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Harmful routines? Uncertainty in science and conflicting views on routine petroleum operations in Norway

In this article recently published in the journal Marine Policy, the research group behind the SVT-led project UncAP has addressed the problem of uncertainties in the decision-making process related to offshore petroleum activities.

Offshore petroleum activities are the focus of highly politicised debates globally. Typically, public debate is sparked by catastrophic events, such as the 2010 oilspill in the Gulf of Mexico, and decision-making processes fuelled by the assessment of ‘worst-case scenarios’. However, everyday ‘routine’ petroleum operations also impact the marine ecosystems and adjoining socio-economic sectors, but the extent and severity of the impacts are uncertain.

This paper takes as its point of departure routine operations and their surrounding uncertainties. Particularly, it focuses on the debates of whether to extend routine petroleum operations in vulnerable and valuable parts of Norway, such as the Lofoten area and the Sula Ridge. These conflicts draw on important and for some, epistemological uncertainties that surround the impacts of routine operations. The paper argues that it is necessary to first highlight these uncertainties, rather than marginalise them, and second, recognise that uncertainties are not simply a scientific challenge, but can be a powerful political tool.

This paper unpacks and explores uncertainties associated with three phases of routine operations, that are used to steer political actions: (i) the impacts of seismic surveys on fish and marine mammals; (ii) the impacts of drilling mud and drill cuttings on benthic communities such as deep-seacoral reefs; and (iii) the impacts of produced water on the marine environment.

The paper discusses the importance of transparency in addressing these uncertainties, and emphasises the need to implement the precautionary principle in a more participatory way. Itthus proposes participatory exercises in order to allow the recognition of the epistemological nature of uncertainties.