Offshore Energy: The Challenge of Planning and Managing It in an Ecosystem-Based Way

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

As our global society's need for energy continues to grow, the oceans are playing an increasing role in meeting that demand. The development of deeper and deeper petroleum reserves offshore is opening up significant new supplies of oil and gas. And projects to harness the potential of wind, wave, and tidal energy are sprouting off many coastlines, offering the promise of abundant, renewable power.

These projects bring challenges for ocean management. Offshore oil and gas carries the risk of potentially disastrous spills, epitomized most recently by the ongoing Deepwater Horizon well blowout off the Gulf Coast of the US. Offshore renewables, meanwhile, present their own environmental impacts and compete for space with existing ocean uses like fishing and shipping.

How can offshore energy be planned and managed in ways that are ecosystem-based and compatible with other activities? MEAM asked several experts for advice.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster: Could EBM have prevented it?

On 20 April, an explosion and fire occurred on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, killing 11 crewmen and causing the rig to collapse and sink. As a result, the seafloor wellhead - located more than a kilometer below the water surface - blew out, releasing a gusher of crude oil from the underground field into the water column. Since then, the well has spewed more than a million barrels of oil, and has resisted multiple efforts at plugging it. Thick reddish-brown sludge from the disaster is oiling wildlife, beaches, and mangroves across the southern US. Meanwhile large plumes of emulsified oil - partly the result of the heavy use of dispersants by oil company BP to control the spill - are spreading through the Gulf of Mexico water column.

Identifying all the factors that contributed to the April explosion may take some time. But the groundwork for ineffective management of the spill was laid years ago. Over the past decade, even as the offshore oil industry ventured into ever-deeper waters, the federal agency responsible for overseeing such development (the Minerals Management Service) failed in many cases to require rigorous disaster response plans, viewing the likelihood of spills as too remote to worry about. As a result when the Deepwater Horizon blowout occurred - at a depth at which no oil company had experienced such an incident before - rig lessee BP had no plan in place to respond. The ensuing weeks featured a string of improvised, mostly unsuccessful attempts to stanch the flow. Rick Steiner, an oil spill consultant, was quoted in Newsweek magazine: "What [BP is] doing now is kind of like building a fire truck after your house is on fire." Federal and state agencies have joined in the improvisation. The federal government, for example, has approved a request by Louisiana to hurriedly construct barrier islands off its coast with dredged material - a bet that the ecosystem impacts of such islands will be less than those of the spill.

The point of having response plans in place is that accidents can and do occur - whether at rigs where the oil is produced, or on vessels or in pipelines that transport it. A collision in May between a crude oil tanker and a bulk carrier off Singapore caused a spill that oiled beaches despite an able response by Singaporean authorities that contained most of the slick offshore. Considering how harmful oil can be to ocean and coastal little we know about how spilled oil behaves (particularly in deepwater environments)...and the fact there will always be a threat of spills, it is a challenge to identify how offshore oil and gas can best fit within an ecosystem-based management framework. Even if EBM had been in place in the Gulf of Mexico prior to the spill, could it have prevented the disaster from happening?

Steve Bortone is executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which advises the US government on federal fisheries in the Gulf region. He believes that if robust cross-sectoral EBM, and even marine spatial planning, had been in place in the Gulf region, resource managers might at least have had a better handle on the risks and outcomes of such an event before it happened. "That may have led to a greater insistence to install effective prevention mechanisms," he says. "While no activity is 100% risk-free, there need to be some properly tested, pre-drilling protocols established that would at least minimize the risks."

As it is, says Bortone, the Deepwater Horizon spill could have lasting, severe impacts on fish and fisheries in the region. "A lesson from this spill is that some events affect the environment at scales in time and space that are unprecedented in our previous experience in dealing with man-made disasters," says Bortone. "This oil spill, in particular, may have long-term ramifications to our fisheries as an entire year-class of some fish larvae may have been affected."

