No. 41: Jameson Land. A strategic environmental impact assessment of hydrocarbon and mining activities

Hansen, J., Asmund, G., Aastrup, P., Mosbech, A., Bay, C., Tamstorf, M. & Boertmann, D. 2012. Jameson Land. A strategic environmental impact assessment of hydrocarbon and mining activities. Aarhus University, DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, 94 pp. Scientific Report from DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy No. 41.

Summary and conclusions

This report describes briefly the available background knowledge on the environment of Jameson Land. It focuses on the biological environment, and identifies information needs to be addressed by future background studies.

The descriptions and the assessment are restricted to the terrestrial environment, where the activities are expected to take place. The marine environment off Jameson Land is to a large extent included in the strategic environmental impact assessment of hydrocarbon activities in the Greenland Sea (Boertmann & Mosbech 2012).

Descriptive part

Jameson Land is situated within the high arctic zone, characterised by low summer temperatures, a long dark winter with snow cover and the surrounding sea covered by ice for 6 to 8 months.

Jameson Land is in a Greenland context unusual by the large continuous lowland areas bordering the Scoresby Sound fjord system in contrast to most other parts of Greenland, which are dominated by an alpine topography. In the northern part of Jameson Land there are, however, high mountainous areas with long and wide valleys.

The lowlands (including the valleys) hold a rich fauna and flora. The most important fauna species are the muskoxen and the geese. Jameson Land holds the largest and most dense population of muskoxen in East Greenland, and large numbers of barnacle and pink-footed geese breed and moult in the area. Jameson Land is of international importance for these geese, which leave Jameson Land for the winter.

Other bird species include shorebirds and waterbirds, such as Sabines gull and king eider. On some of the islands off the mainland coast, there are colonies of breeding seabirds mainly Artic terns and common eiders.

The flora is very rich with some endemic species and some species, which in Greenland are restricted to Jameson Land.

Due to the internationally important number of geese and other birds, two large areas are designated as wetland of international importance to water birds according to the Ramsar-convention. The National Park of North and East Greenland is bordering is assssment area to the north.

The biologically most sensitive areas are found mainly in the lowlands and the wide valleys, see Figure 16.

Chemical baseline measurements are few in the Jameson Land-area. Most are from the Schuchert Elv (samples from fresh water, marine sediments and lichens), and these show elevated concentrations of a number of metals.

Assessment part

In the 1990s, hydrocarbon exploration (seismic surveys) took place in Jameson Land. The muskoxen and the geese were focused on by background studies as the most sensitive fauna. Surveys of sensitive vegetation and rare plants were also carried out.

The present assessment also designates the muskoxen and the geese as the most sensitive fauna, sensitive particularly to disturbance and habitat destruction.

Conclusions on oil activities

Exploration for hydrocarbones in Jameson Land has the potential to cause extensive physical impacts, which may be visible for decades. Such impacts can be reduced by carrying out the activities in winter. Other potential impacts from exploration include disturbance of wildlife especially geese and muskoxen, but these are temporary and would last as long as the activities takes place. A limited exploration activity will most likely not impact on population level, but activities for many years in a row or covering extensive areas require mitigating measures to avoid population effects on geese and muskoxen. These impacts can also be reduced by carrying out the activities in winter.

Exploitation last for decades and potential impacts are necessarily long lasting. Physical impacts include landscape scaring, vegetation disruption/removal, damage on terrain and permafrost (from the footprint) and disturbance and displacement of wildlife. In this respect the most sensitive ecological elements would be the muskoxen, the geese and localised vulnerable habitats, and there may be a risk of effects on population level if no mitigative measures are taken.

Cumulative effects must be expected for example in the form of landscape scaring and especially on the most sensitive elements such as muskoxen and geese. They will be excluded from habitats (increasing with expanding activities), some which could be critical with population reductions as the ultimate effect.

On a global scale, the establishment of a large producing oilfield in Jameson Land would contribute to the increasing greenhouse gas content in the atmosphere, and it has the potential to increase the total Greenland contribution manyfold. Moreover produced oil and subsequent use should also be considered in a greenhouse gas contribution context.

In case of an accidental large oil spill, impacts may in unfortunate conditions be significant. Compared to oil spills in the marine environment, the impacted area on land and in freshwater habitats would be more restricted. However, if large amounts of oil enter water courses, there will be a risk for oil reaching the marine environment where it can spread to much larger areas.

