Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

No. 218: An updated strategic Environmental Impact Assessment of petroleum activities in the Greenland part of Baffin Bay

Boertmann, D. & Mosbech, A. (eds.) 2017. Baffin Bay. An updated strategic Environmental Impact Assessment of petroleum activities in the Greenland part of Baffin Bay. – Scientific Report from DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy No. 218. http://dce2.au.dk/pub/SR218.pdf


Summary and conclusions

The Greenland part of Baffin Bay between 71° N and 78° N (Figure 1) was opened for petroleum exploration in 2010 and seven licenses were granted by the Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum (BMP). A preliminary strategic environmental impact assessment (SEIA) of activities related to oil exploration and exploitation was published in 2009 before the area was opened (Boertmann et al. 2009). This preliminary SEIA was updated with new information obtained from environmental studies carried out by the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and Aarhus University in 2011 (Boertmann & Mosbech 2011), and now, with the present report, the SEIA is updated again based on data from a strategic environmental study program carried out in the years 2011-2014.

The report is written by DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy – and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (GINR).

The assessment area is shown in Figure 1. This is the region that potentially could be impacted by a large oil spill deriving from activities within the license areas, although oil could drift beyond the borders of this area. The area to the south of the assessment area is covered by another SEIA of hydrocarbon activities in the Disko West license area (Boertmann et al. 2013).

The environment

The physical conditions of the study area are briefly described focusing on oceanography and ice conditions, i.e. presence of icebergs and sea ice in winter and spring. One of the most important features within an environmental context is the large polynya between Greenland and Ellesmere Island in Smith Sound. This is named the North Water Polynya, and is an area where the winter ice is sparse and where open waters occur early in spring, facilitating a very early start of the primary production.

The study area is situated within the Arctic region, with all the typical biological properties of this climatic region: a relatively simple food web from primary producers to top predators and with a few species playing a key role in the ecology of the region. The most significant ecological event in the marine environment is the spring bloom of planktonic algae, the primary producers in the food web. These are grazed upon by copepods, including the Calanus-species, which constitute important key species in the food web in the assessment area.

Benthos is the fauna living on and in the seabed. Benthic macrofauna species are an important component of coastal and offshore ecosystems. The benthos consume a significant fraction of the available production and are, in turn, an important food source for fish, seabirds and mammals.

The macroalgae are found along shorelines attached to hard and stable substrate, and may occur at a depth of more than 50 m. Biomass and production of littoral and sub-littoral macroalgae can be significant and are important for the higher trophic levels of the food web.

In and on the underside of the sea ice a specialised ecosystem exists: the sympagic flora and fauna. Algae living in and on the ice are grazed by small crustaceans, which sustain populations of polar cod which again are important food to ringed seals and seabirds.

Fish, seabirds, marine mammals and humans represent the higher trophic levels in the marine environment where polar bear and man are the top predators.

Seabirds are abundant with several species present in the study area. Many species breed in dense colonies along the coasts, seaducks assemble in certain fjords and bays to moult, and millions of seabirds migrate through the area on their passage between breeding sites within the assessment area and in Arctic Canada and their winter grounds primarily off Newfoundland. Some of the most important and numerous species are common eider, thick-billed murre and little auk.

Thick-billed murre, common eider, black-legged kittiwake and ivory gull are all threatened (red-listed) in Greenland due to declining, or in case of the common eider, previously declining populations. Furthermore, some of these species are designated as species of national responsibility (which means that the population in Greenland is so large that the local management of the species is vital to the global population), for instance the little auk.

Marine mammals are significant components of the ecosystem. Four species of seals, walrus, several species of whales and polar bear occur in the assessment area. The area is particularly important for marine mammals in winter because vulnerable species such as narwhal, white whale (beluga), bowhead whale, walrus and polar bear occur in significant numbers.

Polar bear, walrus, bowhead whale, white whale and narwhal are all threatened (red-listed) because their populations have been reduced by present or past hunting or are expected to decline due to climate change (especially polar bear).

Important areas and biological hotspots have been identified. Among these is the North Water Polynya where large seabird breeding colonies are found on the coasts and marine mammals occur in high numbers both summer and winter.

Melville Bay is very important for narwhals, as a discrete stock spend the summer here.

The coasts of the Upernavik district are very important for breeding seabirds (several significant breeding colonies) and for migrating marine mammals, especially narwhal and white whale.

In the southwestern part of the assessment area, there is an important wintering area for narwhals.

All these areas are designated as ‘ecologically valuable and sensitive marine areas’ (Christensen et al. 2012) and they are designated as ‘Arctic marine areas of heightened ecological and cultural significance’ (AMAP/CAFF/SDWG 2013).