Andy Rosenberg, former deputy director of the US National Marine Fisheries Service and now senior vice president for science and knowledge at Conservation International, agrees that EBM could have helped if implemented. "An EBM system could have impacted the risk of an oil spill," he says. Because EBM looks across sectors of human activity, any discussion of the Deepwater Horizon's potential effects would have been opened to a wider group of interests than just the internal, sectoral relationship that existed between the oil industry and the Minerals Management Service, says Rosenberg. "One of the criticisms of the regulatory process and its failures in this case is that the regulators and the industry were too close, interacting mostly with one another. The monitoring and enforcement of safety requirements might have been stronger if opened to the scrutiny of other sectors, and such additional scrutiny should lower the risk." Clean-up plans and operations would also benefit from the broader view of EBM. Rosenberg adds that the Deepwater Horizon's clear demonstration of the risks of oil spills should help apply pressure on government to manage offshore oil in a more cross-sectoral way.

Petroleum, EBM, and spatial planning

There are examples of integrating offshore oil and gas in ecosystem-based management. Off the east coast of Canada, the petroleum industry and its regulatory authorities are included in the Eastern Scotian Shelf Integrated Management Initiative (ESSIM), a collaborative process to develop and implement an integrated ocean management plan across a large marine region ( The ESSIM plan includes several ecosystem objectives that the petroleum industry is recommended to meet - pertaining to chemical contaminants, noise, etc. In addition, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans provides advice and data on fisheries, habitats, and species at risk from proposals for new oil/gas exploration and development. (Those proposals are submitted to the two offshore petroleum boards that regulate the industry.)

Norway has implemented integrated management and marine spatial planning programs for both its Barents Sea and Norwegian Sea, and these programs include offshore oil. "One of the major issues in the Barents Sea was the potential expansion of oil and gas activities into areas of the sea used by fisheries and living marine resources," says Bud Ehler, co-author with Fanny Douvere of the UNESCO guidebook Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach toward Ecosystem-Based Management. "Norway is one of the few countries that have explicitly integrated offshore oil and gas into their MSP, together with fishing, marine transport, and nature conservation." He notes, however, that the plan is advisory, not enforceable. Oil and gas development in or near ecologically sensitive areas remains a contentious issue in the region. (The Barents Sea plan is at

Conversely, there are examples where offshore oil has been viewed as too risky to be allowed in EBM. Among the best-known cases is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia, often cited as an example of EBM in practice. The Marine Park's establishing legislation in 1975 made all "recovery of minerals" - including petroleum, oil shale, sand, limestone, and even dissolved minerals in seawater - off-limits inside its boundaries. Between 1994 and 2008, the Australian Government passed additional regulations aimed at further protecting the Marine Park from activities such as mining, even from outside its boundaries. These legislative amendments, including a ban on geosequestration in the Marine Park, have since been incorporated into the primary legislation. In addition, the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 also makes it an offense if "an action results or will result in a significant impact on the world heritage values of a declared World Heritage property," with the Great Barrier Reef being one of 17 Australian World Heritage properties.

Jon Day, Director of Ecosystem Conservation and Sustainable Use for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, notes that oil shale mining activities beyond the park's borders have the potential to result in large-scale sediment disturbance, and that such disturbance could in turn lead to a decrease in water quality, direct habitat loss, and the alienation of other uses inside the Marine Park. Notwithstanding the ban on the recovery of minerals in the park's legislation, he says, "There seems little doubt that today the exploration, prospecting, or recovery of any minerals would be incompatible with ecosystem-based management of the Marine Park or the World Heritage area."

Elsewhere in Australian waters, however, that is not the case. The Australian government is simultaneously opening up offshore areas for petroleum exploration while carrying out a marine bioregional planning program that will include the eventual designation of MPAs ( This is in the shadow of Australia's own wellhead blowout incident last year in the Timor Sea: although the accident was in shallow water and its spill was much smaller than the Deepwater Horizon's, it nonetheless took 10 weeks to plug.

