Environmental protests against rigs in Norwegian waters

Rig owners and operators will be all too familiar with environmental protests against rigs where climate activists attempt to disrupt drilling activities. With increased global attention on the environment and global warming, the frequency of such protests would appear to be increasing.

In the event that environmental campaigners seek to disrupt or prevent drilling operations by e.g. breaching a rig’s 500m safety zone or boarding a rig as part of their campaigning activities, rig owners and operators have only limited options available to them to try to stop the protestors. 

In principle, rig owners and operators can initiate legal proceedings in the Norwegian courts to try to obtain interim injunctive measures against the protestors, but this can be a time-consuming process. Whether other more immediate actions are also available to owners and operators e.g. by requesting assistance from Norwegian authorities such as the police or the Coastal Guard is a matter of public law and will depend on where the rigs are located at the time of the protests. In this article, we briefly analyse the powers of the relevant authorities in both internal or territorial and international waters. 

In internal or territorial waters

Norway’s internal waters are made up of fjords, bays and small marine areas inside the baseline. The baseline forms the outer boundary of internal waters and is the starting point for ­calculating the territorial sea and outer jurisdictional areas. Norwegian territorial waters extend from the baseline and 12 nautical miles outwards. 

In internal and territorial waters, Norway has full territorial sovereignty and the Norwegian authorities essentially have the same authority as they do on land and may therefore exercise full jurisdictional powers by way of legislation, judicial activity or enforcement. If, for example, activists board or attempt to disrupt the activities of a Norwegian or foreign flagged rig either in a Norwegian port or in its internal and territorial waters, such protests may therefore be regarded as a criminal offence under the Norwegian Criminal Code and the Norwegian police have full authority to order the protestors to cease and desist their activities. If the police’s orders are not followed or if the police deem it necessary, the police have authority under the Police Act to remove the protestors from the rig or its safety zone by the use of necessary force.

It is a criminal offence for unauthorised vessels to enter the safety zone and the Coastal Guard has powers to enforce the Norwegian Petroleum Act.

To the extent a rig is outside of port, the police may ­encounter logistical and practical difficulties in intervening in environmental protests. In such circumstances the police often request assistance from the Norwegian Coastal Guard, though as the Coastal Guard has only limited authority to enforce ­provisions in the Norwegian Criminal Code or the Police Act, the police would need to remain formally in charge of the relevant operation.

In transit in international waters

If a rig is being towed or is underway from a Norwegian port to a drilling location on the Norwegian continental shelf, the voyage will be subject to the freedom of the seas as if in international waters from when the rig leaves Norwegian territorial waters until it reaches the drilling location. Whilst the Norwegian Criminal Code would apply to Norwegian registered rigs, foreign flagged rigs would be subject only to the applicable laws of its flag state and as a starting point, the Norwegian authorities would not be permitted to intervene in respect of protests aimed at foreign flagged rigs in international waters. However, if such a protest involves risk to life or may cause an immediate risk of pollution, the Coastal Guard will have a duty to intervene irrespective as to whether the rig is Norwegian flagged or not. The rig owners or operators may also request assistance themselves, either directly in cases of urgency or where the rig is flagged in Norway, or otherwise indirectly and formally via the relevant foreign flag state.

At the drilling location 

Once the rig has arrived and is anchored at the drilling location, a safety zone of 500 metres is required to be established around the rig in accordance with the Norwegian Petroleum Act and the Framework Regulation. Once established, it is then a criminal offence for unauthorised vessels to enter the safety zone and the Coastal Guard has powers to remove unauthorised ­vessels in accordance with the Norwegian Petroleum Act. In such circumstances, the police would also have authority to board the rig and remove any protestors.

There are several examples of protestors breaching the safety zone and boarding rigs. One example is Greenpeace’s action against “Songa Enabler” in August 2017 in the Barents Sea. The protests originated from a Dutch flagged vessel which was used as mothership that at all times was located outside the safety zone. From the mothership, Greenpeace launched ribs and kayaks that entered the safety zone. Due to the potential danger, the Offshore Installation Manager shut down ­operations onboard the rig. The protestors were ordered by the police to remove themselves but refused to comply. The ­mothership was then boarded by the Coastal Guard and the protestors together with the mothership and the smaller crafts were taken into custody. Eight hours later, the rig was back in operation.

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