Imagine a world where drilling thousands of shotholes for the use of explosives in protected areas, vegetation clearing, opening of roads, and near lethal disturbance of protected animals at sea is not subject to the appropriate assessment of environmental impacts. This is modern day Greece, allowing an unprecedented rollback on established legal protections, in favour of drilling for oil and gas.
During the economic crisis, cash strapped Greece has promoted hydrocarbon extraction as the spearhead of its economic recovery strategy, on the grounds that significant revenues will be gained and dependency on hydrocarbon imports will be reduced.
Since 2014, the Hellenic Parliament has ratified by law eight concession contracts for hydrocarbon research and exploitation in onshore and marine blocks covering the entire western part of Greece. Iconic places, such as the national parks of N. Pindos, Kotychi-Strofilia, Amvrakikos wetland, and Messolongi lagoons, and over 20 Natura 2000 areas are included in the concession areas. The Hellenic Trench, the most important area for sperm whales in the Mediterranean, while the Strofades islets in the Ionian Sea are part of an existing MPA and are a unique stopover for migratory birds and host a number of endemic species.
No risk assessment for seismic research
The exemption from EIA obligations of the seismic testing phase of oil and gas operations, even within protected areas, marks a major regression on critical environmental acquis.
*Sources: Laws ratifying the concession contracts and the associated studies. Also, the “environmental action plan” for the onshore seismic survey operations at the onshore block of Ioannina.
Despite the assertions of the oil and gas industry that seismic research is a harmless scientific exercise, reality proves it is not. Earlier this year, some 50 sea turtles were washed ashore in the coast of Israel. The stranded animals were either dead or mysteriously bleeding. According to the director of Israel’s Sea Turtle Rescue Center, seismic testing for offshore oil and gas is the most likely culprit.
Many Natura 2000 sites fall entirely within oil and gas concession areas
Onshore concession areas cover vast territories, which include parts of areas designated as national parks and Natura 2000 sites (protected under the EU’s 92/43/EEC and 2009/147/EC directives on the conservation of habitats and wild birds), as well as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of international importance.
The environmental impacts of seismic research operations are potentially very serious and include forest clearing, land erosion, pollution due to increased traffic, habitat fragmentation caused by road opening and the use of explosives along seismic lines. At sea, (mainly the Ionian and Crete), the impacts of seismic surveys on marine mammals are extremely hazardous. The use of seismic airguns for the generation of acoustic signals is the most serious and certain impact to marine biodiversity, as it can cause hearing impairments or even death to whales, dolphins and sea turtles.
The exclusion of large and potentially impactful operations from the obligation to perform an environmental impact assessment, even within protected areas, is tailor-made to the petroleum extraction industry. Specifically, the laws ratifying oil and gas concession contracts state that the seismic testing phase is simply described in an “environmental action plan”, which however constitutes a novel tool of indefinite content. Such plans are nowhere to be found in the Greek EIA legislation, whereas no reference to their content and approval procedure is mentioned in the ratification laws. Simply put, these plans are a private commitment of the petroleum industries to implement measures which may or may not fall in the existing environmental licensing framework and whose control does not necessarily fall within the jurisdiction of any inspections authority.
In any coherent and consistent environmental licensing framework, the impact caused by seismic testing for oil and gas would be subject to a full EIA procedure, covered with the transparency and public accountability appropriate for a modern democratic state.
At a time when oil and gas programmes in other parts of the Mediterranean are cancelled on environmental protection grounds, the fact that Greece looks backwards and opens large parts of western Greece to hydrocarbon extraction, through a manifestly favouritist environmental licensing regime, raises reasonable doubts over whether the public interest is indeed served.
Denial of access to information
Leaving aside the total lack of transparency and public consultation at the seismic testing phase, access of the public to important information on the oil and gas extraction programmes is also hampered by the responsible authorities.
One characteristic case of violation of access to information law is the denial by the Environment and Energy Ministry to provide WWF with a copy of a geological study on shale gas deposits in in Greece. The extraction of shale gas requires the use of the environmentally hazardous method of hydraulic fracturing.
In reply to WWF Greece’s application by court order for access to the studies supervised by the ministry, the responsible administrative department claimed copyright property rights and stated that the economic stability of the Greek state may be put at risk. Such instances of secrecy and lack of transparency deprives local communities of their right to know that activities of high environmental impact may be developed in their homelands and allows for demagoguery on the alleged potential of the Greek economy to achieve growth based on petroleum extraction.
According to the reply, the requested study “constitutes internal information for our service, whose publication may harm the economic interests of the State”, while the ministry “is subsequently intellectual property owner of the preliminary geological study, on which it bases vital economic interests, directly related with the economic stability of the State”.
Hydrocarbon concessions cover protected areas
The approved oil and gas extraction programmes cover entirely or partially many protected areas: the onshore concession block of Ioannina (total of 4,187 sq. klm) includes 20 Natura 2000 sites and parts of the N. Pindos National Park; the concession block of NW Peloponnese (total acreage of 3,778.3 sq.klm) includes 11 Natura 2000 sites, among which the Kotychi-Strofilia National Park; the concession block of Aetoloakarnania (total acreage of 4,360.3 sq.km) includes 15 Natura 2000 sites, two national parks and two Ramsar wetlands of international importance).
The protected coastal area and important sea turtle habitat of Kyparissia is surrounded by oil and gas concession areas. Source: Oikoskopio.
Economic impact of oil spills
WWF published a report on the ‘Economic impacts of hydrocarbon exploitation in Greece’ as part of the launch of its international campaign to halt oil and gas drilling plans in the country. The study, commissioned by WWF and conducted by eftec, finds that a major oil spill in Greece would devastate the country’s tourism and fishing industries, and cost the Greek economy more than 7.5 billion euros.
The report comes in response to 25 year concessions being granted for offshore or onshore oil exploration and drilling in a marine and terrestrial area covering almost 75.000 square kilometres, from the North of Corfu to Southern Crete. Oil companies that have agreed concessions include Total, Repsol, Exxon and Eni. The marine area, which is equal to 30% of the Greek mainland, is characterized by great depths and diverse marine life – including sperm whales, fin whales, Cuvier’s beaked whales, bottlenose dolphins, loggerhead sea turtles and monk seals – while the terrestrial area consists of numerous protected areas of unique ecological importance.
Environmental organizations, local groups and professional associations are voicing their opposition to the plans for extraction of new oil and gas, despite political assertions by the major parliamentary parties that hydrocarbon exploitation will save Greece from economic misery. According to Antonis Nikoloudakis, hotel businessman on Zakynthos: “Tourism draws its very existence from the natural environment. Nature is the foundation, based on which the tourism sector offers services. These services create unique experiences, which visitors take with them as ‘holidays’. Hydrocarbon exploitation is clearly a damaging activity, both for society, but also for the environment and, therefore, tourism. The risks of accidents are real and will always exist. Despite the assertions of various oil company representatives that safety is guaranteed by EU law and new technologies, all I have to say is that these were always the “famous last words” before all major oil spills. This lie will continue to haunt us if we do not decide to face and it. Greece needs to invest in renewable energy development, instead of taking backward steps, towards the obsolete.”
In conjunction with Greece’s plans to expand the use of coal by constructing new lignite plants, the only promise of new oil and gas is that it will lock the country in a high footprint economic model for many decades.