The Greenpeace in Russia affair: the need for international regulation of offshore exploitation

Press release [13.10.09]

In late September, the Russian Coast Guard boarded a Greenpeace ship and arrested, on the grounds of piracy, its crew which approached an oil platform in the Arctic Ocean with the intention to raise public awareness on the risks and lack of transparency related to offshore oil drilling.

In addition to the doubt over the legal basis of the charges that the Russian authorities have made against the Greenpeace crew and the legitimate expression of emotion that has resulted from the imprisonment of environmental activists, this incident has raised the issue of the protection of the marine environment with regard to the risks of offshore oil exploitation (disturbance of marine species during the exploration phase, discharges of harmful substances during production, oil spills). It also highlights the need for all interested parties to be informed about the measures taken to avoid disasters. Furthermore, it has shone a spotlight onto the conditions under which offshore activities are carried out, particularly in vulnerable areas such as the Arctic.

For two years, the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) - with the support of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the MAVA Foundation and FIBA - has been conducting research into ways to bridge the gaps in international law regarding the regulation of drilling activities at sea. “Unlike other sectors, such as fishing or shipping, the offshore oil industry is subject to very few international rules”, explained Lucien Chabason, Senior Advisor at IDDRI.

Indeed, many States consider that hydrocarbon exploitation is such a strategic issue from an economic and political perspective that they are unwilling to accept the development of international rules that would be applicable to all seas and oceans. The result is a lack of transparency and public information on the conditions under which licenses are issued, operations are monitored, risks are controlled and the environment protected.

“Beyond the Arctic, this problem also arises in many other parts of the world in which States have to date applied very few standards or means to control the development of offshore oil operations. This is particularly the case in West Africa, in the Western Indian Ocean and Asia”, said Julien Rochette, IDDRI’s Ocean and Coastal Areas Project Manager. “Furthermore, beyond issues related to the safety of installations, no legal framework currently exists regarding liability and compensation in case of accidents.”

Nevertheless, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was adopted in 1982, States have an obligation to develop international rules in this area. In June 2010, Dmitry Medvedev, the then President of Russia, also recalled in a press release the need to establish an international regime to regulate offshore oil exploitation and to avoid disasters such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico that had occurred a few months earlier (Global Marine Environment Protection initiative,

In a few weeks, IDDRI will publish a comprehensive report on the situation of offshore oil in which it will define the possible options for a better international regulation of these activities.

Useful links:

>> IDDRI video:  « Vers une régulation internationale de l’exploitation pétrolière et gazière offshore ? » seminar ("Towards an international regulation of offshore oil and gas exploitation?") [2013.03.26].

>> IDDRI Publication:  J. Rochette (2012). "Towards an international regulation of offshore oil exploitation" - Report of the experts workshop held at the Paris Oceanographic Institute on 30 March 2012, Working Papers N°15/2012. IDDRI, 2012. 18 p.

>> IDDRI Publication:  L. Chabason (2011). Offshore oil exploitation: a new frontier for international environmental law, Working Papers N°11/2011. IDDRI, 2011. 9 p.

Contact :

Julien Rochette, Chargé de projet Océans et zones côtières