the northern Barents Sea. Its designation, with a ban on oil and gas activity, was spurred in part by reports of industry interest in using the island as a base if and when the northern Barents Sea was opened for petroleum development. (Hopen Island is a critical denning site for Barents Sea polar bears and breeding area for sea birds.)
  • Australia: In October 2003, the environment minister of the Australian state of Victoria refused a request to allow seismic exploration for petroleum within the Twelve Apostles Marine National Park. Although the state already prohibited drilling in its marine national parks, deep directional drilling from outside Twelve Apostles to access resources underneath the park could have occurred: marine national parks in Victoria extend only to a depth of 200 m below the seabed. Explaining his move, the environment minister said there was insufficient evidence that there would be no impact from the exploration on marine flora and fauna in the park.

In some cases, companies have taken steps on their own to avoid impacts on protected areas. In recognition of the environmental impacts of its extractive activities, the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies declared in 2003 that natural World Heritage sites would be "no-go" areas for its oil and gas exploration and development. (World Heritage sites are designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.) This pledge, the first of its kind in the oil and gas sector, followed a similar declaration by a mining industry group, the International Council on Mining and Minerals.

Potential MPA benefits from offshore oil industry

Not all interactions between the offshore petroleum industry and MPAs are negative. MPAs that exist to protect industry installations, such as no-fishing zones around submerged oil and gas pipelines, serve their purpose while also yielding benefits for biodiversity in some cases. In waters of the small, oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, for example, where one-mile buffer zones surround all pipelines and offshore drilling platforms, these protected areas have had the side effect of boosting fish populations: fish biomass has remained relatively high in the sultanate while generally declining through the rest of the South China Sea. (This is according to research by Gerry Silvestre, a consultant to the WorldFish Center in Malaysia.)

In the US, one MPA is particularly noteworthy for the interactions it has with the offshore petroleum industry. The coral-laden Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS), off the states of Texas and Louisiana, has within its boundaries an active offshore gas-production platform, which was there prior to the sanctuary's 1992 designation (MPA News 3:7). The sanctuary is also surrounded by two-dozen more platforms within kilometers of its limits.

FGBNMS Manager G.P. Schmahl says that although sediments around the sanctuary's gas platform have exhibited elevated levels of heavy metal contamination - as did several barracuda (a sport fish) caught within the sanctuary in 2002 - the petroleum industry in the Gulf of Mexico has demonstrated an excellent safety and environmental compliance record. "A long-term coral reef monitoring program conducted at the Flower Garden Banks since the mid-1970s has been unable to identify any significant detrimental impact associated with nearby oil and gas development in measures of coral reef health," says Schmahl.

In fact, he says, there has been an open and congenial relationship between the sanctuary and the industry. Industry has provided access to platforms near the sanctuary for scientific research, including for installation of environmental monitoring equipment and for use as a base during short research projects. Companies have also provided transport to the sanctuary via industry helicopter for special purpose needs and emergency response. In addition, some companies have contributed funds to assist sanctuary-oriented education programs. "Many people who work for the industry in this part of the country are avid SCUBA divers and marine enthusiasts who have had personal experience diving and fishing here," says Schmahl. "A number of environmental professionals now associated with the oil and gas industry also carried out their graduate research at the Flower Garden Banks. Because of this, there are some very strong voices within industry for protection of and cooperation with the sanctuary."

Vigilance remains necessary, of course: the risk of spills is always present, and one big spill could effectively negate the industry's good deeds. However, says Assheton Carter, director of energy and mining for the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB), the risk of spills should not prevent industry and MPAs from at least exploring ways to work together. (CELB is overseen by Conservation International, a US-based NGO).

"Possibly the biggest opportunity lies in harnessing the energy industry's technical capacity," says Carter. "Energy companies carry out, commission, or support a great number of environmental studies in the locality of their projects. Throughout the project cycle, biological data are gathered for baseline studies, scientific analysis, and monitoring programs. These data, if shared, can be an important resource for managing protected areas." Statoil, the Norwegian oil company, discovered Norway's first cold water coral reef in 1982 using multibeam sonar, a technology used for seismic exploration activities and routing pipelines. Since then, says Carter, the company has worked with scientists to study the reef and others like it, and the research has led to designation of protected areas around some of these sites (MPA News 5:1).

Carter manages the Energy & Biodiversity Initiative (EBI), a partnership among several international NGOs and major energy companies to develop best practices for integrating biodiversity conservation into oil and gas development (http://theebi.org). Begun in 2001, the EBI has produced a report with guidelines and recommendations, designed to be a practical guide for ensuring that biodiversity is protected through the entire span of oil and gas operations, from exploration to decommissioning. The EBI's energy companies are now working to integrate the guidelines in their operations, says Carter.

In the EBI report, the energy companies state that in some cases, oil and gas activity is fundamentally incompatible with efforts to protect biodiversity. Says Carter, "Conservationists should continue to make clear to governments and companies that some environments cannot withstand development, however well-managed." He adds, though, that as the global MPA system expands, and oil and gas exploration and development enter new areas, the opportunity for companies to demonstrate their commitment to biodiversity conservation will be abundant.

For more information:

Simon Woodley, S&J Woodley Pty Ltd, 4A Willow Way, Woodlands WA 6018, Australia. Tel: +61 8 9446 5791; E-mail: simon [at] magwood.com.au

G.P. Schmahl, Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, 1200 Briarcrest Dr., Suite 4000, Bryan, TX 77803, USA. Tel: +1 979 846 5942; E-mail: george.schmahl [at] noaa.gov

Assheton Carter, CELB, Conservation International, 1919 M Street, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036, USA. Tel: +1 202 912 1449; E-mail: a.carter [at] celb.org