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No. 199: Disko Island and Nuussuaq Peninsula, West Greenland. A strategic environmental impact assessment of petroleum exploration and exploitation

Wegeberg, S. & Boertmann, D. (eds). 2016. Disko Island and Nuussuaq Peninsula, West Greenland. A strategic environmental impact assessment of petroleum exploration and exploitation. – Scientifi c Report from DCE, Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, Aarhus University No. 199, 108 pp. http://dce2.au.dk/pub/SR199.pdf 


The Environmental Agency for Mineral Resource Activities (EAMRA) of the Greenland government has commissioned DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, Aarhus University and Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (GINR) to compile a strategic environmental impact assessment (SEIA) of petroleum activities in the licence blocks of the forthcoming licensing round covering the western part of Nuussuaq Peninsula and Disko Island.

Three licence blocks cover the western part of Nuussuaq and entire Disko, and licence applications shall be submitted by 15 December 2016.

This SEIA gives an overview of the environment of the Disko/Nuussuaq area, presents important information gaps in relation to future activities in the areas and gives an assessment and risk evaluation of expected environmental impacts from petroleum exploration and exploitation activities in the three proposed licence blocks.

The assessment area covers the terrestrial parts of Disko and Nuussuaq including the coastal environment, while the waters off the assessment area are treated by a previous SEIA.

The environment

The climate of the assessment area is arctic and permafrost is widespread. The topography is dominated by alpine areas intersected by long valleys and a characteristic feature of Disko Island is the many homeothermic springs.

The most significant elements of the biological environment, in this assessment context, are the caribou of Nuussuaq (a discrete population and red listed as vulnerable (VU)), the geese (Greenland white-fronted goose) and their breeding and moulting areas, seabird breeding colonies along the coasts and Arctic char in some of the freshwater systems.

The population of white-fronted geese is endemic to Greenland; it is very small and in decrease and therefore red listed as endangered (EN). There are several areas in the assessment area, which are of international importance to this population (Ramsar sites).

The flora is very rich including several rare species. The very high biodiversity especially in the Disko area can be explained by the variation in the geology and soils, the presence of homeothermic springs and by the fact that the area is in the transition zone between the low Arctic and high Arctic and that both oceanic and continental areas are included in the area.

Some of the homeothermic springs moreover support a unique micro fauna.

The human use of the terrestrial habitats includes hunting for caribou (on Nussuaq only) and ptarmigan. In the coastal environment fisheries for lumpsucker, capelin and Arctic char are common and widespread and the local tourist industry arranges trips and hikes there.

Impact assessment

Impact of exploration activities in the Disko/Nuussuaq area

Seismic surveys typically cover large areas in an exploration phase and have the potential to cause widespread physical impacts on terrain and vegetation primarily in the form of tracks along the seismic lines. These impacts can largely be mitigated by carrying out the surveys in winter when terrain and vegetation is covered by a protective cover of snow. However, physical impacts may still occur at mobilization areas and locally along the seismic lines for example at steep slopes. The experience from winter seismic activities in Jameson Land, East Greenland in the 1980s show that even in level terrain damages occurred, and these are still visible. But careful regulation of activities will contribute to mitigate impacts, for example by ensuring that snow cover is sufficient and that transportation routes avoid steep slopes.

Disturbance from seismic surveys will mainly be local and temporal, and in the assessment area especially geese and caribou will be sensitive. By carrying out seismic surveys in winter the disturbance impacts will also be reduced, as the geese have left the area and only caribou will be exposed. Planning based on knowledge on the distribution patterns of the caribou can contribute to further reduce the disturbance impacts. As seismic activities are limited in time to a single or a few seasons, no long term impacts on the caribou population will be expected if the activities are carefully planned and regulated.