The living resources of the assessment area are utilised by the local human population. Commercial fisheries are aimed at northern shrimp and Greenland halibut, and the products of these activities (also from other parts of Greenland) constitute the most important export commodities from Greenland. Subsistence hunting and fishery are targeted at many species of marine mammals, seabirds and fish. The coastal zone of the region is very important for these activities.

Tourism is a growing industry in Greenland and now counts as the country’s third largest economic activity. The number of guests visiting the assessment area is small but increasing. The coastal marine areas are an important asset for the tourist activities.

Knowledge of background levels of contaminants such as hydrocarbons and heavy metals is important for the assessment of the sensitivity and environmental impacts from petroleum activities and the current situation is described.

Owing to long-range transport into the Arctic, the levels of certain contaminants, i.e. organochlorines, are high in Greenland, particularly at the higher trophic level (for example whales, polar bears). In addition, new persistent pollutants, such as brominated flame retardants and perflouronated chemicals, have now appeared. Levels of petroleum compounds, including PAHs, are relatively low and are regarded as background concentrations, except in polluted areas such as harbours where higher levels can be found. The present knowledge concerning the relationship between contaminant loads and biological impact, including sub-lethal health effects or impairments of biota, is still limited.

Climate change will have profound impacts on the ecosystems and their components in the Arctic, including the assessment area. Changes in the distribution of species are to be expected, such as northward displacement of true Arctic species and species from temperate regions becoming more abundant. Alterations in the distribution and abundance of key species at various trophic levels could for example have significant and rapid consequences for the structure of the ecosystems with implications for its functioning but also for fisheries and hunting. For some species and populations, climate change may act as an additional stressor in relation to existing impacting factors, leading to higher sensitivity to oil spill incidents. Another threat from climate change is the risk of introducing alien and invasive species by ship fouling and ballast water. The Greenland waters have so far largely been spared, but increasing water temperatures will increase the threat.


The assessment presented here is based on our present knowledge of the abundance and distribution of species and their tolerance and threshold levels toward human activities in relation to oil exploration and production. However, since the Arctic is changing due to climate change, conclusions and assessments may need to be adjusted in the future.

Normal operations – exploration

Exploration activities are temporary, probably lasting some years, and involve different license areas. They will, in the assessment area, take place during the ice free seasons, i.e. summer and autumn. Seismic surveys have been conducted until October, and exploration drilling probably has to be terminated by the end of September to provide an ice free window for relief drilling before sea ice arrives.

If no commercial discoveries are made, activities will terminate and all installations be removed. If oil or gas is found, and appraisal shows it to be economically feasible to exploit, activities will proceed until the field is emptied for recoverable oil and this may last several decades.

During exploration, the main environmental impacts derive from 1) noise generated either by seismic surveys or the drilling platforms and 2) from releases to the sea and the atmosphere, primarily cuttings, drilling mud and greenhouse gases.

Seismic surveys

Noise from a seismic survey has the potential to scare adult fish away from fishing grounds, but this effect is temporary and normal conditions will re-establish after some days or weeks after the end of the seismic survey, the time period depending on fish species. Fishery may be affected negatively by seismic surveys, and the fisheries at risk in the assessment area are those of Greenland halibut and northern shrimp. The halibut fishery takes place in inshore areas far from the license blocks and no impacts are expected on that fishery. Shrimp fisheries are not known to be impacted by seismic surveys, and it is not likely that the fishery inside the assessment area will be reduced if seismic surveys overlap with the fishing grounds.

It is well known that seismic noise can scare away marine mammals and the most sensitive species in the Baffin Bay assessment area are bowhead whales, narwhals, white whales and walrus. Walruses do usually not occur when seismic surveys take place. White whales will primarily overlap with the seismic season in late autumn when they migrate through the assessment area. Bowhead whales are most frequent in spring because their main migratory pathway in autumn is along the Canadian coast. Therefore, impacts on the populations of these species from seismic surveys in the license-blocks will most likely be small or can, in the case of white whale migration, be mitigated. However, if aided by icebreakers, seismic surveys potentially may occur in areas where especially white whale and walrus are present.

The situation for the narwhal is considerably different as a discrete stock spends the summer in Melville Bay (Box 13). This stock is particularly exposed to seismic surveys in the northern Baffin Bay (where the active license blocks are situated), both during their summer stay near the coast and glaciers and during their autumn migration through the assessment area. Concern for displacement of narwhal migration routes and timing has been expressed, especially because some unusual ice-entrapments occurred in 2008-2010 in Baffin Bay (Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2013d) following summers with seismic activity.

