Everyone can agree that drilling in the Arctic is a very serious issue, and in the last couple of weeks Icelandic politicians have come out against it. However, when discussing action in Drekasvæðið it seems necessary to set the record straight on a few terms. “Exploration” is very different from “production” or “drilling”. It refers to the search for resources, not the extraction, and the way it is being done in Drekasvæðið is relatively harmless. Even if oil or natural gas were discovered tomorrow, it would likely take more than a decade to begin any real production, which means we are still a ways away from any drilling.
According to the Regulation on Prospecting, Exploration and Production of Hydrocarbons No. 884/2011 passed by Alþingi, production is defined as: “Hydrocarbon production from a hydrocarbon reservoir, including drilling of production wells, pumping or conduction of hydrocarbons to the surface, pumping down hydrocarbons and other substances, treatment and storage of hydrocarbons for transport, loading of hydrocarbons as well as constructing, installing, operating and decommissioning offshore facilities intended for such production.”
This is in contrast to exploration, which is defined as, “Evaluation of the size, location and production properties of a hydrocarbon reservoir by drilling exploration wells and making borehole measurements in addition to prospecting for hydrocarbons by geophysical methods”. However, in materials on Geology and Hydrocarbon Potential of the Northern Dreki Area, Icelandic Continental Shelf prepared by Iceland GeoSurvey, the Ministry of Industry, and Iceland’s National Energy Authority (Orkustofnun) in January 2008, explains:
When exploring for oil, the usual procedure is to investigate likely areas in detail with geophysical measurements from the surface before any exploration wells are drilled. The reason for this is that drilling exploration wells is very costly but the chances of success can be improved significantly by carrying out geophysical surveys costing only a tenth of what it costs to drill a well.
Exploration can include drilling, but in deep-sea waters it is not cost effective. “In deep waters this is very expensive so the exploration usually goes through a number of previous phases before the licensees make a “drill or drop” decision” Þórarinn Sveinn Arnarson, the hydrocarbon licencing manager at Orkustofnun, said in an interview. “Thus, when the companies make the decision to commit to drilling a well, they know a lot more about the area than they did in the beginning and the risk evaluation is much more positive than it was at first (otherwise they would choose to relinquish the licence). Instead they use seismic surveys.”
Þórarinn explained that seismic surveys are conducted by ships shooting sound waves out of air guns at the sea floor and then picking the signals back up by dragging a very long streamer with hydrophones behind the ship. “It’s like extremely powerful sonar. They drag an air gun that shoots a really loud, low, deep noise, and parts of it go down to the sea floor. Some of it echoes directly off the sea floor itself, and some of it enters. It reflects off various strata under there, some of it is hard, some of it is soft, but it all reflects differently depending on what’s there. They are dragging basically earphones, ‘hydrophones’, on a ten km long streamer behind them, which records the sound waves that come back. That’s how they can make a picture of what’s underneath. That’s the main technique for the oil business.”
I asked Þórarinn if there is any possibility that the sheer force of the air gun blasts could cause a leak. “No. It’s not like that” he said, “I think the biggest risk with the sound waves is the effect is on whales and very localised effect on things that can’t swim away”. In order to avoid this risk he explained that they begin with a soft sound and gradually get louder so marine life swim away from the vicinity.
The geological and environmental summary done by Orkustofnun before the second licensing round in 2011 reported that “The whale counts that have been done do not detect possible changes in the distribution of whales caused by activities in so small an area as that of the oil exploration area.” In order to protect the whale counts they recommend tighter search lines and more frequent counts along with skin samples for use in evaluating potential impacts.
Þórarinn explained that even though the companies conducting the exploration would have agreed to this for the licence, they would have taken precautions for marine life anyway. By now, these are normal procedures for exploration in deep-sea waters.
The difference between exploration and production
Drilling in the Arctic is very serious and could do irreparable damage to the ecosystems and environment. However, exploration does not pose the same risks. Offshore exploration consists of boats, sending seismic pulses at the oceans floor. In Drekasvæðið, there is no drilling be done, and companies take extra precautions to make sure marine life is unharmed. If resources are found, there will be many important questions concerning extraction, but until that time private companies are paying the Icelandic government a lot of money to look.
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