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Gas Drilling Threatens Marine Life


GENERAL - Colossal deep-sea gas fields in the eastern Mediterraneans Levant Sea are causing a scramble to start drilling while concerns for irreversible damage to outstanding marine biodiversity, as well as legally binding restrictions on deep-sea exploitation, are being ignored.

“The deep-sea floor in the Levant is teeming with life of a very special and unique kind. WWF strongly condemns blind drilling on biodiversity hotspots that could cause irreversible damage,” said Dr Sergi Tudela, Head of Fisheries at WWF Mediterranean. “These unique marine ecosystems are particularly fragile, and vulnerable to external interference – they have evolved in a highly stable, low-energy environment which has led to the creation of exceptionally rare ecosystems.”

The recently discovered Leviathan gas field, 135 km off the coast of Israel, is the world’s biggest deepwater gas find in a decade – with an estimated volume of 16 trillion cubic feet of gas – while the West Nile Delta gas field, discovered earlier this year, lies in Egyptian waters, 80 km northwest of Alexandria.

But on these two areas sits a unique and delicate marine ecosystem, whose rich biological communities host rare species of deep-sea sponges, worms, molluscs and cold water corals – some of which are thousands of years old.

The Levant Sea is protected by such laws as a Mediterranean-wide ban on destructive trawl fishing beyond the depth of 1,000 metres by the UN’s General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean, and encompasses two deep-sea Fisheries Restricted Areas where other potentially harmful activities are also limited – in recognition of the sea bed’s value and fragility.

The Nile Delta area hosts a unique biological community which relies on gases seeping from the sea bed, rather than on sunlight like most life on Earth – and has been shortlisted for designation as a Specially Protected Area of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMI).

The European Union’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive, meanwhile, calls on EU Member States to protect the marine environment at European and international levels from any human activity that is likely to have a significant impact on the marine environment – and specifically to achieve or maintain good environmental status across the Mediterranean, including the Aegean-Levantine seas.

WWF is calling on the eastern Mediterranean states – particularly on Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon – and on the European Union, to ensure that the highest environmental standards are set regarding current and prospective developments in deep-sea floor drilling for gas and oil in the eastern Mediterranean, including exploratory drilling and future commercial exploitation.

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) must be urgently carried out – and acted upon. To avoid irreversible damage, industrial development and drilling should be ruled out on deep-sea areas deemed to harbour the most valuable biological communities and unique species.

“Careful and comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessments should be carried out specifically to account for the potential effects of drilling on the integrity, structure and functioning of these deep-sea ecosystems – before any gas explorers even set foot in this part of the Mediterranean,” said Tudela. “Once a deep-sea community has been drilled through, it can take a millennium or more before the unique micro-ecosystem grows again – so the most fragile and valuable species and under-sea areas must be left untouched by gas development.”

Several legally binding agreements oblige countries to go through comprehensive EIAs before oil and gas exploration in the region can be approved, the most recent being the Offshore Protocol – or the ‘Protocol for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea Against Pollution Resulting from Exploration and Exploitation of the Continental Shelf and the Seabed and its Subsoil’, which entered into force in December 2010.

This Offshore Protocol states that any potential deep-sea exploitation activities – including oil or gas exploration and development drilling – must be subject to authorisation based on a thorough EIA. Controls are even higher for specially protected areas, like the zone housing these new gas fields.