Government of Croatia instructs assessment of potential negative consequences of oil exploitation in the Adriatic Sea

Croatian Minister of the Environment Mihael Zmajlovic announced that a strategic environmental assessment is to be carried out prior to licensing oil development in Croatian waters. The results would determine further procedures in this matter. The Croatian government claims that this step is taking into account public concerns – including those voiced by the tourism sector and by environmentalists. But critics of oil exploitation plans remain to be sceptical.

“The strategic environmental assessment is a matter of course and can in no way substitute a thorough environmental impact assessment (EIA) which should have been carried out already one year ago, prior to using intensive sound to search for oil in the Adriatic Sea”, says Sigrid Lüber, president of international marine conservation NGO OceanCare. “Nonetheless we welcome the new decision and hope for an impartial and transparent assessment process which would constitute a change of course instead of project cosmetics”, Lüber adds.

From September 2013 to January 2014 Norwegian company Spectrum carried out extensive seismic surveys in the Adriatic Sea without any environmental impact assessment. These activities in Croatia’s exclusive economic zone – a sea area of about 35,000 km² – marked the beginning of the rush for oil and gas resources in the Croatian part of the Adriatic Sea. Data about these resources were collected during the seismic exploration expedition with the research vessel covering a distance of about 12,000 kilometres. Over five months so-called airguns fired sound waves of up to 240 dB towards the sea floor about every 10 seconds. The damaging impacts are subject to speculation as there was no proper monitoring in place. OceanCare points out that there was an unusual stranding of 286 dead sea turtles on Italy’s Adriatic coast from October to December 2013. Whether noise was the cause of death in these animals is still subject to investigations by the University of Padua. According to Sigrid Lüber, president of OceanCare, the results have not been made public yet.

The announced assessment is to evaluate the risks of further exploration, drilling and exploitation of oil resources and shall be carried out until March 2015. It is to be followed by another round of public consultations. According to the government, six petroleum companies placed offers for licences in 25 of the 29 areas in question, each covering between 1000 and 1600 km². The companies would be permitted to carry out detailed analyses for five years and to exploit oil fields for 25 years.

The Adriatic Sea is home to many endangered species including the bottlenose dolphin and the Cuvier’s beaked whale which is especially susceptible to intensive noise and which was granted the highest level of protection at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species in November 2014. “Oil exploration and exploitation within beaked whales’ core habitats is unjustifiable. The assessment’s results will also make a statement on the significance of species conservation”, says Nicolas Entrup, consultant to conservation NGOs OceanCare and NRDC. “Intensifying oil exploitation in the Mediterranean is incompatible with a modern energy policy”, Entrup concludes.