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ENVIRONMENT

Oil prospectors make Balearic bid

Residents and politicians are alarmed at plans to start drilling in the Mediterranean

A gas platform in the Ebro Delta. Ampliar foto
A gas platform in the Ebro Delta. AFP

When Joan Cánaves, president of the Balearic fishermen's association, is asked about the plans for offshore oil exploration close to the Mediterranean islands of Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera, he describes the local reaction as one of "total rejection." He says he has data showing that the impact of the seismic tests the oil companies want to carry out in the area could reduce fishing hauls by up to 70 percent.

Cánaves says he wants his children to continue the family tradition and work in fishing, highlighting his sector's contribution to creating a sustainable industry through the creation of protected areas and breeding grounds. It's not just Cánaves and his colleagues who are opposed to offshore drilling in the Balearics; local politicians, and even celebrities such as model Kate Moss and musician David Guetta, have thrown their weight behind the campaign to have it halted. Meanwhile, as the scale of the oil exploration project slowly emerges, the European Union has taken an interest and is watching developments closely in an area of significant biological wealth.

"We have received so many letters about this that we have been obliged to open an investigation," says a source in Brussels. So far, none of the exploration work carried out in the Balearics has produced a formal request for permission to drill. And any such request would depend on environmental impact evaluations, "which are not yet ready," says the same source, adding: "For the moment we are watching events."

The EU is watching
developments closely in this
area of great biological wealth

The regional government of the Balearics, headed by Popular Party (PP) premier José Ramón Bauzá, opposes any plans to drill for oil offshore, and is backed by every local council throughout the islands, which are working closely with a range of organizations and civic groups that have garnered huge popular support. In Ibiza, up to 50 civil servants were assigned the task of collating the thousands of letters sent in by local people registering their opposition to any drilling.

This has brought the Balearic branch of the PP into conflict with the government in Madrid. In short, it is between a rock and a hard place: such is the scale of the opposition to the drilling proposals - which includes a heavyweight alliance comprising environmentalists and businesses - that it would be committing electoral suicide to support them.

"Tourism is the Balearics' oil," said Bauzá in a recent interview. He has called on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and the EU, to call a halt to the exploration. Bauzá and the rest of his team on the islands were photographed standing in front of a giant hoarding set up by environmental groups opposed to the drilling in Ibiza. The groups, operating under the umbrella of Alianza Mar Blava (Blue Sea Alliance), have worked hard to rally support throughout the islands for the campaign against drilling.

Ayoluengo's "nodding donkeys"

Spain is not entirely dependent on imported oil: domestic output is 0.3 percent of total consumption. It comes in the form of 8,000 barrels a day extracted by Repsol affiliate Ripsa from an offshore rig in the sea off the Ebro Delta, in Catalonia. The area is close to the zones that three other oil companies want to explore.

Repsol's rig has been producing oil since 1981. Output is low, but in recent years, two new wells connected to the rig have increased output from 2,000 barrels a day to the current figure. Spain has only one other oil well, in Ayoluengo de la Lora, close to the northern city of Burgos, and that has been producing 100 barrels a day of low-quality crude since 1967.

In 1963, when oil was discovered in Ayoluengo, 3D seismic testing did not exist, so the companies involved simply drilled exploratory wells: up to 30 of them amid potato fields. Today, the landscape has been transformed into a mini-Texas, littered with "nodding donkey" oil wells. Repsol asked for permission to carry out systematic 3D seismic surveying in the area around its offshore rig in October of 2012, and has yet to receive permission from the government.

The oil companies involved in the exploration say that opposition to their plans to drill for hydrocarbons beneath the seabed is based on "a profound lack of understanding" of the techniques involved. Aciep, the body that represents the oil companies, says that seismic probing is a technique that has been developed over decades, noting that some 689 exploration wells have been sunk in Spain in recent years: 422 onshore, and 267 offshore. Of the latter, more than 200 have been placed in the Mediterranean, and of these, more than 60 have proved successful.

Seismic tests establish whether there are geological structures under the seabed that could be storing hydrocarbons. Seismic testing involves the use of air guns fired from moving ships. The air guns generate loud blasts below the ocean's surface approximately every 10 seconds. The nature of the resulting seismic waves allows geologists to map the strata below the ocean floor.

Many environmentalists believe that the noise generated by air guns - which can be as high as 250 decibels, almost as loud as dynamite explosions - has a profoundly negative effect on fish, sea turtles and whales in the seismic testing area.

