Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

No. 9: Eastern Baffin Bay - A strategic environmental impact assessment of hydrocarbon activities

Boertmann, D. & Mosbech, A. (eds.) 2011. Eastern Baffin Bay - A strategic environmental impact assessment of hydrocarbon activities.  Aarhus University, DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, 270 pp. - Scientific Report from DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy no. 9. http://www2.dmu.dk/Pub/SR9.pdf

Summary and conclusions

This document is a Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA) of activities related to exploration, development and exploitation of hydrocarbons in the Baffin Bay off Northwest Greenland between 71° and 78° N. The area was opened for licence applications in 2010 and seven licenses were granted in December 2010.

A preliminary version of this document (Boertmann et al. 2009) was issued in 2009, and contributed in combination with descriptions on the environmental conditions in the specific licence blocks to the political decision process. This is now updated with new information primarily derived from the background study programme initiated by Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum.

The SEIA was prepared by the Danish Centre for Environment and Energy (formerly known as National Environmental Research Institute) and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

The assessment area is shown in Figure 1. This is the region which potentially could be impacted by a large oil spill deriving from activities within the expected licence areas, although drift modelling indicates that oil may drift beyond the borders of this area.

The expected activities in the ‘full life cycle’ of a petroleum field are briefly described. Exploration activities are likely to take place during summer and autumn, because harsh weather and particularly sea ice hamper activities in winter and spring. However, if oil production is initiated activities will take place throughout the year.

The environment

The physical conditions of the study area are briefly described with focus on oceanography and ice conditions. Sea ice and icebergs are present throughout the year, with the lightest conditions in the period June-November. One of the most important physical features of the biological environment is the polynyas (ice-free or almost ice-free areas surrounded by sea ice), of which the most important is the North Water between the Qaanaaq area and Ellesmere Island in Canada. Polynyas become free of ice very early in spring (April) and also have ice-free parts throughout the winter, and particularly the North Water is an important winter habitat for marine mammals and spring and summer habitat for seabirds. Another important feature is the shear zone between the dynamic drift ice and the coastal fast ice. Here open water often occurs in winter.

The study area is situated within the Arctic region, with all the typical biological properties of this climatic region: low biodiversity but often numerous and dense animal populations; 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 (Figure 10). 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 zooplankton, including the important copepods Calanus, which is one of the key species groups in the marine ecosystem (Figure 10).

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

Northern shrimp is found in the southern part of the assessment area and commercial fishery takes place on this stock.

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

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

The fish fauna is low in diversity, but some species are very important in the food web. The polar cod is very numerous and usually associated with the ice, and it constitutes a major food resource for seals, whales and seabirds, why it is another key species in the marine ecosystem. The bottom dwelling Greenland halibut is also important. It is very abundant and widely distributed in the deeper parts of the assessment area. Greenland halibut is a major food resource for narwhals. The Arctic char is an important species in the coastal waters.

Seabirds are locally abundant with several species present in the study area in summer and spring. Many species breed in dense colonies, mainly close to the polynyas, where dense aggregations of birds can be found as early as May. In spring and autumn millions of seabirds migrate through the area on their passage between breeding sites in Northwest Greenland and Arctic Canada and winter grounds off Southwest Greenland and Newfoundland. Some of the most important species are northern fulmar, common eider, thick-billed murre, little auk, black-legged kittiwake and ivory gull (Table 3). Almost all the marine birds leave the area for the winter to return in April and May. Thick-billed murre, common eider, black-legged kittiwake and ivory gull are all red-listed in Greenland due to declining, or in case of the common eider previously declining, populations. Other red-listed bird species which occur in the marine part of the assessment area include Sabines gull, Arctic tern and Atlantic puffin.

Furthermore, some 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). The most important of these species is the little auk, as an estimated 80?% of the global population breed on the coasts of the former Qaanaaq municipality. Other national responsibility species are black guillemot and light-bellied brent goose.

Marine mammals are significant components of the marine ecosystem. Four species of seals as well as walrus, many species of whales and polar bear occur in the assessment area. The most important species are narwhal, white whale, bowhead whale, walrus, ringed seal, bearded seal and polar bear (Table 3). They are often associated with ice edges, polynyas or shear zones.