Other species, such as fin, blue, humpback and especially minke whale, may also be displaced from important habitats, but the significance of the assessment area for these species is generally low and no concentrations are known, so impacts on these populations probably will be small or insignificant.

As seismic surveys are temporary, the risk for long-term population impacts from single surveys is low. Yet, long-term impacts have to be assessed if several surveys are carried out simultaneously or in the same potentially critical habitats in consecutive years (cumulative effects).

Other noise

Noise from drilling rigs is continuous, and the most vulnerable species in the assessment area are narwhal, white whale, bowhead whale and walrus. There is a risk for displacement of these species from important habitats and hunting grounds. The temporal overlap between most of these species and exploration drilling will, however, be short and restricted to late autumn, and the degree of impacts will depend on the amount of exploration activities going on.

Again, the narwhals, occurring in the Melville Bay in summer, will be more at risk for impacts from the continuous noise from a drilling platform and the associated ship traffic.

Discharges and emissions

During drilling operations, drilling mud (if water based) and cuttings will be released to the seabed, resulting in local impacts on the benthic fauna. Strict regulation based on specific toxicity tests of the mud chemicals and monitoring of effects on the sites is essential to mitigate impacts. Chemicals to be released in the Greenland environment must comply with OSPAR (HOCNF) standards for low or no harm to the environment. However, knowledge of degradation and toxicity of even the environmentally safe chemicals under Arctic conditions is very limited, so use and discharge should be thoroughly monitored and evaluated, including further testing of degradation and toxicity.

Oil-based (OBM) mud may be used, but only under strict regulation in order to prevent any release to the environment. The use of OBMs can contribute to reduce environmental impacts on the seabed, as these muds have to be transported to land for proper treatment or be reinjected.

During exploration drilling, there is a risk of oil spills (see below).

Moreover, exploration drilling is an energy demanding process emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases. The drilling of three wells in West Greenland in 2010 increased the Greenland greenhouse gas contribution that year by 15%.

Normal operations – development and production

Development and production activities are difficult to evaluate when their location and the level of activity are unknown. Overall, impacts will depend on the number of activities, how far they are scattered, and also on their duration. In this context, cumulative impacts will be important to consider. The activities during development, production and transport are long-lasting, and there are several activities having the potential to cause severe environmental impacts.

Emissions and discharges

Drilling activities will continue during development and production phases, and drilling mud and cuttings will be produced in much larger quantities than during exploration (see above).

The release of produced water gives reason for environmental concern. Recent studies have indicated that the content of oil can impact fish far from the release site, and there is also evidence of effects on several of the other marine ecosystem components. If produced water is released under ice, sensitive communities and polar cod eggs and larvae will be exposed. The best way to mitigate these effects is to prohibit discharge (i.e. the produced water must be reinjected into old well bores) or alternatively to completely clean the water before release.

There could be a risk of release of non-native and invasive species from ballast water and ship hulls, and this risk will increase with the effects of climate change. Thus, ballast water management following international standards has to be in place.

Emissions from production activities to the atmosphere are substantial and will contribute significantly to the Greenland contribution of greenhouse gases.


Noise caused by the drilling activities, ship and helicopter traffic can affect marine mammals and seabirds. The most sensitive species are the colonial seabirds, bowhead whales, narwhals, white whales and walruses. There is a risk of permanent displacement of populations from critical habitats and thus for negative population effects.

If hunted populations are displaced, their availability to hunters may change.

Placement of structures

Placement of structures has both biological and aesthetic impacts. The biological impacts mainly include permanent displacement from critical habitats – walrus being the most sensitive in the assessment area. Aesthetic impacts primarily include impacts on the pristine onshore landscape, which again may have an impact on the local tourist industry.

The commercial fishery may be affected by closure zones if rigs, pipelines and other installations are placed in the Greenland halibut fishing grounds.

Cumulative impacts

There is a risk of cumulative impacts in case several activities occur simultaneously or consecutively. Seismic surveys, for example, have a high potential to exert cumulative impacts, in particular on marine mammals. Cumulative impacts may also occur in combination with other human activities, such as fishery and hunting.

Mitigation of environmental impacts from normal operations

The best way of mitigating impacts from development and production activities is to combine a detailed background study of the environment (in order to locate sensitive ecosystem components) with careful planning of structure placement and transport corridors. Application of BEP, BAT and international standards (for example OSPAR (HOCNF)) and guidelines (for example Arctic Council) can contribute to reduce emissions to air and the sea. Furthermore, a discharge policy, as for example planned for the Barents Sea, will contribute substantially to minimise impacts.