Finding the balance between offshore petroleum and conservation goals will require care from planners. "Any oil and gas development in Australian waters will need to comply with the national environment legislation," says Michael Mercado of the Department of Environment and Heritage. "The marine bioregional plans will provide important regulatory guidance in that assessment process, both within and outside the marine protected areas. The areas opened up recently [for development] by the Minister for Resources and Energy have long been acknowledged as areas for potential exploration. This, along with the myriad other uses of these waters, will be taken into account as the Australian Government continues through the marine bioregional planning process."

At the same time, says Mercado, the design of Australia's network of MPAs will take account of the potential impact on current and future oil and gas development. He notes that the MPA identification process is being conducted in a way that seeks to avoid establishing marine reserves over sites with medium to high prospects for petroleum. "In designing marine protected areas, the Australian Government is aiming to strike a balance between multiple-use and highly protected areas," says Mercado. "Multiple-use areas, for example, could allow for some forms of fishing to continue and oil and gas activities to be established if they are unlikely to have a substantial impact on the values of the protected area. We are working with stakeholders to secure a good conservation outcome while minimizing social and economic impacts."

The rush toward renewables, and how it is driving MSP

Offshore renewable energy projects - particularly wind - have been a primary driver behind multiple marine spatial planning initiatives worldwide. In the US alone, state-level MSP programs in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington State have all prominently featured wind energy projects, as have MSP programs in Germany, The Netherlands, and the UK.

Renewable energy is driving MSP because the demand for it, and the technology to carry it out, are both developing quickly. At the same time, there is no well-established process to balance this new ocean use with competing interests.

Ehler explains the Western European context: "First, almost all European countries have made a national commitment to fulfill 20-30% of future energy demand from renewable sources by 2020," he says. "Europe is the world leader in offshore wind with a current cumulative capacity of over 2000 MW spread over 39 wind farms in nine countries. Germany has a goal of producing 25,000 MW from offshore wind energy by 2030. Second, the number of permit applications for offshore wind farms has been overwhelming to many governments. Before Germany began marine spatial planning in 2004, it faced almost a hundred wind farm permit applications without any framework for deciding which should be approved and where. The final German marine spatial plans for the North Sea and the Baltic Sea (which are enforceable) designate three priority areas for offshore wind, although applications can be submitted for other areas. Finally, wind farms require large amounts of ocean space that can potentially displace other human uses (e.g., fishing and marine transportation) as well as disrupt important ecological areas. Because of these drivers, most governments around the North and Baltic seas have initiated MSP programs."

Tim Norman, senior manager of planning for The Crown Estate, which owns or manages much of the UK seabed, notes the promise that renewables hold for his country. "Due to its geographic position, the UK is in a prime location within Europe to take advantage of offshore wind power," he says. The Crown Estate has run four leasing rounds of the seabed for offshore wind farm development. In total, the UK's existing and new offshore wind and marine renewable energy programs are set to contribute up to 48 GW of renewable energy (more than a third of the UK's electricity requirement) into the national grid by 2020. Furthermore, half of Europe's wave energy potential is in British waters, where there are strong tides and currents. "As more emphasis is being placed upon the marine environment, The Crown Estate has a responsibility to understand the best way to rationalize and 'de-conflict' its proposed use of the seabed and ensure long-term sustainable development," says Norman. Toward that end, his organization is using marine spatial planning to ensure compatible use of the seabed. (For information on The Crown Estate's marine spatial planning system, go to

Even in areas where there is currently no renewable offshore energy development, it could soon be needed to meet demand. Scott Coffen-Smout of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans points out that the country's eastern province of Nova Scotia has committed to using 25% renewable energy by 2015, and 40% renewables by 2020. "A task force is being established on marine renewable energy to develop strategies to commercialize tidal, wind, and wave energy resources," says Coffen-Smout. "Provincial legislation on marine renewable energy in Nova Scotia is in development." As this sector evolves and grows, he says, it will eventually be integrated in multi-stakeholder advisory processes for the ESSIM area, described earlier.

