The news that Shell are exploring areas around the Vjosa River in Block 4, southern Albania sparked controversy, protests, and significant media coverage.
Shell claims to have engaged with locals but has failed to specify what the results of that engagement were. Locals claim they have been consistently against the project and have even taken to the streets to make it clear that Shell and their oil exploration activities are not welcome in their communities.
Drilling for oil brings with it a number of risks for the surrounding ecosystem. It disturbs land and therefore any flora and fauna around it. Usually, when drilling, large swathes of vegetation are cleared, displacing any creatures that live there and removing trees and plants. There is also the risk of contaminating the land and any nearby waterways. Chemicals, wastewater, and oil can be devastating if they come into contact with the surrounding environment.
While oil companies claim they do everything possible to reduce the risk of oil spills or other forms of contamination, the risk still remains and accidents can and do happen.
So what are the key arguments against Shell exploring or drilling for oil in Block 4, or in any other area surrounding the Vjosa River?
The impact on tourism
Tourism is a key contributor to Albania’s economy. 2020 was a tough year for the country and hopes are high that 2021 and 2022 will bring much-needed visitors to the country. Much of Albania’s touristic appeal lies in its outstandingly beautiful nature. Wild rivers such as the Vjosa and Valbona, canyons and gorges, mountain ranges, castles, history, and a stunning coastline entice over 2 million visitors every year- a number that is set to grow.
Many people living in rural or semi-rural areas have pinned their hopes on developing tourism services such as guesthouses, tour companies, authentic experiences in villages/camping, etc, and even active holidays like hiking, horse trekking, cycling, climbing, and rafting. Agrotourism is also a promising sector with many of their homes into authentic retreats serving up locally grown and produced dishes.
In a region comprising of outstanding natural beauty, with low rates of employment, the vast majority of local people see their future in tourism. They also firmly believe this opportunity will be destroyed if Shell drills for oil in or around the area.
The impact on the environment
Block 4 consists of a wide variety of different environments. These include stunning mountain ranges complete with canyons and gorges, the Vjose River and a number of smaller streams and rivers that feed into it, lush forest, bush, rolling hills, and quaint villages full of fascinating culture, tradition, and beauty. Much of this part of the country is still untouched by development and it retains a truly unique and unspoiled quality that is becoming increasingly rare in other parts of the country.
Shell have said they will not drill in the Vjosa River, but drilling around it or near rivers and streams that feed into it is just as perilous.
The exploration process involves using chemicals that ultimately find their way to the surface, along with oil. These products must either be disposed of properly or injected back into the ground in a way they do not impact what is on the surface. It also carries a risk of contaminating underground water resources. This is without mentioning the oil spills and contaminations of surface waters like rivers, streams, and lakes.
In Turkey, Shell injected oil production waters into an underground water reservoir for over 25 years. The effects of this activity were studied and it was found that despite being injected in one location, the chemicals and oil had moved almost 20km towards a city where the aquifer is used as the main source of drinking water. They predicted that within 40 years, the contaminant would pollute the drinking water of thousands of people, making it unusable.
But exploration and drilling can also impact the soil and air. Results of a survey that analyzed the results of 2326 different studies of communities living near oil exploration and drilling studies provided concerning results. It found evidence of negative impacts on people living near upstream oil extraction activities. This included effects from exposure to oil-related chemicals both in the air, and through the land.
In terms of wildlife, drilling provides significant disruption. Not only are large amounts of habitat destroyed, but the sound of drilling, vehicles, and other machinery disrupts breeding, communication, and nesting of native species.
So significant is the damage caused by such activities, lawsuits are currently underway against Shell for work conducted in Nigeria. Some 40,000 people have spoken up to say that decades of pollution caused by Shell’s activities have severely affected their livelihood, health, and local environment.
People have reported the fact they can no longer fish and tend the land, people are dying, there is a higher rate of miscarriages and a prevalence of strange and uncommon diseases.