Accidents – oil spills

The accident due to the activities described above with the most severe environmental consequences is a large oil spill. Such oil spills may occur either during drilling (blowouts) or from storing or transport of oil.

Nowadays, large oil spills are rare due to the technical progress and the improving HSE policies. However, the risk cannot be eliminated and in an area with the presence of sea ice and icebergs, such as Baffin Bay, the probability of an accident is increased.

Large oil spills have the potential to impact the marine ecosystem on all levels, from primary production to the top predators. A large oil spill represents a threat at population level (AMAP 2010), and the impacts may last for more than 20 years as documented in Prince William Sound in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Oil spills have the potential to drift with winds and currents and impact shores and waters far from the spill site. In case of a spill from a well in one of the licence blocks in the assessment area, coast and waters not only in Greenland  but also in Canada will be threatened.

Effects of an oil spill may also be intensified because of the much more difficult operating conditions for an oil spill response in the Arctic. Only 14% of the oil was recovered/burnt off during the Exxon Valdez oil spill and 25% during and after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The ice is one major obstacle, the lack of infrastructure is another and the winter darkness is a third major factor contributing to reduce the efficiency of an oil spill response in the Baffin Bay.

Recovery lasted more than 20 years in Prince William Sound. It will take much longer time in the Baffin Bay assessment area due to the Arctic conditions, and the more difficult and limited ways to clean up spilled oil there – with the risk of leaving much more oil in the environemnt – will also contribute to longer effects.

Primary production and plankton

It is expected that a surface oil spill in open waters far from the coast of the assessment area will have only low impacts on primary production due to the large temporal and spatial variation of the primary production. Localised high primary production may be reduced; however overall production will probably not be significantly impacted due to the large areas where the primary production takes place.

The same may be true for localised concentrations of plankton and fish/shrimp larvae if they occur in the uppermost part of the water column. However, on a broad scale, no or only minor effects are expected on these ecosystem components.

If subsea plumes of dispersed oil are generated in the Baffin Bay area, as observed during the Deepwater Horizon-blowout, impacts on primary production, zooplankton and fish/shrimp larvae in the water column are more likely to occur compared with the surface spill situation.

Impacts on the seabed

Bottom-living organisms such as bivalves, crustaceans or fish are vulnerable to oil spills; however, no effects are expected in the open sea unless the oil sinks to the seabed. In shallow waters (< 10-15 m), highly toxic concentrations of hydrocarbons can reach the seafloor with possible severe consequences for local benthos and thus also for species utilising the benthos – especially walrus, eider and king eider. Again, a subsea spill with the size and properties of the spill from the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Mexican Gulf, which produced large subsurface plumes of dispersed oil, holds the potential also to impact the seabed communities in deep waters.

Impacts on fish

A surface spill is not expected to impact adult fish stocks in the open sea. Adult fish will avoid the oil, but very small oil concentrations may lead to tainting, rendering such oil-exposed fish impossible to sell. An oil spill in ice-covered waters may pose a risk to populations of polar cod, an ecological key species. Any significant impacts on polar cod stocks may be transferred up in the food web (to other fish, seabirds and marine mammals). Another exception is a subsea spill, which could impact the fish both directly or through the food. Greenland halibut will also be exposed in both ways because they move up in the pelagic waters to feed.

In coastal areas, fish stocks may be impacted from oil spills, and here especially stocks of capelin, lumpsucker and Arctic char are at risk. Capelin and lumpsucker can be exposed when they spawn in the tidal zone or in shallow waters right off the coast and Arctic char when they migrate to and from the river where they spawn and winter.

Impacts on seabirds

In the open sea, seabirds are usually more dispersed than in coastal habitats. However, in the assessment area there are some very concentrated and recurrent seabird occurrences for example in polynyas and in the shear zone. Post breeding concentrations of staging birds (such as thick-billed murres, Box 5) may also be vulnerable. Such concentrations of seabirds are extremely sensitive to oil spills and population effects may occur in case of oil in one of these habitats. The most important concentrations are the breeding thick-billed murres, the breeding little auks and migrating thick-billed murres (especially those on swimming migration). Migrating little auks may avoid the most oil polluted areas because they quickly move to the Canadian side of Baffin Bay. There are many other breeding concentrations of seabirds inside the assessment area, and some of the populations of less common species (such as Atlantic puffin) are very vulnerable to oil spills.

