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Interview with co-chairs of Task Force on Oil Pollution Prevention

In a brief interview, Senior Arctic Officials from Norway and the Russian Federation comment on their countries’ work to prevent oil pollution in the Arctic marine environment.

The Senior Arctic Officials are co-chairs of the Arctic Council’s Task Force on Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Prevention (TFOPP). See public documents from meetings of the TFOPP.

Both Norway and Russia have experience with maritime activity and with petroleum activity in their Arctic waters. Could you describe your state’s experience, and talk about what has been learned regarding the importance of preventing marine oil pollution, and how it can be managed?

Senior Arctic Official Vladimir Barbin

Climate change and the development of new technologies are making Arctic resources more accessible. This means, of course, that the impact of economic activity on the environment will increase. Knowing this, we think that priority should be given to environmental protection, so we have made the strategic decision to avoid any economic activity which will induce irreversible changes in the environment.

A very important law was approved in 2012 in Russia. It amends the previous law related to the continental shelf and to the waters of internal seas, and it includes strict requirements for any economic operator that might wish to launch a project in the Arctic. I won’t review the entire new law, but it includes provisions that require operators to:

  • Have an oil spill prevention plan.
  • Ensure that search and rescue services are available.
  • Have adequate insurance and bank guarantees to cover costs to clean up a spill.
  • Have a state environmental impact assessment.
  • Develop systems for environmental monitoring and detection of oil spills.
  • Implement communications and warning systems.
  • Demonstrate capacity for clean-up and disposal of oil and waste.

So it means that there are very strict requirements for those companies that wish to operate in the Arctic. This is a good thing, because it restricts Arctic operations to those very few entities that have the experience, capacity, knowledge and responsibility for doing so.

What I have just described captures our approach to economic activity in the Arctic at present. I should reiterate as well that these requirements are very strict, and that a high premium is placed upon environmental protection.

Despite the stringency of these requirements, we do not see them as a barrier to successful large-scale projects in the Arctic launched, for example, by GazpromNeft, Lukoil and Novatek. These projects are being implemented under the provisions of this recently-passed law. The provisions do not prevent them from doing business; instead, they provide clear and concrete guidance.

Senior Arctic Official Else Berit Eikeland

For Norway, the key idea is very similar to Russia; we want sustainable economic development in the Arctic. The Arctic is for the people who live there, and we have had offshore oil and gas production in the Arctic since the beginning of the 80s. In Norway, the petroleum industry is not a newcomer in the Arctic, but quite mature. Over time, our Arctic businesses have developed a step-by-step approach to improving technology and moving into new areas.

The Norwegian Arctic and the Barents Sea is very different from other parts of the Arctic, because it is ice-free during the winter due to the influence of the Gulf Stream. For this reason, we prefer not to think of the Arctic as a homogeneous whole. Instead, we look for a more knowledgeable and nuanced perspective on the Arctic and its different regions. The High Arctic is one story, with its severe conditions and summertime ice cover. The lower latitudes are quite different, and East is different from West. Local expertise and understanding is required to work in these different regions. Safe operations, both in the petroleum sector and in the shipping sector, are key to operations in the Norwegian Arctic. And like Russia, we too have very strict regulations in place. We have an integrated management plan for Norwegian waters, and this plan includes delineation of sensitive areas – ecologically sensitive, or important to fisheries – in which industrial activity is not permitted.

In addition to our strict regulations and our integrated management plan, we currently work with Arctic states – and we hope to do more as time goes on – to encourage research and development of new technologies and strong standards of practice for businesses working in the Arctic.

Could you talk a bit about how Russia and Norway are collaborating to prevent pollution to the Arctic marine environment from maritime activity, petroleum activity, and so on?

SAO Eikeland

Pollution does not respect borders, so we have key shared interests with Russia because we share the Barents Sea, which is home to some of the best cod fisheries in the world. In this case, Norway and Russia have managed to establish a science-based management regime which also involves the fishermen on both sides of the border, who understand that basing regulations on science helps to ensure the long-term sustainability of their industry.

The interest of both Norway and Russia is not simply offshore petroleum or shipping; our interest is to keep the sea clean, because of the incredible importance of fisheries to our economies. So we have managed to establish this close, science-based cooperation on fisheries. In addition, under the Barents 2020 program, we are encouraging companies from Russia and Norway to work towards defined standards-of-practice and safety standards for Arctic operations. We see this as a cooperation in which industry is the primary actor, with the facilitation of our governments. And now the ISO is working to develop Arctic standards, which will provide a concrete tool to practice and monitor safe operations in the offshore Arctic.

SAO Barbin

We’ve spoken a bit already about the importance of “lessons learned”. One lesson that we have learned is that we need extremely intensive international cooperation, involving sharing experience. I strongly agree with what my Norwegian colleague has said, but I would like to add a bit more about our bilateral cooperation. Cooperation between Norway and Russia has a substantial legal foundation in the form of multiple agreements in these areas. Just to mention a few particularly significant ones, we have the:

  • Agreement Between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the Kingdom of Norway concerning Cooperation on the Combatment of Oil Pollution in the Barents Sea;
  • Joint Norwegian-Russian Contingency Plan for the Combatment of Oil Pollution in the Barents Sea; and
  • Memorandum of Understanding Between the Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation and the Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs of the Kingdom of Norway on Cooperation in Order to Improve Maritime Safety on Sea Routes of the Norwegian and Barents Seas.

These agreements and others create an excellent framework for our cooperation. I would add that we conduct a joint search-and-rescue exercise each year, as well as an exercise for combating and eliminating oil pollution. These are an excellent opportunity to work across our borders, and we would like them to continue.

My Norwegian colleague mentioned Barents 2020; this is a very important program. The companies involved in Barents 2020 are working towards development of the best standards-of-practice for safety and environmental protection in drilling, exploration, development and so on. I have heard from business representatives that they deeply appreciate this cooperation, and see it as a great benefit for both sides. Such collaborative work emphasizes the fact that we in Russia do not only profit from the expertise and knowledge of our Norwegian colleagues, but also provide them with our own best practices, which are useful to them in return.

Finally, let me mention that – as in Norway – Russia, too has special protected areas in which industrial activity is prohibited. In this way, I think Norway and Russia are leading in the challenge of balancing strict ecological requirements with openness to sustainable development.