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

Human use of natural resources occurs throughout the assessment area, except for the most offshore parts. Subsistence hunting (marine mammals and seabirds) and subsistence fishery takes place mainly in the inshore waters near the towns and settlements, while some species are hunted during long trips by means of boat or dog sledge for example in the Melville Bay.

Commercial fishery takes place in the southern part of the assessment area and is aimed at Greenland halibut and northern shrimp. The catches of these species in offshore waters in the assessment area constitute a small proportion of the total Greenlandic catch, while the inshore fishery of Greenland halibut in the former Uummannaq and Upernavik municipalities is significant.

Tourism is a relatively new and growing industry in Greenland and this is also the case in the assessment area, where activities take place from early spring (April) and throughout the summer.

Knowledge on background levels of contaminants such as hydrocarbons and heavy metals is important for future monitoring of and in assessing environmental impacts from petroleum activities. The available knowledge on background levels of hydrocarbons in the assessment area is limited, but the general picture is that levels are low.

Climate change will have profound impacts on the ecosystems and their components in the Arctic, and it will act on populations in combination with the human induced stressors such as oil spill, contaminants and hunting. Most true Arctic species populations such as polar bears, ivory gulls and little auks, will most likely suffer from the climate changes and by that become much more sensitive to the other human induced stressors. This fact makes it important to consider all the stressors in combination when assessing potential impacts of especially major oil spills in the future.


The assessments presented here are based on our present knowledge concerning the distribution of species and their tolerance and threshold levels toward human activities in relation to oil exploration. However, as pointed out previously, the Arctic is changing due to climate change, and this process seems to accelerate, why conclusions and assessments may not apply to future conditions. Furthermore, the current assessment area is remote and still poorly studied and an increase in knowledge also may contribute to adjustment of assessments and conclusions.

Presently, we do not know much about the adaptation capacity of some important species in the assessment area and how their sensitivity to human impacts might change under changing environmental conditions. Changes in habitat availability, e.g. due to reduced ice coverage, are to be expected, with consequences for the local fauna. This, as well as increased temperatures will affect the distribution patterns of relevant species, with consequences for the food web. Northward range expansion of fish targeted by commercial fisheries could for example result in increased fishing activities in the assessment area.

Normal operations – exploration

Exploration activities are temporary. They last for some years and will be spread throughout the license areas. They moreover take place during the ice free seasons – the summer and autumn. Seismic and site surveys have in recent years been conducted as late as November. Exploration drilling shall be terminated in the Eastern Baffin Bay area by 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 equipment be removed. If oil or gas is found, and appraisal shows it to economically feasible to exploit, activities will proceed for many years.

The main environmental impacts of exploration activities derive from noise generated either by seismic surveys or by the drilling platforms and from the drilling process if cuttings and drilling mud are released to the sea.

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 seismic survey, time mainly depending on fish species. It is assessed that potential impacts of seismic activity on the commercially utilised Greenland halibut populations will be low and temporary and that shrimp distribution (and fisheries) will not be affected by seismic activities.

It is also assessed that effects from a seismic survey on fish larvae and eggs will be very low due to the low concentrations in the assessment area, and consequently no effects will be expected on recruitment to adult fish stocks.

It is well known that seismic noise can scare away marine mammals, but it is expected that the effect of a single seismic survey is temporary and that seals and whales will return when a seismic survey have terminated. If displacement from traditional hunting grounds occurs, a temporary reduction in hunting yield must be expected.

Drilling operations also have the potential to displace marine mammals. Migrating bowhead whales avoided an area of 10 km from drill ships in Alaska (Richardson et al. 1990). Therefore and depending on the location in the assessment area, displacement of migrating and staging whales must be expected. The main species concerned are narwhal, white whale and bowhead whale during autumn, winter and spring, but also narwhal (in the Melville Bay) and rorquals during summer can be impacted. Walrus and bearded seals may also be displaced from areas where drilling activity takes place. There is therefore a risk of displacing populations from critical feeding grounds and also a risk for reduced availability of quarry species for local hunters.

Stronger impacts are expected if several seismic surveys or drillings take place in adjacent areas or in the same area in consecutive years (cumulative impacts).

Drilling mud and cuttings will be released on the seabed, with local impacts on the benthic fauna as a consequence. During exploration, when wells are few and dispersed, this impact can be minimal if proper mitigation is applied. This may include release of environmental safe chemicals only, such as defined by the OSPAR standards. However, the knowledge on degradation and toxicity of even the environmentally safe chemicals under Arctic conditions is very limited, why use and discharge should be thoroughly evaluated, including further testing of degradation and toxicity.

