Top EU maritime official warns against ocean ‘gold rush’


The European commissioner for maritime affairs, Maria Damanaki, has called at the World Ocean Summit for businesses to see the oceans as an economic resource but has warned against a “frenzied gold rush”.

The oceans' vast amount of untapped energy and resources hold great potential for economic development, which can in turn create jobs both at sea and on land, the Commission says.

The EU executive estimates that ocean resources account for some 5.4 million jobs within the EU and some €500 billion a year of economic turnover.

Damanaki sees space for further development of the ocean economy.

“As we struggle out of the recession and as we run out of resources on land, it is only natural that we should turn to the oceans,” she told attendees of the World Ocean Summit gathered in Half Moon Bay, California, from 24 to 26 February. “Cultivation at sea does not require land or freshwater. Harnessing the wind and waves does not produce greenhouse gases.”

EU research suggests that the oceans have the capacity to provide three quarters of the EU’s energy needs by 2030, through a mixture of wave, tidal, ocean thermal, and salinity gradient power.

Last month Damanaki and the energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, released an “action plan” for the development of ocean-related energy.

The plan identified the difficulties preventing the sector’s development, including the high costs of technology, infrastructure barriers such as grid connection and port facilities, and administrative hurdles such as complex licensing.

'Promise of riches'

Exploitation of the sea’s resources also raises environmental questions, as shipping lanes and infrastructure development can affect delicate ocean ecosystems.

Damanaki, who is also responsible for fisheries, said that exploitation of the ocean’s resources should not turn into a “frenzied gold rush”.

“Let us not forget that developments today, good or bad, go at very high speed. The promise of new riches from the sea should not blind us to the dangers and consequences for future generations,” she said.

The EU has set out rules for maritime and coastal spatial planning, which, Damanaki says, “gives environmental legitimacy to public planning and legal certainty to private investors”. She also called for more controls on shipping lanes.

Stephan Singer, the director of Global Energy Policy at WWF International, said the environmental NGO supported Damanaki's call for sustainable energy production at sea and “especially investment in offshore wind generation”.

“This policy needs to follow through to all levels of European Policy," he added.

The European Parliament's intergroup on climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development has recently begun work to improve awareness of ocean habitat conservation. The group discussed last month a campaign on "Ocean literacy", launched by Maria do Céu Patrão Neves, a Portuguese centre-right MEP and member of the fisheries committee.

Damanaki said that exploitation of the ocean’s resources was also not without risks to workers, due to the unpredictability of the weather and the problems inherent to working at sea.

“It may not be possible to rule out risk entirely when working offshore. But we must take concrete action to prevent accidents like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon; and also smaller accidents like blowouts, explosions, structural failures and the like,” she said. Deepwater Horizon was an offshore oil rig that exploded, causing an estimated 4.9 million barrels (780 million litres) of oil to flood into the Gulf of Mexico.

The European continent has a number of adjacent seas and oceans, including the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, and the Mediterranean, Baltic, Black, North, Adriatic and Ionian seas.

By 2020, 75% of the world’s population is expected to live in coastal areas.

An estimated 0.1% of the energy in the world’s oceans could be capable of supplying the world’s energy needs five times over, but harnessing it is a complicated proposition.

Around €600 million has already been invested in developing the technology in Europe in the last seven years but much more will be needed.

Three ocean energy projects were awarded around €60 million in total under the first round of the EU’s carbon market-funded NER300 programme, which will enable the demonstration of arrays from 2016.

Some projects have also been supported through EU structural and cohesion funds. The bloc’s Research Framework Programmes and the Intelligent Energy Europe Programme have provided up to €90 million of funding since the 1980s.

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