Wisting Oil Field and Barents Sea

Location:

Norwegian Barents Sea

Project risks:

Environmental Destruction, Litigation

Companies:

  • Equinor ASA
  • Lundin Energy AB
  • Idemitsu Petroleum Norge AS
  • Petoro AS
  • Wintershall Dea GmbH
  • OMV AG
  • Vår Energi AS
  • Sval Energi AS
  • BP plc
  • Eni SpA
  • INPEX Corporation
  • TotalEnergies SE
  • Aker BP ASA
  • Sumitomo Corporation
  • Osaka Gas Co Ltd (Daigas Group)
  • Concedo ASA
  • DNO ASA
  • Wellesley Petroleum AS
  • Neptune Energy Group Ltd
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More Danger on the Horizon for Millions of Arctic Animals

Equinor and Lundin Energy’s new oil and gas project is endangering millions of Arctic animals. The Wisting oil field lies on the Norwegian continental shelf in the Barents Sea. It’s about 310 km (192 mi) north of the Norwegian mainland. Although oil production already exists in the Barents Sea, Equinor and Lundin Energy are pushing into the Arctic wilderness further than ever before.

Arctic Abundance

The Wisting project is a project in the making. The project has now passed the exploration and appraisal phase and is currently under field evaluation.[1] This means the companies are drafting the plans for the operation of the field and the necessary infrastructure. Until October 2021, OMV and Equinor were the main drivers of the project. On 28 October, OMV sold its shares to Lundin Energy.[2] The Wisting oil field is located much further north than the other Barents Sea oil and gas projects, Snøhvit, Goliat and Johan Castberg.

Wisting lies dangerously close to the island and nature reserve Bjørnøya (Bear Island).[3] This rocky and barren landscape rises out of the rough sea 185 km (115 mi) northwest of the Wisting oil field.[4] Some of the biggest bird colonies in the world live on the steep cliffs on the southern tip of Bear Island. Every year, more than a million seabirds build their nests here.[5] Common guillemots, Brünnich’s guillemots, little auks, black-legged kittiwakes, Northern fulmars and glaucous gulls are the most common.

Brünnich’s guillemot and a great variety of other Arctic birds are at home on the steep cliffs of Bear Island. Credit: Hallvard Strøm/Norwegian Polar Institute

Throughout the summer, other birds, like the colorful Atlantic puffins, the great northern Divers, the critically endangered razorbills and many, many others come to the Bear Island cliffs.[6][7] Also others, like the pink footed geese, barnacle geese and brent geese make a stopover on Bear Island when they fly south in autumn.[8] Arctic foxes live on the flatter parts of the island.[9] In the surrounding waters, seals, white-beaked dolphins, minke whales and walruses live off the abundant fish.[10]

Picture: More than a million birds, among others common guillemots, make their nests on Bear Island. Credit: Hallvard Strøm/Norwegian Polar Institute

Both birds and mammals pass the Wisting field in their search for food or on their way south for the winter. When the time for their migration comes, the common guillemots leave Bear Island. The newly hatched young birds cannot fly yet. So, the fathers undertake a dangerous journey when they swim with their young to their winter hide-out. They swim for 3 weeks. On their way, they pass the Wisting oil reserves.[11] If the oil companies cause a leak at the Wisting oil field, these common guillemots will be the first to die. Fin whales and humpback whales also regularly swim by the Wisting oil field. In case of an oil spill, these intelligent animals will also become sick or die.[12]


Bear Island is not the only unique ecosystem in the Barents Sea. The Marginal Ice Zone is another one of the Barents Sea’s treasures. All kinds of different animals, plants and algae live there.[13] The Marginal Ice Zone changes with the weather and the seasons. It consists of floating ice and open sea. The further north you go, the sea becomes less open and the ice denser. While some of the ice melts in the summer, the ice zone expands south during the winter months. At its nearest point, the Marginal Ice Zone starts 125 km (78 mi) from the Wisting oil reserve. The zone’s combination of different types of ice and deep and shallow waters creates a flourishing Arctic ecosystem. Numerous smaller and bigger animals and plants depend on it. Fish feed off plankton and algae from the ice, and polar bears move across the ice when they hunt. Seals leave their babies on the ice until they can swim.[14]

Risking it All for an Energy Source of the Past

With their plans for Wisting, Lundin Energy and Equinor are endangering the subtle balance of life in the Arctic. The oil production pollutes nature. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Arctic is heating up at least twice as fast as the globe at large.[15] Soon, the animals of the North will have no place left to go.[16] Oil production additionally releases soot (black carbon). The soot falls onto the nearby ice and turns it black.[17] As a consequence, the ice absorbs more heat, melts faster, and climate change speeds up. Oil companies also pollute the water with extremely hazardous, so-called black category chemicals. These chemicals can accumulate in fish and even end up in humans.

