Collaborate or perish: Lessons from Norway’s Arctic region

As activity in the far north increases maritime traffic — along with risks of emergency situations — collaboration between nations, NGOs and business becomes more crucial. From our partners at Arctic Deeply.

By: /
29 January, 2016
The coast of Tromso, Norway. REUTERS/Saul Loeb
Johan Marius Ly
By: Johan Marius Ly

Director of emergency preparedness at the Norwegian Coastal Administration

“It’s good I decided to sit here,” says the Norwegian, as he perches in the bow of the boat and watches the Russian, the Icelander and the American yelling for help in the stern.

But being at the right end of the ship is not much help once it springs a leak.

In the Arctic, everyone depends on each other. Good emergency preparedness can never be achieved if collaboration fails to function between the Arctic nations, environmental organizations and commercial enterprises.

The need to work together across different interests has been highlighted at the Arctic Frontiers conference, which is taking place in the north Norwegian port of Tromso.

Emergency preparedness at the Norwegian Coastal Administration (NCA) concentrates primarily on good oil-spill response and protecting a vulnerable environment against acute pollution. As the director in charge of this work, I can see where we have our strengths and where problems exist that should cause concern.

We took a shot across our bow on New Year’s Eve, when a barge broke loose and drifted toward an oil installation on the Norwegian continental shelf. All at once, the whole of Norway could see what the worst consequences might have been after evacuating the platform – an oil disaster on a massive scale. We have been spared such an event so far.

Without emergency response analyses, plans and exercises, the position would be a source of grave concern. Fortunately, however, the operator companies and the NCA, as the responsible government agency, hold regular drills.

We train so that we know what needs to be done if the worst happens. The ability to collaborate and technical know-how are put to the test and potential improvements identified, so that the next exercise or accident can be handled in the best possible way to limit any environmental damage.

I am happy to say that, in my experience, the oil industry takes emergency preparedness and responding to undesirable spills seriously. That is demonstrated by the activities of the Norwegian Clean Seas Association for Operating Companies (Nofo).

As a result of the work done by the operator of the Goliat oil field off Norway’s far northern coast, I can see that oil-spill response has been strengthened in a vulnerable area.

Collaboration between commercial interests and those of us who are responsible for preparing responses to environmental incidents has improved overall protection of the Norwegian coast.

However, more activity in the far north means that maritime traffic will increase – which in turn enhances the risk of incidents like the one witnessed on December 31.

Transfer of crude oil between vessels is also a known issue in the far north, and concerns about an undesirable incident are not unjustified. So it is important that all the players who have a role (industry, government, environmental organizations and neighboring countries) help ensure the best possible emergency response plans.

To safeguard our coasts, we depend on good collaboration between people from different technical disciplines, cultures and languages.

Despite a chilly political climate between Russia and other states, we cooperate well with Russians during exercises and see a desire to strengthen such joint efforts.

About a year ago, Norway and Russia celebrated two decades of collaboration on oil-spill response and on extending the agreement in the north Norwegian town of Kirkenes.

Both countries commented at the time that this good cooperation would be crucial for the outcome if a major oil spill were to occur in the far north. It was acknowledged that neither Russia nor Norway could cope with such an incident on its own.

Similarly, environmental organizations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) are important collaborators and constructive critics in ensuring a clean coast.

Norway has so far been spared a serious incident in the Arctic that calls for search and rescue operations and for cleaning up after acute pollution.

Should such an event occur in the seas around Svalbard, it would pose different problems than an accident further south on the Norwegian continental shelf. Darkness, low temperatures, ice, logistical challenges, lack of surveillance and communication difficulties are important factors there.

At Arctic Frontiers, there is a genuine interest from all sides in finding solutions. We need a broad involvement, even beyond those who attend.

We depend on each other.

This article was also published with on Arctic Deeply.

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