Wisting Oil Field and Barents Sea
Norwegian Barents Sea
Environmental Destruction, Litigation
Companies involved in the Wisting Oil Field: Equinor ASA, INPEX Idemitsu Norge AS, INPEX Corporation, Petoro AS, Aker BP ASA
Companies with licenses in the Barents Sea: Equinor ASA, OMV AG, INPEX Idemitsu Norge AS, INPEX Corporation, Petoro AS, Wintershall Dea AG, Vår Energi AS, BP plc, Eni SpA, TotalEnergies SE, Aker BP ASA, Concedo ASA, DNO ASA, Neptune Energy Group Ltd, Longboat Energy plc
Location of the Wisting oil field, southeast of Bear Island
More Danger on the Horizon for Millions of Arctic Animals
Equinor and Aker BP are pushing further into the Arctic wilderness than ever before. The companies have still not given up on plans to develop the northernmost oil field in the world.15531 The Wisting oil field lies in the Barents Sea about 300 km (186 mi) north of the Norwegian mainland. Equinor and Aker BP postponed the decision to develop Wisting, but their plans for the Norwegian Arctic still endanger millions of Arctic animals.
The Wisting project’s death bell might have sounded on 10 November 2022. After tireless campaigns by environmental activists, Equinor and its partners decided to postpone the final decision on whether or not to develop Wisting until 2026.1553115531 The decision came after surging cost estimates which increased from 75 to a staggering NOK 104 billion.15531 The company has also given up its rights to tap into the national power grid to electrify the platform.15531 Only the future can tell whether the decision in 2022 was indeed the end of Wisting. If the project actually moves ahead in 2026, Wisting will break new records for Arctic oil & gas developments.15531 It 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).15531 This rocky and harsh landscape rises out of the rough sea 185 km (115 mi) northwest of the Wisting oil field.14651 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.15531 Common guillemots, Brünnich’s guillemots, little auks, black-legged kittiwakes, Northern fulmars and glaucous gulls are the most common.
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. Also others, like the pink footed geese, barnacle geese and brent geese make a stopover on Bear Island when they fly south in autumn. Arctic foxes live on the flatter parts of the island. In the surrounding waters, seals, white-beaked dolphins, minke whales and walruses live off the abundant fish.15531
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. 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.
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. 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. Baby seals live on the ice until they can swim.
Risking it All for an Energy Source of the Past
Oil and gas expansion in the Barents Sea is endangering the subtle balance of life in the Arctic. Wisting shows that hardly any place is safe from oil and gas companies. As if that were not enough, Equinor also plans to start up the Johan Castberg field and expand production at the Snöhvit field in the vast Arctic waters.15531 According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Arctic is heating up at least twice as fast as the globe at large. Soon, the animals of the North will have no place left to go. Oil production also releases soot (black carbon). The soot falls onto the nearby ice and turns it black. 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, causing diseases and harming fertility.15537
An oil spill in the Barents Sea would destabilize the Arctic 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. The rough sea whips up the oil and makes it even more poisonous. Mammals breathe in the toxic parts of the oil or eat poisoned prey.15533 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 quickly become 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). Equipment freezes, and it becomes very difficult to clean oil off the sea surface. The Norwegian environmental agency and experts on the Arctic have criticized Equinor for not taking the risks associated with the Wisting project seriously.14653Equinor and OMV themselves acknowledged it might be impossible to clean up a winter oil spill in the Barents Sea. Even if a clean-up were possible, it would take time. During the time that workers would need to fight the elements, the spill would continue its disastrous path through the Arctic.
Exploration in Troubled Waters
While Equinor, Aker BP and their partners are moving forward with their expansion projects, the rest of the oil and gas industry seems to doubt the economic viability of Barents Sea expansion. The Barents Sea has not been the oil and gas wonderland the industry and Norwegian government had hoped for. In 2021, only 6 companies remained interested in new areas in the Barents Sea. 9 years earlier, 36 companies raced for exploration licenses. Only 11.5% of the exploration licenses awarded in the Barents Sea between 2000 and 2015 have resulted in oil and gas production. In the other cases, companies have moved massive drilling rigs into fierce Arctic waters only to find small amounts of oil and gas too far away from existing infrastructure. Many oil and gas companies are put off by the sheer size of the area, little or no infrastructure and harsh weather conditions.
Even though the interest in Barents Sea activities has been dwindling, too many reckless oil and 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 and gas in the Arctic and holds several licenses in the Barents Sea. 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. 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. 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 and gas. The Norwegian government has been cheering them on with temporary tax breaks introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.15533 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 been protesting against oil companies’ activities in the Barents Sea for several years. In the freezing waters at the Goliat rig, with candlelit 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.15533 They are still awaiting a final verdict in the case. People 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.
Since Equinor, Aker BP and their partners have already obtained the license for the Wisting oil field, the lawsuit cannot stop their plans. However, Greenpeace Norway launched a separate campaign in 2022 targeting the Wisting project.14655 Together with partners, the organization revealed that the project will hardly bring any local jobs.14657 Two trade unions joined in the call to leave the Wisting oil in the ground.14659 However, financiers have yet to distance themselves from the plans.15533 Meanwhile, the companies are moving faster than ever. If the companies believe their project will pay off financially, they will resume their plans to develop Wisting. They will drill in the middle of the guillemots’ migration routes. They will drill in the hunting grounds of whales. They will only stop if they do not have the money to move forward.
The Birds of Bear Island
Groups working on Wisting Oil Field and Barents Sea: Greenpeace Norway, 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