The impacts of terrestrial oil activity are summarised by the AMAP Oil and Gas Assessment (AMAP 2010): “Until now, the major impact of Arctic oil and gas activity on terrestrial systems appears to have been from changes to the environment caused by increasing infrastructure such as roads, airstrips, expanded communities, and in general increased human activity in the form of truck travel, airplanes and helicopters and shipping.” A more specific analysis of oil and gas activity in Alaska (NAS 2003) concluded that the current major effects of oil and gas activity in Alaska is changes to caribou and other species distribution, physical changes to habitats and that dust, noise and impacts on permafrost and surface hydrology extend the influence of structures beyond their physical footprint. These conclusions will also apply to oil activities in Jameson Land, although muskoxen rather than caribou would be affected.

The AMAP Oil and Gas Assessment (AMAP 2010) also states that: In some areas of the Arctic, oil companies have developed new methods to reduce the impact of oil- and gas field practices. Conducting seismic and construction work in the winter, reducing the size of pads for wells, reduction or elimination of sumps, and restricting the travel of personnel have reduced the amount of changes caused by each project. Such methods shall at least be applied as a part of the Best Available Technique and Best Environmental Practice principles if oil activities are initiated in Jameson Land

Finally, the impacts of oil spills should not be neglected, just because the dispersal of oil in terrestrial environments usually will be limited. The experience from the pipeline ruptures in the Komi-republic in 1994, clearly showed that large areas may be affected, and especially if the oil hits freshwater courses.

Conclusions on mining activities

Exploration for minerals does not have the same potential to cause extensive environmental impacts like exploration for hydrocarbons (especially the seismic surveys). The wide ranging activities are short-term and when an ore body is to be studied, the activities will be restricted in space and limited to physical impacts and disturbance of wildlife.

Exploitation – mining – on the other hand will last for decades, and impacts may last much beyond the active mining phase. The physical impacts may include landscape scaring, vegetation disruption/removal and damage on permafrost and it would also disturb and displace wildlife. In this respect the most sensitive ecological elements would be the mukoxen, the geese and localised vulnerable habitats, and there may be a risk of effects at population level if no mitigative measures are taken.

Cumulative effects may be expected, especially if other mining or petroleum activities are going on in Jameson Land. They would include landscape scaring and especially disturbance of the most sensitive elements such as musk-oxen and geese. These may be excluded from habitats (increasing effect with expanding activities), some of which could be critical to the populations.

Moreover, a large mine would contribute considerably to the Greenland emissions of greenhouse gasses.

However, the potentially most severe impacts may be from pollution of the adjacent environment with metals and pollutants from the mined minerals and from the chemicals used in the processes. The primary sources would be dust and drainage from tailings and waste rock. However, such environmental impacts can to a large degree be mitigated, for example by designing deposits based on detailed knowledge on chemical processes, drainage patterns, permafrost, hydrography and sedimentation and by proper monitoring.

In case of accidents, the most severe impacts would be from unplanned release of tailings and waste rock, depending on the composition of the minerals and the chemicals added during the concentration processes.

Prevention is the best way to mitigate environmental impacts form mining activities in Jameson Land. Prevention includes smart design and solutions, applying the principles of Best Environmental Practice and Best Available Techniques and by thorough planning including up-to-date background knowledge of the surrounding environment including the waste rock composition.

In the future, detailed, regional Strategic Environmental Impact Assessments (SEIAs) of mining activities would be a valuable planning tool, making the basic spatial biodiversity information as well as information on physical, geochemical and biological processes available to the industry. Such information is needed for selecting the most efficient and environmentally best solutions in a specific mining project, and will be the foundation for environmentally safe and timely regulation of mining activities. Based on these SEIAs the industry would be able to provide better project specific EIAs, resulting in less uncertainty about environmental impacts.

Sensitive areas in Jameson Land

Based on the information presented in Chapter 3, a map of the biologically most sensitive areas of Jameson Land has been prepared (Figure 16). The designated areas are almost similar to the areas designated as Ramsar-areas and the “areas important to wildlife” (Figures 14 and 15). There may very well be more sensitive areas, which will be revealed for example when new background studies are carried out.

Knowledge needs

The biological environment of Jameson Land is well studied by background studies carried out in relation to oil exploration in the area in the 1990s and to some more recent mining projects. This means that for many environmental elements the knowledge base is more or less up to date. But especially the muskoxen population needs new studies, as this population has not been surveyed since the mid-1980s, and a prelimar study in 2000 indicated that distribution patterns apparently have changed. There is also a need for better information on the muskoxens habitat preferences during the annual cycle.

Chapter 8 gives a more detailed account of knowledge needs including both area specific and needs generics also to the Arctic