Michel André, a lecturer at the Bio-acoustic Applications Laboratory at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, says that the comparisons with nuclear explosions made by environmentalist groups opposed to the testing are nonsense, although he accepts that they pose a potential threat to marine animal life. "There is no doubt that the sound levels produced by these compressed-air guns during testing are probably the most intense that would be introduced artificially into the sea, and that therefore present a health risk for the animals nearby," he explains.

The European Commission has recently included the noise produced by seismic testing as a source of marine pollution. "This is a cause for international concern," says André. "There has always been noise in the sea: plates shifting, storms, wind... But industrial exploration has introduced uncontrolled, new forms of pollution on a huge scale. Some organisms, such as invertebrates like octopuses, suffer damage to the tissue responsible for acoustic perception. They do not die immediately, but they are not able to develop the vital capacities required to feed themselves, reproduce, flee from predators, and so on."

Cetaceans such as dolphins and whales are better able to protect themselves from sound, says André. "They can swim faster, and limit the impact of the more damaging sound levels, but that doesn't mean they are immune, either. The effects of sound can mask the signals they use to communicate with each other, which can mean that they don't feed properly, or it can damage their navigational abilities, leading to them beaching," he adds.

Animals that find themselves within a 500-meter-radius are likely to be killed immediately, says André. "The impact is the same as the shock waves from a bomb, and it destroys the internal organs."

The Balearic regional
government opposes any
plans to drill for oil offshore

Proyecto Mediterráneo, a research project carried out under the auspices of the Environment Ministry and several Spanish universities, notes that there are cetacean migration routes between the coastlines of Valencia and Catalonia, on the Spanish mainland, and the Balearic Islands, precisely where the seismic testing is being carried out.

Belén Alonso, a marine geologist at the CSIC national research council, has carried out seismic testing using methods similar to those being proposed by the oil industry in the Balearics, but with the aim of garnering information about the Mediterranean seabed. "There are strict protocols that have to be followed," she explains. "If dolphins are spotted, then the sound level has to be gradually reduced until it is turned off. If they hear it, they will flee. And the testing is not restarted until there are no signs of any animals for miles around."

The oil companies looking to carry out seismic testing in the waters around the Balearic Islands say in their environmental impact reports that they will have whale spotters aboard. But seismic testing can last months, often functioning around the clock.

"This is a limited way of checking on the presence of cetaceans, which spend more time below the surface of the water than above it. We have acoustic technology at our disposal that allows us to detect them from considerable distances, but these companies are not obliged by law to use them," says André. Cairn Energy, the company leading the exploration through its affiliate Capricorn, intends to carry out four seismic tests covering an area of 2,420 square kilometers in the Gulf of Valencia.

Oil firms say that opposition is based on "a profound lack of understanding"

Cairn Energy's environmental impact study was released in December, and was criticized by environmentalists for "lacking scientific rigor." The company has refused to talk to EL PAÍS about its plans to explore for oil off the Balearics. The Industry Ministry also declined to comment.

Just 13 kilometers off Cap de Creus, close to the French border, SeaBird Exploration, a company specializing in seismic testing, wants to survey an area covering some 37,000 square kilometers, part of which overlaps a third project that Spectrum Geo wants to undertake. The regional government is currently studying the proposal. Repsol, Spain's leading oil company, already has offshore wells in the nearby Ebro Delta, and wants to explore further in the area.

"Spain's determination to explore for hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean is completely out of kilter with European environmental policy, and turns a blind eye to all the evidence about the impact of climate change," says Ricardo Aguilar of environmental NGO Oceana. "Fortunately, the government still has time to turn down applications to explore in Spanish waters. The scientific information about the species that live in these areas would provide sufficient grounds for doing so."

The Alianza Mar Blava, which has brought together business leaders, academics and civic associations of all types, is confident that the outcome of environmental impact surveys will kill any plans to explore for hydrocarbons in the waters off the Balearics. "What is needed now is for a joint evaluation of the impact of all the proposed seismic testing, given that they will affect the same area," says the organization's spokesman, Carlos Bravo.

There are a number of marine reserves and natural parks that are part of Red Natura 2000, an EU-wide network of nature protection areas set up in 1992. "None of the test areas infringes directly on these protected areas, although one, around the Columbretes Islands is just 11.1 kilometers away," notes a report by the Spanish Oceanographic Institute on the Capricorn project. "It is essential that maximum precaution is applied regarding any activities in this area, among them seismic testing."