Exploration drilling is an energy demanding process emitting large amounts of greenhouse gasses. The drilling of three wells in 2010 increased the Greenland contribution by 15?%.

Finally will there be a risk for oil spills during exploration drilling. Effects are assessed below in Section 11.

Environmental impacts from exploration activities are best mitigated by careful planning based on thorough environmental background studies, Best Environmental Practice (BEP) and Best Available Technique (BAT) and application of the Precautionary Principle and international standards (OSPAR). For example, activities should be avoided in the most sensitive areas and in the most sensitive periods.

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 in the areas in question, and also on their durability. 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 which have the potential to cause severe environmental impacts.

Emissions and discharges

The largest contribution to pollution from an oil field is expected to be the discharge of produced water (if not re-injected or brought to land). This contains, besides oil residues, small amounts of substances which are acutely toxic or radioactive, contain heavy metals, have hormone-disruptive effects or a nutrient effect. Some of the substances may bio-accumulate, although long-term effects of release of produced water are limited. There is, however, an increasing concern about the environmental impacts of produced water. Particularly if it is released under ice, with limited turbulence in the surface layer, increased impacts could occur for example on polar cod eggs which accumulate here. The most obvious way to mitigate effects of produced water is better cleaning before discharge or even better to re-inject it into the wells.

Also discharge of ballast water is of concern because of risk of introducing non-native and invasive species. This is currently not a severe problem in the Arctic, but the risk will increase with climate change and the intensive tanker traffic associated with a producing oil field. However, this problem may be mitigated when the IMO convention on ballast water is ratified.

Use of drilling mud and cuttings will continue as drillings will take place throughout most of the production time. Large amounts of the waste products will therefore have to be disposed of. If released to the seabed stronger impacts on fauna must be expected than during exploration because of the larger quantities released

Development of an oil field and production of oil are energy-consuming activities which will contribute significantly to the Greenland emission of greenhouse gases. A single large Norwegian production field emits more than twice the current total Greenland CO2 emission.


Drilling will continue throughout the development and production phase. Just as with exploration drilling there will be a risk of displacement of marine mammals from critical habitats. However, during operation the effects are permanent (or at least long term). Walrus and whales, particularly narwhal, white whale and bowhead whale are sensitive in this respect and may be permanently scared away from specific habitats. This could also impact hunters if quarry species are scared away from traditional hunting grounds.

Intensive helicopter flying also has the potential to displace seabirds and marine mammals from habitats (e.g. feeding grounds important for winter survival) as well as traditional hunting grounds, impacting on local people. Applying fixed flying lanes and altitudes will reduce impacts.

Placement of structures

Placement of offshore structures and infrastructure may locally impact seabed communities and there is a risk of spoiling important feeding grounds particularly for walrus and king eider. Structures may in certain areas limit access to critical habitats and walrus is probably the most sensitive species in this respect, because the population is dependent on relatively few and localised benthic feeding areas.

Inland structures primarily have aesthetical impacts on landscapes, but there is also a risk for obstruction of rivers with implications for anadromous Arctic char and of damage to coastal flora and fauna.

A specific impact on fisheries is the exclusion/safety zones (typically 500 m) which will be established around both temporary and permanent offshore installations. These will constitute a problem in areas where fishery for Greenland halibut and northern shrimp takes place.

Illuminated structures and the flame from flaring may attract seabirds in the dark hours, and there is a risk of mass mortality on especially eiders and perhaps little auks.

There is also a risk for impacting the tourism industry in the assessment area, as large and obvious industrial installations and activities will compromise the impression of unspoilt Arctic wilderness, which is the main asset to tourist operators.

Cumulative impacts

There will be a risk of cumulative impacts when several activities takes place either simultaneously or consecutive. For example, seismic surveys have a high potential for cumulative impacts. Cumulative impacts may also occur in combination with other human activities, such as hunting, taking place in the assessment area.


Careful planning of structure placement and transport corridors based on detailed background studies localizing sensitive ecosystem components can reduce inevitable impacts, and strict Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) procedures, application of the Precautionary Principle in combination with Best Environmental Practice (BEP), Best Available Technique (BAT) and international standards (OSPAR) can do much to reduce environmental impacts. Particularly, the discharge policy, as applied in the Barents Sea (Norway), can contribute significantly to reduce impacts.