In the US state of Rhode Island, the state government wanted to engage in spatial planning of its waters but did not have the funds to do it until proposals for wind energy projects started to appear. "While we were looking at doing an ocean plan, money was always a major stumbling block," says Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. "It was not until our energy office approached us that we were able to secure a source of funding."

When completed, Rhode Island's marine spatial plan (called the Special Area Management Plan, will be ecosystem-based, says Fugate. In the process of creating the plan, the state has analyzed the various ecosystem impacts that renewable energy installations can have, including noise, electromagnetic fields, and physical obstruction (such as causing bird collisions with wind turbines). The state's database for the planning process ensures that these potential impacts are considered in planning. Meanwhile the project's joint multi-agency review process applies a cross-sectoral approach. Its advisory committees involve four state-level agencies and eight federal ones. (For information on other state-level MSP efforts in the US: Washington State's new MSP legislation was described in our April-May 2010 issue, while Massachusetts' spatial plan for its waters was profiled in our February-March issue.)

Renewable energy on Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, where oil drilling is off-limits, might one day have proposals for renewable energy projects, notes Jon Day. "The Great Barrier Reef Zoning Plan does not specifically mention offshore installations for wind energy or wave energy," he says. "However the Zoning Plan is quite clear that 'operating a facility for a purpose that is consistent with the objective of the zone' may only be considered in applicable zones after a permit has been assessed and, if it meets all the necessary requirements, a permit has been granted."

Day says that in the case of an offshore installation for wind energy or wave energy on the Great Barrier Reef, it is probable that the assessment for such a proposal would comprise at least a Public Environment Report but more likely an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process to evaluate the possible risks or effects on the environment. "Advantages of such rigorous processes are that proposed developments undergo thorough consultation, planning, and evaluation of alternatives and involve extensive negotiation," says Day. "The disadvantages are that the assessment and management of proposals require sufficient information, take considerable time, and cost the proponent considerable funds."

For more information:

Steve Bortone, Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, Tampa, Florida, US. E-mail: Steve.Bortone [at]

Andrew Rosenberg, Conservation International, Washington, DC, US. E-mail: arosenberg [at]

Bud Ehler, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, UNESCO, Paris, France. E-mail: charles.ehler [at]

Jon Day, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville, Queensland, Australia. E-mail: [at]

Michael Mercado, Marine Division, Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Canberra, Australia. E-mail: Michael.Mercado [at]

Tim Norman, The Crown Estate, London, UK. E-mail: Tim.Norman [at]

Scott Coffen-Smout, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. E-mail: Scott.Coffen-Smout [at]

Grover Fugate, Coastal Resources Management Council, Wakefield, Rhode Island, US. E-mail: gfugate [at]

BOX: How managers elsewhere are reacting to the Deepwater Horizon spill

The magnitude and media coverage of the Deepwater Horizon blowout has led resource managers elsewhere to assess their own spill-prevention and response programs:

BOX: Seismic surveys and EBM

The risk of spills is not the only potential environmental impact posed by offshore petroleum exploration and development. Seismic surveys - which explore for oil and gas by sending sound energy into the seafloor and analyzing the returned energy - can cause hearing loss or even death in some marine animals if experienced at close range. Such surveys are attracting increased attention from conservationists. IUCN, for example, recently asked the Russian government to delay seismic testing near Sakhalin Island until gray whales have migrated out of the area ( And Canadian government officials have drawn criticism for approving seismic surveys inside a proposed Arctic marine conservation area (

For more information on seismic surveys, their potential ecosystem impacts, and management strategies, see "Seismic Surveys and MPAs: How Should Managers Address the Issue of Underwater Noise?" in the November-December 2009 issue of MPA News.