The Bille community and the Ogale people from Ogoniland brought a case against Shell in the English courts. Shell tried to prevent the action from being filed there but lost the case earlier this year. While not denying the pollution caused, they tried to argue they couldn’t be held legally responsible for their Nigerian subsidiary but the court rejected it.
The UN said the pollution would take up to 30 years to clear and that much of the area is now a toxic wasteland.
This is extremely concerning, especially combined with Shell’s attempt to absolve responsibility through trying to say they are not responsible for a subsidiary activity. It’s worth noting that it is also a subsidiary operating in Albania, Shell Upstream Albania.
The impact on the Vjosa River
The Vjosa River is Europe’s last wild river and has been subject to an international campaign to protect it for several years. Continuos pleas have been made to Prime Minister Edi Rama to designate the whole area as a National Park, therefore protecting it from the threat of oil companies and hydropower plant construction. So far, he has refused, most likely due to the significant contract signed with Shell in 2018 worth tens of millions and with a duration of 25 years.
Riverwatch, Euronatur, Patagonia, Leonardo di Caprio, EcoAlbania, and even WeTransfer have been vocal in their support for protecting the Vjosa. While some of its tributaries are under threat from HPPs, the main river is so far in a pristine state.
270km long, it stretches from Vouvoussa in Greece, passes through Albania, and has created extensive wetlands which are home to spawning fish, local and migratory birds, and a wealth of valuable flora and fauna. It hosts a wide range of different ecosystems and much is still unexplored meaning we do not yet realize the full extent of how valuable this river is.
We do know that it is home to many indigenous, endangered, and protected species of bird, fish, and mammal, and there may be many others that we haven’t yet discovered.
Unfortunately, the river is under threat from Shell in Block 4, the Vlora Airport, and tourism development where it meets the Narta Lagoon and HPPs along most of its length.
In terms of Shell, the idea that any form of oil exploration or drilling would take place anywhere near the river is abominable to environmental experts. The risk of contamination, spills and the devastation it would cause to the surrounding land and wildlife is just too much of a risk.
The impact on the environment overall
But oil exploration has much wider implications as well. Firstly, exploration for oil in new sites is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement to which Albania is a party. Scientists have already shown that tapping existing reserves of fossil fuels is incompatible with the global warming limit of 2C. This means that exploring and drilling new sites is not needed as it would also not contribute to the 2C limit that Albania has committed to.
Furthermore, other studies have shown that as much as a third of oil reserves globally should remain unused between now and 2050 in order to reach the 2C target. Again, this means that exploring for oil in Albania contradicts the agreement the country is a party to.
The UN was also clear that oil production should be decreased by 4% each year from 2020 onwards. They said that restricting new fossil fuel exploration, extraction, or export can avoid locking levels of fossil fuel production higher than those consistent with climate goals.
In terms of Shell’s global activities, the NGO Carbon Tracker Initiative demonstrated that up to 70% of Shell’s investments in new business and exploration go beyond what is needed if the world is serious about limiting global warming.
On 18 May, Shell shareholders will meet at the Annual General Meeting to vote on the Energy Transition Strategy. This plan is framed to appear like Shell is taking environmental matters seriously but there are various issues with the climate targets, plan, and figures.
The document states that Shell doesn’t anticipate any new frontier exploration after 2025, but as Albania’s contract was signed in 2018, this does little to protect the Vjosa and Albanians. It also contains a range of assumptions, vague plans, and targets that are still not aligned with what would be needed for them to be aligned in any way with the Paris agreement.
They claim they will commit to a 1-2% reduction in oil production, 55% hydrocarbon sales by 2030, and 8x increase in the sale of biofuels. Essentially, they will be “freezing” the oil business, rather than decreasing or winding it down.
This has led to accusations of greenwashing, particularly considering their failure to meet their own target of investing $6 billion in renewables by 2020.
Simply put, Shell does not care about the environment, climate change, or the dangers of fossil fuels, and Albania is potentially breaching its Paris agreement obligations, which I may add, are legally binding.