Several nationally red-listed (threatened) species occur in the marine environment and populations of these will be exposed to potential oil spills in the assessment area. The little auk is not red-listed, but it is a national responsibility species in Greenland, because a vast majority of the world population is found within the assessment area. A major oil spill could seriously affect the viability of this population.

Impacts on marine mammals

Among the marine mammals, the polar bear is most sensitive to oiling, and several individuals may become fouled with oil in case of a large oil spill in the marginal ice zone. The impact of an oil spill may add to the general decrease expected for the polar bear population (therefore listed as threatened both nationally and internationally) as a consequence of reduced ice cover (global warming) and long-term over-exploitation.

Whales, seals and walruses are also vulnerable to oil spills, particularly if they have to surface in oil slicks. Baleen whales may get their baleens smothered with oil and ingest oil. The extent to which marine mammals will activily avoid an oil slick and how harmful the oil will be to fouled individuals is not known, but whales have been observed moving directly into oil spills.

Whales and seals are sensitive to inhaling oil vapours, and particularly narwhals, white whales, bowhead whales, walrus, ringed seal and bearded seal could be vulnerable during an oil spill in winter when the availability of open waters is limited by the sea ice. There is also a risk of indirect impacts on walrus and bearded seal populations through contamination of benthic fauna, especially at shallow (< 10-15 m) feeding grounds where oil may reach the seafloor.

Impacts on fisheries and hunting

An oil spill in the open sea will affect fisheries mainly via temporary closure in order to avoid contamination of catches. The duration of the closure will depend on the duration of the oil spill, weather conditions, etc. Even though the offshore fisheries for Greenland halibut within the assessment area are small (compared with other Greenland fisheries for this species), a closure zone will probably extend further south and cover a much larger area, including both Greenland and Canadian fishing grounds.

Oiled coastal areas would also be closed for fisheries for a period. There are examples of closure for many months due to oil spills, particularly if oil is caught in sediments or on beaches. The inshore fishery for Greenland halibut within the assessment area is important on a national scale, and a closure of these fishing areas will have significant economic consequences.

Hunting in oil spill-impacted areas can be affected by closure zones and by changed distribution patterns of quarry species.

Impacts on tourism

The tourist industry in the assessment area will also experience negative effects from a large oil spill.

Oil in ice

Another especially vulnerable feature is ice-covered waters. Spilled oil will be contained between the ice floes and on the rough underside of the ice. In this case, oil may be transported in an almost un-weathered state over long ranges and may impact the environment, for example seabirds and marine mammals, far from the spill site when the ice melts. Oil may also be caught along ice edges and in the shear zone where sensitive species and ecosystem elements, such as primary production, zooplankton, polar cod, seabirds and marine mammals, aggregate. Particular concern has been expressed for polar cod stocks. This fish spawns in late winter, and the eggs accumulate just below the ice where spilled oil will also accumulate.

Long-term impacts

If an oil spill reaches the coasts of the Baffin Bay assessment area, long-term effects of residual oil buried in the beach sediments must be expected, as described for Prince William Sound.


Oil spills should be prevented and avoided by high HSE levels, knowledge of the risks and by applying the BAT and BEP principles throughout the operations. If a spill occurs, efficient contingency plans must be in place, including access to adequate equipment and oil spill sensitivity maps identifying the most sensitive areas. However, there are still no effective methods for an oil spill response under winter conditions in a region such as the Baffin Bay assessment area.

In conclusion

The coastal zone of the assessment area is particularly sensitive because of its high biodiversity, including concentrations of breeding and moulting seabirds. The high sensitivity is also related to the fact that oil may become trapped in bays and fjords where high and toxic concentrations can build up in the water column and impact both seabed fauna and organisms in the water column, e.g. fish assembling at spawning sites. Local fishermen and hunters use the coastal zone of the assessment area intensively and an oil spill will threaten their livelihood. Finally, the experience from Prince William Sound in Alaska shows that long-term impacts occurred in the coastal zone where oil was buried and preserved in certain environments .

Information needs

Since the first edition of this SEIA, a program for high priority background supplementary studies was carried out: Eastern Baffin Bay Strategic Environmental Studies Program 2011-2014 (see Section 11). The aim of this program was to fill major information gaps at the overall strategic level, and it focused on information needed as a baseline and for planning and regulatory purposes. The results (or preliminary results) are included in the present document.

However, many more topics have to be covered to provide adequate data for operational purposes, and a number of studies – both of local character, but some also with a more general Arctic outreach – are proposed in Section 12. Moreover is it proposed, in case it is decided to develop and exploit oil in the assessment area, to develop an integrated monitoring plan to support ecosystem based management of the activities. Such monitoring requires the establishment of an ecological baseline.