Polar bears roam the ice in the Marginal Ice Zone and dive into the water to hunt seals. Credit: Trine Lise Sviggum Helgerud/Norwegian Polar Institute

An oil spill at Wisting would destabilize the Barents Sea ecosystems. Even a smaller leak could have serious consequences for the most exposed animals. One drop of oil is enough to kill a sea bird.[18] The rough sea whips up the oil and makes it even more poisonous.[19] Mammals breathe in the toxic parts of the oil or eat poisoned prey.[20] Oil-covered Bear Island cliffs could no longer be a nesting home for birds. Birds, fish, whales and seals would lose the basis of their existence.

Cleaning up an oil spill in the fierce Barents Sea waters could be impossible. In the completely dark and foggy winter, waves can become more than 10 meters (32 ft) high. Air temperatures drop to -25 °C (-13°F).[21] Equipment freezes, and it becomes very difficult to clean oil off the sea surface.[22] Equinor and OMV have said they might not be able to clean up a winter oil spill in the Barents Sea.[23][24] Even when a clean-up is doable, it takes time. In the time workers would need to fight the elements, the spill could continue its disastrous path through the Arctic.

White beaked dolphins live in the cold Barents Sea waters close to the Wisting oil field. Credit: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace

Exploration in Limbo

While Equinor, Lundin and their partners are moving forward with their plans for Wisting, the rest of the oil & gas industry seems to doubt the economic viability of Barents Sea expansion. The Barents Sea has not been the oil & gas fairytale the industry and the Norwegian government hoped for. In 2021, only 6 companies were still interested in new areas in the Barents Sea.[25][26] 9 years before, 36 companies raced for the licenses.[27] Only 11,5% of the exploration licenses awarded in the Barents Sea between 2000 and 2015 have resulted in oil & gas production.[28] In the other cases, companies have either drilled empty wells or only found small amounts of oil & gas too far away from existing infrastructure. The sheer size of the area, little or no infrastructure and harsh weather conditions are pushing many oil & gas companies away.

Even though the interest in Barents Sea activities has been dwindling, too many reckless oil & gas companies still have the right to drill in these remote waters. One of these companies is the Arctic hardliner Wintershall Dea. The company produces more than half of its oil & gas in the Arctic and holds several licenses in the Barents Sea.[29] Norwegian environmentalists have repeatedly criticized Wintershall Dea for breaching environmental law and safety regulations. In 2019, the company ignored protests from fishers and activists and started searching for oil near the Sula reef in the Norwegian Sea. The Sula reef is one of the world’s largest coldwater coral reefs.[30] One year later, the organization Nature & Youth reported Wintershall Dea, Equinor, Aker BP and Vår Energi to the police over the illegal dumping of toxic chemicals.[31] Wintershall Dea and the other Barents Sea license holders might very well intensify their drilling activities in response to Europe’s search for alternatives to Russian oil & gas.[32] As long as these companies hold Barents Sea licenses, the inhabitants of the seas and skies of the High North are not safe.

Fight for a Different Future for the Arctic

People have protested against oil companies’ activities in the Barents Sea for several years. In the freezing waters at the Goliat rig, at candlelight vigils and in lawsuits, activists are fighting to preserve the Arctic and its animals. Supported by Greenpeace and Nature and Youth, 6 activists have taken the Norwegian government to court. They aim to prevent the Norwegian government from selling new drilling licenses to oil companies. This way, they want to save the untouched areas in the Barents Sea from oil companies’ aggressive expansion. After the 6 activists lost their case in Norway in December 2020, they asked the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to take on the case and pass a judgement.[33] Personalities from far and near support the case. They include Norwegian writers, artists, politicians and former government officials, as well as environmental activist Greta Thunberg, former United States vice president Al Gore and Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson.

Activists from Nature and Youth and Greenpeace protesting against expansion of oil production in the Norwegian Arctic in July 2017. Credit: Christian Åslund/Greenpeace

Since Equinor, OMV and their partners have already obtained the license for the Wisting oil field, the lawsuit cannot stop their plans. The companies are actually moving faster than ever. For them, the Wisting project became more attractive when the Norwegian government introduced temporary tax breaks for the oil industry in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As long as they believe their project will pay off financially, the companies will continue. They will continue to drill in the middle of the migration routes of the guillemots. They will continue to drill in the hunting grounds of whales. They will only stop if they no longer have the money to move forward.
 

The Birds of Bear Island
 

Atlantic puffin (credit: pxfuel)
Black-legged kittiwake (Credit: David Mark/Pixabay)
Glaucous gull (Credit: Andreas Weith. License: CC BY-SA 4.0)
Little auk (Author: Allan Hopkins. License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Great northern diver (Credit: John Picken. License: CC BY 2.0)
Common guillemot (Credit: Per Harald Olsen. License: CC BY-SA 3.0)
Razorbill (Credit: Charles J. Sharp. License: CC BY-SA 4.0)
Brünnich’s guillemot (Credit: Charlotte Hallerud/Norwegian Polar Institute)


 

Groups working on Wisting Oil Field and Barents Sea: Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth – Young Friends of the Earth Norway), Naturvernforbundet (Friends of the Earth Norway), Greenpeace Norway, Folkeaksjonen / The Peoples Action for an Oilfree Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja, Framtiden i våre hender (Future in our hands), Bellona

[1]Rystad Energy