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Photograph courtesy James Whitesmith/Flickr

Oil Drilling to Proceed in Spain’s Canary Islands

The Canary Islands Archipelago, an area in the Atlantic where oil tankers must sail carefully and inform the local authorities to avoid environmental damage,  is becoming the stage for a new chapter in the world’s race for oil. This week, the Spanish Supreme Court cleared Spanish oil company Repsol’s plans to drill up to three wells in the area to determine if the exploitation of its alleged oil reserves is economically viable.

The Canary Islands is a group of seven major islands of Spain situated in the Atlantic Ocean just 160 kilometers (around 100 miles) from Morocco and Mauritania in Northwest Africa. Their location makes them a unique ecosystem, with at least 2,000 native animal species. Since 2005, they have been part of the United Nations’ Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas, together with 12 more ecosystems including the Galapagos Archipelago, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuakea National Monument.

As a result of the designation, hundreds of oil tankers that cross the Canary Islands’ waters every year have to give notice in advance to Spanish authorities and follow strict corridors when they cross the 7,000 square kilometer (4,300 square miles) protected zone.

That area, however, will be drilled in the coming weeks by Repsol now that the court has cleared the last hurdles for its plans. The company plans to drill the wells at a depth of around 1 kilometer (a bit more than half a mile) and then 3.5 kilometers more inside the Earth’s crust.

The go-ahead concludes a 14-year-long feud that has pitched many interests against each other: the Canary Islands regional governments against the Spanish authorities; the tourism industry against the oil industry; and conservatives against socialists (and, sometimes, different factions inside those both parties against each other). Even Spain and Morocco have argued about how to divide the waters where the oil is.

Morocco has been drilling on its side of the field for more than one decade, but so far it has not found oil. Two oil companies—Britain’s Cairn, and Genel, formally Turkish although incorporated in the tax haven of the British Channel Islands—have just abandoned their efforts in the area.

In spite of this lack of results, Repsol is firmly committed to its plans on the Spanish side of the line. The company has even stated that it plans to invest up to 7.4 billion euros ($10 billion) in the project, but first it needs to find oil that is economically viable to exploit.

It also has the support of the Spanish government, which has accepted the company’s environmental assessment of the project, although it has admitted that the area where the wells will be drilled is of particular importance to, among other species, beaked, sperm and pilot whales (which can be seen in pods of hundreds of individuals), bottlenose dolphins, and loggerhead turtles.

Repsol owns and operates one of the most sophisticated imagery tools to map deepwater oil fields, and it insists that there is no reason to fear oil spills. Its spokesperson Kristian Rix has declared to The Wall Street Journal that the approval “shows that Repsol does things rigorously in relation to environmental protection.”

The project is extremely controversial among the 2 million people who live in the Archipelago. “I am worried about an accident like the one suffered by the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico,” the president of the islands’ regional government, Paulino Rivero, said during a visit to Washington D.C. last Wednesday, June 25.

The risks go beyond oil spills, and include acoustic pollution—a problem that the islands’ cetaceans have already suffered: in 2005, following massive beachings of beaked whales—animals that dive three kilometers deep and stay submerged for more than two hours—NATO cancelled indefinitely its war games in the area, fearful that the ships’ sonar could kill the cetaceans. Since then, there have been no more massive beachings of sea mammals in the islands.

The field could yield, according to some estimates, 140,000 barrels per day over 30 years, which means around 10 percent of Spain’s current oil consumption, but some within Repsol privately doubt it will be ever economically viable. However, the recent crises in Ukraine and in Iraq have exposed Europe’s energy dependency, and the Spanish government has not hidden its satisfaction with the fact that Spain’s natural gas comes from Algeria instead of Russia, like almost everyone else’s in Europe.

Last year, Repsol’s CEO, Antonio Brufau, called the resistance against the exploration “political” and accused the opponents to the company’s plans of ignoring the demands of a region, the Canary Archipelago, that has a 33 percent unemployment rate. Canarian authorities retort that tourism is the biggest industry in the region, with 12 million visitors per year, and that the last thing they need are oil platforms.

The Canary Islands’ oil controversy is just a part of a much bigger development that includes Morocco and even Mauritania, a country that it is opening its waters—home of the biggest colony of the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal and to some of the last blue whales in the Atlantic Ocean—to oil exploration.

So far, it seems that the race for the tentative oil reserves of the Northwest African coast is bringing a lot of noise and disturbance to an environmentally key area. But so far, very little—if any—oil.