In a move of unparalleled cynicism, Galp Energia, one of the concession partners for the Santola hydrocarbon exploration area where test drilling is due to start in October this year, is funding a study into the whale and dolphin population along Portugal’s coastline.
Common whales, the world's second largest whale, dolphins and other cetaceans are to be found in the ocean off the Portuguese west coast but they have yet to be studied and their numbers established.
“We want to clarify that there is a tremendous wealth in terms of cetaceans. Everyone knows that the Azores are an important area but almost nobody knows that the continent is also very important in terms of whales and dolphins," said marine biologist Pedro Finamore, the project manager paid for by Galp who already has stated that he considers economic activities, including oil exploration, compatible with 'the balance of the oceans.'
The initiative applied for support from the Blue Fund, which finances the economy of the sea through the government run, Portugal 2020 programme and was announced at an 'Ocean Talks' event, sponsored by Galp and National Geographic.
The idea, explained Finamore, from the Sagres Research Centre, is to create a map of cetaceans in Portugal, which shows what species are present in Portuguese waters along the mainland coast, how they behave and which area are the most populated. This is data that does not exist and that has enormous scientific, economic and environmental value."
The researcher told Lusa that he plans to develop the project over the next two years along the coast of mainland Portugal up to 25 miles (40 kilometers) offshore, with a team of biologists in collaboration with the Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, the City Council of Esposende and the support of two invited researchers from the Statistics and Applications Center of the University of Lisbon.
The researchers, said Pedro Finamore, will systematically navigate the entire Portuguese coastline, divided into four blocks and subject it to a "continuous sweep."
"It's something that has never been never done. There are few studies, local or regional, and usually they have been done during the summer," Finamore said, explaining that the 40 kilometre research limit is extensive enough to include, "the continental shelf slope" where the deep ocean begins and where, "there is a large concentration of biodiversity."
Joana Garoupa, Director of Communication and Marketing at Galp, stated, "Our support for this project is in our strategy of community involvement and development, aligned with our Sustainable Development Goals."
Galp-ENI is starting its test drilling in October, just outside the newly planned whale and dolphin research area, at a point 46 kilometres from the coast at Aljezur on the west coast.
The WWF states that “the oil industry poses three distinct threats to cetaceans: habitat loss, possible hearing damage and pollution. Oil exploration and recovery may exclude cetaceans from valuable habitat and disturb feeding, resting and breeding. Pollutants and toxics from activities relating to the oil industry are also a health risk to cetaceans.”
Oceana says that, “Offshore drilling operations create various forms of pollution that have considerable negative effects on marine and other wildlife. These include drilling muds, brine wastes, deck runoff water and flowline and pipeline leaks. Catastrophic spills and blowouts are also a threat from offshore drilling operations. These operations also pose a threat to human health, especially to oil platform workers themselves.
“Drilling muds and produced water are disposed of daily by offshore rigs. Offshore rigs can dump tons of drilling fluid, metal cuttings, including toxic metals, such as lead chromium and mercury, as well as carcinogens, such as benzene, into the ocean.
“Drilling muds are used for the lubrication and cooling of the drill bit and pipe. The muds also remove the cuttings that come from the bottom of the oil well and help prevent blowouts by acting as a sealant. There are different types of drilling muds used in oil drilling operations, but all release toxic chemicals that can affect marine life. One drilling platform normally drills between seventy and one hundred wells and discharges more than 90,000 metric tons of drilling fluids and metal cuttings into the ocean.
“Produced water is fluid trapped underground and brought up with oil and gas. It makes up about 20 percent of the waste associated with offshore drilling. Produced waters usually have an oil content of 30 to 40 parts per million.”
The government's Blue Fund, “...is aimed at the development of the sea economy, scientific and technological research, marine protection and monitoring and maritime safety, by creating or strengthening mechanisms for financing entities, activities or projects towards these objectives.”
The Fund also works to, “Ensure the good environmental status of the maritime public domain, for the prevention and control of pollution of the marine environment and for the protection or restoration of ecosystems and marine biodiversity."
Galp Energia exists to find and pump as much oil and gas as cheaply as possible. The conscesssion it shares with ENI, has been exempted by government from having to produce an Environmental Impact Assessment and, when its drilling activities have had their effect on cetaceans, may expect a report in a couple of years time showing that not many whales and dolphins live in its concession area, hence its activities were harmless.
At the launch of the initiative, a PR coup for the company, Galp also fielded the renowned National Geographic Society's oceanographer Sylvia Earle. The 83-year-old sees no conflict between economic activities, such as oil exploration, and the preservation of the oceans.
"It is a choice for every company - as any citizen - to take measures to nullify the impact of its activities on nature," said Earle, stressing that it is thanks to the instruments developed by the oil industry that we now know much of what we know about the oceans.
"In the end it depends on how we want to be seen by our grandchildren in 30 or 40 years, when they ask us what we did for the defence of the planet.”
A National Geographic 'explorer in residence,' Earle said in 2010 when commenteing on the dangers of offshore drilling after the Gulf of Mexico BP disaster, "Now we know that the risk, however small, is not worth the tradeoff."
The research project contribution form Galp is €110,000, Earle's fee was not disclosed at the 'Ocean Talks' event, sponsored by Galp and National Geographic.