The environmentally most severe accident from the activities described above is a large oil spill. Such oil spills may occur either during drilling (blowouts) or from accidents when storing or transporting oil. Large oil spills are relatively rare events today due to ever-improving technical solutions and HSE policies. However, the risk cannot be eliminated and in a frontier area like Baffin Bay with the presence of sea ice and icebergs, the probability of an accident will be elevated.

Oil spill trajectory modelling was carried out by DMI as a part of this SEIA. In most of the modelled oil spill drift scenarios oil did not reach the coasts, but stayed offshore. However, three of the 24 scenarios indicate that under certain conditions, oil may reach shores up to several hundred kilometres from the spill site.

Large oil spills have the potential to impact on all levels in the marine ecosystem from primary production to the top predators. A large oil spill represents a threat at population and even species level (Skjoldal et al. 2007) and the impacts may last for decades as documented in Prince William Sound in Alaska. The lack of adequate response methods in ice-covered waters and the remoteness and lack of infrastructure in large parts of the assessment area will add to the severity of an oil spill.

Oil in ice

In general, oil slicks occurring in the coastal zone are more harmful and cause longer-lasting effects than oil spills staying in the open sea. This naturally applies to the assessment area, but another especially vulnerable feature is the ice covered waters. In the beginning spilled oil will be contained between the ice floes and on the rough underside of the ice. However, such oil may be transported in an almost un-weathered state over long ranges and may impact the environment, e.g. seabirds and marine mammals, far from the spill site when the ice melts. Oil may also be caught along ice edges, in polynyas and in the shear zone where sensitive ‘Valued Ecosystem Components’ (VECs) aggregate, such as primary production, seabirds and marine mammals. Particular concern have been expressed about polar cod stocks, because this fish spawns in late winter, and the eggs accumulate just below the ice where spilled oil will also accumulate.

Furthermore, knowledge on the behaviour of spilled oil in ice environments is very limited and the technology for the clean-up of oil spills in ice-covered waters is inadequate and needs to be further developed (Brandvik et al. 2010).

Oil spills on sea surface

That the impact of a surface oil spill in the assessment area on primary production, plankton and fish/shrimp larvae in open waters will be low due to the large temporal and spatial variation of these events. There is, however, a risk of impacts (reduced production) on localised primary production areas; although overall production probably will not be significantly impacted. The same may be true for potential localised concentrations of plankton and fish/shrimp larvae if they occur in the uppermost part of the water column, but on a broad scale no or only slight effects on these ecosystem components are expected. An exception to this conclusion could be polar cod, as egg concentrations may occur under the ice and these will be at risk if oil accumulates below the winter ice.

Sub sea oil spills

It is too early to assess effects of a subsea spill like the spill from the Macondo-well in the Mexican Gulf in 2010, as there is still very little information available on effects from this incident. But if subsea plumes of dispersed oil are generated in the Baffin Bay area, impacts in the water column must be expected for example on primary production, zooplankton and fish/shrimp larvae.

Impacts in the coastal zone

The coastal zone of the assessment area is particularly sensitive because of the high biodiversity present, including concentrations of breeding and moulting seabirds, spawning capelin and Arctic char. The high sensitivity is also related to the fact that oil may be trapped in bays and fjords where high and toxic concentrations can build up in the water. Furthermore, local fishermen and hunters use the coastal zone of the assessment area intensively. There will be a risk of negative impacts on spawning concentrations of capelin in spring, Arctic char assembling outside their spawning rivers and on many seabird populations both in summer and migration periods. Long-term impacts may occur in the coastal zone if oil is buried in sediments, among boulders, in mussel beds or is imbedded in crevices in rocks. From such sites oil seeps and causes a chronic pollution which may persist for decades. In Prince William Sound in Alaska such preserved oil has caused long-term effects e.g. on birds utilising the polluted coasts and several populations have still not recovered.

Impacts on the seabed

Bottom-living organisms such as bivalves and crustaceans are vulnerable to oil spills; however, no effects are expected in the open water unless 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 Macondo-well in the Mexican Gulf which produced large subsurface plumes of dispersed oil have the potential to impact the seabed communities in deep waters too.

