Potential hydrocarbon exploration in Greece, will Blue or Black Growth be the choice?
The planned extraction of hydrocarbon deposits in Greece poses a dramatic risk of irreversible ecological and socio-economic disaster both within the marine regions and productive land zones where oil exploration is proposed, as well as for the country as a whole. Simultaneously, whilst the European Union focuses on a strategy of Blue and Green Growth, a large proportion of Greek politicians persist to focus on “Black Growth”. They promote fossil fuel exploration as an economic solution despite the potential for this to lead to the degradation of touristic, agricultural and natural areas, upon which are based the main economic activities of the country.
The exploitation of these relatively small reserves is of particular concern, given the large depth associated with the offshore fields as well as the seismic activity in the area, resulting in a logistically and technically challenging operation. Inevitably this proposed approach will result in a consequential increase in environmental impacts with different characteristics: direct and indirect, short and long term, temporary and permanent, singular and cumulative.
Archipelagos Institute for Marine Conservation calls upon organisations and active citizens to consider the real benefits and dangers of the planned hydrocarbon exploitation in Greece and exercise their rights under the Aarhus convention to participate in the decision making process.
Expected Risks Vs Benefits
- It is certain that any profits from the oil exploration activities will largely be reaped by the hydrocarbon companies, which will also have absolute control over all stages of the operations from geological study to new seismic data acquisition with air gun techniques; first exploration of the site with temporary offshore structure; permanent offshore structure building; production and sale; dismantling as well as in the management of any incidents of pollution, leakage or accidents.
- From this deal, the benefits to citizens will be minimal. Oil and gas will remain at the same prices set by international stock exchanges, however, the claim that hydrocarbon exploitation will improve the trade balance and enhance the country’s energy security, is an unjust argument. The economists and politicians that are backing this approach were also, in part, responsible for the Greek economic crisis and must be reminded that they are putting at risk the livelihoods of millions of professionals working in such areas as tourism, fisheries, aquaculture, agriculture, farming and the many related blue and green jobs that are being promoted by the EU’s new sustainable development strategies.
- The politicians, economists and lobbies that promote the hydrocarbon exploration, present the location of their investments as if these were in regions that resemble the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, or the remote seas of Norway. They are pretending to be unaware that the exploration is planned to take place next to coastal and productive areas where millions of citizens live and work. These regions are already productive and are of fundamental importance to the Greek economy. Today they are major zones for tourism, fishing, aquaculture and agriculture which also support thousands of jobs related to the much-discussed EU blue and green growth strategy. Furthermore, we must be mindful of the habitats of global environmental importance that are in close proximity to the planned exploitation sites.
- This prospect of black growth for Greece is also supported by a minority of scholars, with questionable motives, who may not have provided anything else to this country. However, they are ready to offer their services whenever a loose investment is promoted with controversial benefits.
- Advocates of the proposed exploitation program put the economic rationale foremost when promoting their plans. Archipelagos Institute understands the importance of economic security for Greece and are willing to discuss this issue on those terms, putting aside the environmental impacts and inviting the citizens of this country to critically assess the situation in this financial light:
- The estimated earnings for the Greek state are still unclear, however an instance in which “Black Growth” can be seen, is the Patraikos deposit. According to the most optimistic investors’ recent economic forecasts, the Greek government will receive 200 million euros per year for the exploration of Patraikos’ deposit (a provision which, of course, no one guarantees).
- What do we risk in the event of an accident? According to the Bank of Greece, during the period January – September 2018, the revenues from tourism in the Ionian and Western Greece exceeded 2 billion euros. This is ten times the revenue projections for the Greek state for exploration of the Patraikos deposit.
- International experience has shown that in areas where hydrocarbons exploitation takes place, accidents and general degradation are inevitable, despite all stringent environmental conditions and prevention measures. This is why we strongly feel exploration activities cannot coexist with tourism and these blue and green professions. Let’s consider the benefit only from the tourism sector to the Greek economy, which for 2017 reached 35 billion euros, accounting for 19.7% of the country’s GDP, with 935,000 jobs (24.8% of total employment). The contribution of tourism to GDP is projected to increase by 3.7% each year for the next decade, with an expected total economic benefit of 52.8 billion euros in 2028 (according to the World Travel and Tourism Council – WTTC). We should emphasise that the tourism industry in Greece is based almost exclusively on the rich natural and cultural heritage and especially the excellent quality of our seas, water, air, natural products and landscape.
- Given that we are in an age of information and shock imagery used in the global media, even a spill that damages only a small area of land or sea will be magnified in the public eye, inevitably tarring the entirety of Greece in the minds of potential tourists.
What does international experience teach us?