Physical impacts from exploration drilling in the assessment area will depend on the actual drill site and the season in which the drilling is carried out. Drill sites far from the coast for example will require longs access roads from a staging area on the coast. The least physical and visual impacts would be expected from winter drilling, when access roads can be constructed from snow and ice. Summer activities would cause more widespread terrain and vegetation damages, which can be very pronounced in especially moist habitats if gravel pads and embankments are required or if the permafrost layer is impacted. The physical impacts from the well drilled in 1996, were small and remediated, and today primarily tracks from off-road driving with ATVs are still visible. The physical impacts from an access road constructed in 2007 are still conspicuous, in part because the tracks were not remediated as requested.

Disturbance impacts from drilling activities are more localized than from seismic surveys, and they can also be mitigated by limiting the activities to the winter. The vulnerable goose and seabird species winters outside the assessment area and only caribou is present in winter. Exploration drilling has potential to displace caribou from critical winter habitats, but precise background knowledge of the caribou distribution and migration followed by careful planning may contribute to avoid such situations.

Other activities related to exploration drilling have disturbance potential as well. Especially helicopters commuting between drill sites and airports can disturb wildlife.

Exploration drilling produces large amounts of waste and atmospheric emissions. From the drilling process drilling mud and cuttings are produced and from the energy production large amounts of greenhouse gasses and other air pollutants are emitted. These wastes have the potential to cause local pollution and in case of greenhouse gases they contribute to the global warming. The other air pollutants may cause Arctic haze, which may accumulate in the long and deep valleys of the assessment area.

It is recommended that environmental impacts from these wastes and emissions shall be mitigated by strict regulation of the activities and by applying the Best Available Techniques (BAT) and Best Environmental Practice (BEP) principles in combination with the highest international standards such as those dictated by the OSPAR convention for related off shore activities.

The best way to handle drilling mud and cuttings is usually to dispose it to controlled sites, but other ways may be feasible depending on the environmental properties of the wastes.

There will be other potential impacts, such as consumption of fresh water, but these can be mitigated by careful planning and applying BAT and BEP.

Impacts of exploitation activities in the Disko/Nuussuaq area

The impacts from oil producing activities are more long-term. The physical environmental impacts will encompass habitat loss and fragmentation, and the most vulnerable species in this respect will, as in case of exploration activities, be caribou, geese, seabirds, Arctic char and rare plants.

Disturbance from exploitation activities will mainly impact caribou and geese, but also breeding and moulting seabirds along the coasts of the assessment area are vulnerable. Disturbed caribou may change their habitat use and there will be a risk of changed availability of caribou to the hunters.

Apart from accidental oil spills, the most severe environmental issue related to production wells is the produced water which contains many different pollutants. Produced water has to be cleaned to high standards or reinjected. Untreated produced water cannot be released to the environment.

As drilling continues during the production phase drilling mud and cuttings is produced and has to be disposed of as during the exploration phase.

Production of oil generates huge amounts of greenhouse gasses and other air pollutants. The greenhouse gas emissions from a large oil field may increase the Greenland greenhouse gas contribution many fold, and another risk from the emissions to the air is the generation of Arctic haze, if air emissions are not cleaned to a high standard.

Finally, production of oil requires large amounts of water, which usually has to be taken from rivers and lakes nearby, and potentially threatening limnic habitats and species.

The human use of the environment may be affected by establishment of infrastructure, for instance by disturbance and displacement of hunted species and by pollution of coastal habitats.

Impacts of accidental oil spills in the Disko/Nuussuaq assessment area

Oil spills from land-based exploration or production have the potential to be a severe threat to the environment. This will be the case if the spilt oil enters water courses and particularly if it by rivers ends up along the coasts of the assessment area. If spilt oil can be contained and prevented from moving into rivers, the environmental impacts will be much more localized and limited compared to a spill in the coastal marine areas.

The most significant impact from an oil spill restricted to the land areas will be destroyed vegetation in the affected area.

During production oil shall be shipped from the area and there is during this process also a risk for spilling large quantities of oil into the marine environment. This will impact the sensitive, coastal environment with potential for long-term impacts for example, on the human use, in a large area. This issue has been further dealt with in the Disko West SEIA (Boertmann et al. 2013).