Texas Tea in German Mud: Drilling for Oil in a Coastal Paradise
A German utility giant plans to sink new oil wells in a location the federal government wants to see listed as a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Environmentalists are opposed -- but even the WWF can't say for sure what the effects will be.
Nature fans exploring the Wattenmeer, one of Europe's richest biospheres. The coastal tidal flats face the North Sea -- and underneath them may be black gold.
Whenever a puddle of oil is found on a North Sea beach, Schuhbauer swings into action. His company is pumping oil from the bottom of the North Sea, and when there is any hint of a possible oil spill, all fingers point directly at RWE Dea.
When that happens, Schuhbauer, 60, knows exactly how to respond. An engineer with a degree in chemistry, he has spent years practicing the fine art of dealing with environmentalists: He keeps a respectful tone when discussing their concerns, cites guidelines that sound sufficiently positive and hands out friendly reminders of his company's strong environmental track record.
Schuhbauer's job is to convince conservationists, citizens and officials from environmental agencies of his company's noble intentions. For a man in his position, it's always reassuring to discover that the black sludge that periodically turns up on beaches in the area isn't coming from the local RWE drilling platform but rather from some dilapidated, leaky oil tanker.
Schuhbauer's problem? The Wattenmeer, a unique tidal flat biome, is a national park, which places it firmly under the protection of the toughest conservation laws in the Western world. It's no surprise that Greenpeace floated a protest buoy off the coast soon after RWE's plans became public.
"A drilling platform on the tidal flats," says Hans-Ulrich Rösner of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), "is tantamount to putting a french fry stand inside the Cologne Cathedral." Rösner's analogy is no coincidence. The Cologne edifice is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and if the governments of Germany and the Netherlands have their way, the Wattenmeer will soon be named a UNESCO biosphere reserve. If the petition is approved, the Wattenmeer coastal wetlands region will join the ranks of existing biosphere reserves like the Grand Canyon and the Galapagos Islands.
Graphic: Drill Holes in Paradise
For a species to thrive there, it must be capable of withstanding salt water, flooding and dry periods. Animals that can survive under these conditions are richly rewarded with an abundance of mussels, worms, snails and shrimp. Of all habitats on earth, only the tropical rainforest contains more living biomass than the Wattenmeer.
As a result, there are more birds there than anywhere else in Central Europe. Up to 12 million migratory birds use the Wattenmeer as a resting place, gorging themselves on its abundant food sources in preparation for breeding. Up to 200,000 shelducks converge on the region around the Elbe River estuary each summer. They are protected there when they shed their flight feathers and have to survive for weeks in this vulnerable state.
And it is in this paradise, of all places, that RWE now hopes to prospect for oil?
"We are convinced that drilling for oil and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive," Schuhbauer insists. He argues that drilling would not pose any danger to the region's flora and fauna.
Because the Wattenmeer is so unique, it irks conservationists to know that drilling has been going on in the region since 1985 -- the year when the Wattenmeer National Park was created. That same year, German authorities issued a permit to a consortium of oil exploration companies to install the Mittelplate drilling platform in the Wattenmeer. It's the only oil platform located in German waters.
WWF's position is that the Mittelplate oil platform is a "deep wound in the Wattenmeer." The platform's operation, the environmental group claims, constantly interferes with the sensitive habitat. "A pipeline was built, power cables laid, dredgers excavate the ocean surface and supply ships disturb national park's birds and fish," the organization writes on its Web site. "WWF is calling for the oil production to be stopped."
"Stop the oil exploration in the Wattenmeer": Greenpeace and other environmental activists say oil companies have no businesss drilling in national parks.
"The reserves are roughly the equivalent of the oil we import from Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia or Nigeria," Schuhbauer proudly points out. "With this operation, we are helping to secure Germany's oil supply."
Still, environmentalist Rösner argues that the amount of oil RWE extracts through its Wattenmeer wells is "so small that we could just as well do without it."
Whether or not the drilling would seriously disturb the region's ecosystem, Rösner has decided not to inflame the public with images of suffering seals and eider ducks. Rösner is against drilling in the park as a matter of principle, insisting that industry must must begin respecting the environment, at least in national parks.
- Part 1: Drilling for Oil in a Coastal Paradise
- Part 2: 'Imagine the Outcry if Corporations Started Drilling in Yellowstone'
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