International experience highlights thousands of examples of accidents due to exploration activities, while numerous incidents are also being obscured from the public. In the region of the North-East Atlantic where monitoring performed to the highest standards, during the period of 2007-2016 there were 4,828 recorded incidents that resulted in the spillage of oils or chemicals. Of equal concern is the continuous diffuse pollution from small leaks and emissions resulting from the day to day operations at the exploitation sites which are not reported. This silent pollution, although less visible has a cumulative impact over time. Here we will focus on two specific examples of the potential impact of onshore and offshore extraction:
We can look at the Basilicata region of southern Italy, as a case study of the impact we can expect from these exploration operations. Here, extensive hydrocarbon extraction activities have been taking place since the 1990s. With the promise by politicians and oil companies, that the region will become the ‘Texas of Italy’, Basilicata, after nearly 30 years of exploration, is facing a dramatic environmental disaster. Rising rates of cancer, ruined agriculture, degraded tourism and a massive emigration rate of the local population, are just some of the consequences.
According to research published in 2013 and 2014, residues of hydrocarbons are found in products such as olive oil, wine, honey, wheat and milk that the region once extensively exported. Although for reasons of corruption and disguise, only a few epidemiological investigations have been carried out. According to data from the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT, 2016), mortality associated with respiratory diseases increased in the region by 29% from 2006 to 2013.
Gulf of Mexico, USA
The BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill in 2010 resulted in the spillage of 5 million barrels of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico. It took a total of three months to seal the well, which was at a depth of 1,500 meters, in order to effectively stop the oil spill. The oil covered 180,000 km2 of sea and coast, from Texas to Alabama, exceeding twice the area of Greek territorial waters. According to official BP reports, over 5,500 tonnes of oil dispersants were used in order to manage the spill, however this amount is considered to be significantly larger in reality.
As spectators unable to intervene effectively, both local communities and the US government watched this disaster unfold for months, witnessing great and irreversible ecological and socio-economic destruction. Despite the very stringent security measures taken after the accident, 6 new major accidents were recorded in the same area from 2011 to 2017.
This took place in the US, where they adhere to the toughest maritime safety and response measures and infrastructure in the world. If a similar incident was to happen in Greece, how do hydrocarbon companies envisage management of a similar accident with potential to destroy the Greek Seas?
Consider a corresponding scenario of a major oil spill in the Greek seas, originating from a hydrocarbon pumping platform or a well at a large depth, potentially causing a fire that could last for months. What would be the real economic impact on tourism, fisheries, fish farming, public health and maritime transport, not to mention the quality of life of millions of people and Greek nature.
In order to compare the disaster caused in the Gulf of Mexico to the previous state of the seas, studies were carried out to estimate the monetary value of the ecosystems of the area before the accident took place. For example, only in the state of Louisiana, the annual economic benefits of ecosystems were estimated at $ 12 -47 billion, while their total value as a financial resource was estimated at $ 1.3 trillion. This assessment concerns an area consisting mainly of swamps, wetlands and fishing zones. What would be the equivalent assessment of Greek marine and terrestrial ecosystems as a financial resource?
In Greece, will we realise the value of our seas and natural resources as a unique global advantage, before it is too late? Will we learn from the sufferings of others, or will have to wait for an accident to happen? Once, as the Greek saying has it, the “sky has come to our heads”, we will start to quantify what we have lost and which resources we will deprive of the next generations. Even if a small chance of an accident exists, is it worth the risk of irreversible ecological and socio-economic disasters and of weakening our unique and globally admired characteristics as a country?
With the EU focus on blue and green growth strategies at a time when it is revolutionary for the transition from fossil fuels to the many renewable energies, do we really believe that hydrocarbon exploration is a viable growth strategy for Greece? According to current forecasts, in less than a decade, the planet will have moved decisively from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources (RES) and mild natural resource management. The first drastic change is expected in the technology of cars which currently consume over half of the world’s fuel and hence there will be a vertical drop in the price of oil. It is worth noting that among the pioneers in the development and application of new RES forms is Norway, the largest oil producing country in Europe and one of the largest in the world. In the past few years, a network of “service stations” has been set up in Norway for self-production and distribution of hydrogen for use as car fuel. Many countries around the globe are installing extensive networks of power stations for charging electric cars, which are expected to increasingly become dominant over the next few years.
In the event that Greece ultimately chooses to follow a development strategy centered upon the onshore and offshore exploitation of hydrocarbons, we must know that this course will be irreversible. As when the first installations and investments are made it will not be possible to suspend it for decades.
We must realise that, for the hydrocarbon companies, Greece is a strategic goal. Not because of the country’s small deposits, but because it paves the way for hydrocarbon exploration in an EU touristic region of great natural value, meaning companies will then be able to claim exploration sites in multiple regions of the planet, which they have already targeted.
In order to avoid this immense risk, Archipelagos Institute, which for over two decades has worked to defend the biodiversity of the Greek Seas, calls upon civil society to respond directly to this situation. It is our duty and right, under the Aarhus convention, to exert the necessary pressure and urge the state to secure the long-term benefit of Greek citizens, rather than specific business interests.
On behalf of Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation,