Drilling begins at this year's northernmost Norwegian well, despite Greenpeace protest

Greenpeace is concerned about the well's proximity to Bear Island, home to large seabird populations.

Drilling has begun at the Bjaaland prospect in the Barents Sea, southeast of Bear Island, after the Norwegian government rejected a recent complaint from Greenpeace about the proposed well.


Last week, the Ministry of Climate and Environment gave the green light to oil company OMV Norge to drill the well, which should take approximately 47 days. The company has made two successful oil discoveries in the same area in the last couple of years.

Bjaaland is the northernmost well being drilled in the Barents Sea this year. Erlend Tellnes, Arctic campaigner for Greenpeace Nordic, said the decision shows the government is willing to keeping pushing north in search of oil and gas, ignoring environmental considerations.

“We can’t still be giving out licenses further and further north,” he said. “The limit needs to be somewhere.”

Policy in Norway currently prohibits oil drilling in or near Arctic sea ice, since oil is much more difficult to clean up when it reaches ice. But earlier this year, the government pushed the official sea ice boundary further north, giving the petroleum industry another 60 to 70 kilometres to explore. The explanation for the move was that climate change had significantly reduced ice coverage in the region.

The Bjaaland prospect is south of that sea ice boundary. But Tellnes said it’s close enough to the limit that oil from a spill at the Bjaaland well could reach ice.

Tellnes is also concerned about the well’s proximity to Bear Island, a nature reserve that hosts large populations of breeding seabirds. The Bjaaland prospect is about 200 kilometres southeast of the island.

“Limited” risk, according to OMV

OMV’s permit application states that “the risk to coastal seabirds along the coast of Norway, Svalbard, and Bear Island… is limited,” and that the risk of spilled oil reaching Bear Island is less than five per cent. It also said that “oil operations will not be in conflict with the sea ice extent in the area.”

A representative from the Ministry of Climate and Environment agreed with OMV’s assessment.

“With regard to Bjaaland, careful considerations were given to the environmental sensitivity of the area at the time of the planned activity, such as presence of sea birds and distance to sea ice,” wrote political adviser Jens Frølich Holte in an email statement to BarentsObserver. “Data shows that most sea birds will be in a safe distance to the well at the time of drilling and that current distance to sea ice is more than 280 kilometres. An assessment showed that the conditions set for Bjaaland, including contingency, are both strict and sufficient to meet the environmental challenges related to this operation.”  

But Tellnes isn’t so sure. He said Greenpeace recently requested oil spill plans from OMV, but was dissatisfied with what the company provided.

“There were no answers on how they would clean up a spill if it goes there [to Bear Island],” he said.

Moving north

This isn’t the first time Greenpeace has protested drilling in this region, known as the Hoop area. Last year, the organization launched complaints against three wells being drilled by Statoil in the area. In May 2014, activists boarded a rig and disrupted the drilling of one of the wells. All three wells were eventually completed, but failed to yield any commercial discoveries.

Now, Tellnes said, Greenpeace has taken all the legal measures it can to stop the Bjaaland well.

“If the minister refuses to listen, there’s not much more we can do,” he said.

However, he said he is planning to launch a lawsuit against the Norwegian government for opening up three new blocks for drilling even further north, closer to Svalbard.