Impacts on fish

Impacts from a surface spill on adult fish stocks in the open sea are not expected. But if an oil spill occurs in ice-covered waters there is a risk to polar cod populations. This is an ecological key species and 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. This could impact both the fish directly or through the food. Greenland halibut will also be exposed in both ways because they move up in the pelagic waters to feed.

Impacts on seabirds

In open waters, seabirds are usually more dispersed than in coastal habitats. However, in the assessment area there are some very concentrated and recurrent seabird occurrences in polynyas and in the shear zone. Post breeding concentrations of staging birds (as thick-billed murres, Box 4) 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 open-water habitats in spring. The most vulnerable species are thick-billed murre, little auk and king eider. Several nationally red-listed species occur in the marine environment and will be exposed to potential oil spills. The little auk is moreover a national responsibility species, because a vast majority of the world population is found within the assessment area, where a major oil spill could seriously affect the viability of the species.

Impacts on marine mammals

Among the marine mammals the polar bear is 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 stocks (therefore red-listed both nationally and internationally) as a consequence of reduced ice cover (global warming) and heavy hunting pressure.

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 actively will avoid an oil slick and also how harmful the oil will be to fouled individuals is poorly known. White whales, bowhead whales and walruses are especially sensitive because they all have small or declining populations. Oil spills (and disturbance) may therefore have disproportionably high impacts on these populations. These species are also listed on the Greenland Red List.

The assessment area is particularly important to many whales (e.g. narwhal, white whale, humpback whale, bowhead whale) because their main food intake takes place (on an annual basis) here, even though they only spend a limited time of their annual cycle here. Effects from oil spills (and disturbance) may therefore have disproportionably high impacts on the populations.

Recent studies indicate that whales and seals are very sensitive to inhaling oil vapours, and particularly narwhals, white whales and bowhead whales could be vulnerable during an oil spill in winter when the availability of open waters is limited by the sea ice. Walruses and other seals living in the ice may also be vulnerable in this respect.

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.

For some animal populations oil spill mortality can to some extent be compensatory, while for others it will be largely additive to natural mortality. Some populations may recover quickly while others will recover very slowly to pre-spill conditions, depending on their life strategies. A general decline in a population may be enhanced by oil spill induced mortality. For species which are vulnerable to oil spills and are also harvested, oil spill impacts could be mitigated by managing the harvest wisely and sustainably.

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

Impacts on fisheries

An oil spill in the open sea will affect fisheries mainly by means of temporary closure in order to avoid contamination of catches. Closure time will depend on the duration of the oil spill, weather, etc. Even though the offshore fisheries for Greenland halibut within the assessment area is small (compared to other Greenland fisheries for this species), a closure zone probably will extend further south and cover a much larger area, including both Greenland and Canadian fishing grounds. In this combined fishing ground approx 13,000 ton are taken annually. The reason is that Greenland halibut moves considerable distances over very short time, and contaminated fish may move out of the assessment area and be caught far from a spill site.

The northern shrimp fishery in the assessment area is small and economic consequences will be limited in case of closure. However these shrimp ground may increase in importance caused by climate change.

Oiled coastal areas would also be closed for fisheries for a period – the duration of the closure would depend on the behaviour of the oil. 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.

Impacts on tourism

The tourist industry in the assessment area will probably also be impacted negatively by a large oil spill.

Long term impacts

In case an oil spill hits the coasts, long term effect of residual oil caught in the beach sediments must be expected, as described from the Prince Williams Sound. Here oil from the Exxon Valdez spill on 1989 still is present in such habitats and still impacts the environment.

New and further studies

There is a general lack of knowledge on many of the ecological components and processes in the Baffin Bay area. To fill some of these information needs, BMP, GINR and DCE carried out a number of background studies in 2009 and 2010. The results from these studies have been incorporated in this revised and updated SEIA. See section 12.1 for a review of the projects.

However there are still information needs, and further regional strategic studies as well as project specific studies have to be carried out in order to provide adequate data for future monitoring and site-specific EIAs. A list of the most important studies identified so far is given in section 12.2. Some of these research needs are generic to the Arctic and have also been identified in the Arctic Council Oil and Gas Assessment (Skjoldal et al. 2007), and relevant studies will hopefully be initiated by cooperative international research.

A new environmental study programme will be initiated in 2011. The programme includes eleven projects which are described briefly in Section 12.3.