Are oil companies doing enough for local fishing communities?

Posted by Scott Johnson


Oil, especially upstream, is a tough business and potentially impacts not just on the environment but also on communities. There is a tendency to think that oil companies don't do enough to counter the fears of local people. But is that really true?

Outside of the oil business, companies, and their founders, are very attuned to the needs of local people. Many individuals, driven by the desire to put something back into the community that has supported them, have set up initiatives such as The Nisbet Trust run by Andrew Nisbet and family, Jim Ratcliffe's INEOS STEM Summer School, and  Marc Benioff's Salesforce Philanthropy Cloud.

But when it comes to the oil business, are things quite so simple? And are energy businesses, and their employees, as driven to do everything they can?

Working with fishing communities

Upstream oil production impacts not just on coastal communities but on the fishing industry and in many oil-rich regions this industry is founded on the labour of hundreds of individual fishermen and women; many of whom are already disadvantaged.

These fishermen are understandably worried when a big oil company comes to their stretch of coastline. Some of the bigger companies such as Shell for example have found innovative ways to work in partnership with fisherman, and empower employees to run with their ideas.

One example is in the small village of Loma de Arena in Colombia. Shell adopted a partnership model right from the start. Rather than ignore the fears of locals they saw the benefit of using their expertise to collect data about their catch, assess the health of the fish and analyse whether their drilling was having any adverse impacts.

Shell was so impressed with the results that they introduced a whole set on new ideas put forward by staff such as how to improve the safety of the fishermen by holding workshops and making the latest safety equipment available for free including radios, lifejackets and GPS devices.

Governments have also established initiatives in partnership with the oil and gas industry which help local fishermen. One example is the U.K. Fisheries Offshore Oil & Gas Legacy Trust Fund. This organisation collects funds from oil companies when they decommission operations, provides compensation for any net-snagging incidents and also provides detailed mapping of pipelines and seabed structures.

At the same time, there are some signs that the industry could actually be enhancing the undersea world. In the Gulf of Mexico, a 2014 study found that oil platforms can, with our assistance, make a positive contribution to marine life; hundreds of platforms in the region have been turned into artificial reefs that have increased biodiversity, and are used by both fishermen and the diving community.

Tensions and problems need joined-up solutions

Clearly, the Deepwater Horizon disaster had a big impact on the way companies view their interactions with fishing communities, and most upped their game. But there is still a very long way to go.

A recent case highlights the problem facing both sides. In November last year it was reported that crab fishermen in California were seeing impacts to their catch allegedly because of the ocean-warming effects of the oil industry.

Some fishermen report their catch dropping by half over the last few years.

A class action has been brought against 30 companies. Whether it will be upheld remains to be seen, but with 27 oil and gas platforms off the coast of California, the industry is a very big target, with a huge environmental responsibility.

Oil spills are not the only problem that affects the ocean. There is a growing concern about the impact of the by-products of drilling. A study is currently being done in Norway by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research.

One of the participants, Dr Holly Shiels of Manchester University outlines the issue: “We know from disastrous crude oil spills like DeepWater Horizon, that components of oil negatively affects hearts of larval and juvenile fish. But it is possible the Produced Water used in oil drilling – which is released even in the absence of a spill - may impact fish stocks. And this is especially a worry in areas where drilling occurs in spawning grounds as the eggs and tiny larvae are unprotected.”

It's safe to say that most companies take their responsibilities very seriously, and go the extra mile. But there will always be tension until we have the full facts. And that can only happen if drilling companies do more to work with researchers and communities. Environmental concerns are growing globally, and the oil industry must challenge themselves and ask if they're really doing as much as they can. 

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