Growing Threat of Oil Spills
Other Measures Under Consideration


Although Norway was among the pioneers in establishing a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone in 1976, it has lagged behind the international community when it comes to extending its territorial sea.

However, this may soon change as the Norwegian Parliament is considering an act that would extend the Norwegian territorial sea to 12 nautical miles (about 22 kilometres) from the current one sea mile (about four nautical miles).

If approved, the Act on Extending the Territorial Sea would make Norway the 131st country to establish a 12-nautical-mile limit for its territorial sea, and leave Greece and Turkey as the only two countries left in Europe without one. The act would also establish a 24-nautical-mile zone for customs purposes.

The Norwegian coastline is long and relatively unprotected. The weather is rough, especially in winter. Tugs of sufficient size are not readily available north of Narvik, which means that it could take up to two days for salvors to reach a casualty. There have been many casualties along the Norwegian coast. In recent years a variety of ships, including the Arisan, Leros Strength, Green Alesund and John R, have all gone down in rough weather and polluted the coastline. In the case of the Leros Strength, it also resulted in a tragic loss of human life. Fortunately, Norway has thus far escaped spills of the magnitude caused by the likes of the Amoco Cadiz, Exxon Valdez, and most recently, the Prestige off the coast of Spain.

Growing Threat of Oil Spills

The timing of the proposed act is not coincidental. Russian oil companies, led by Yukos and LUKoil, are rapidly increasing the output from oil fields east of the Barents Sea. More oil is thus moving by tanker out of the Murmansk region and down along the Norwegian coast to customers in continental Europe or the United States. In October 2002 the first large shipment of oil was carried out of Murmansk towards Rotterdam on the modern Russian-controlled aframax-size tanker Moscow River.

A new export terminal for oil is also being planned at Murmansk. The terminal will be able to receive more and larger tankers - up to very large crude carrier size - and to handle an estimated output of 16 million tons of oil per year by 2010.

The huge Norwegian gas field Snohvit in the Barents Sea will also come on-stream in a few years. Gas from this field will be exported from the northern Norwegian port of Hammerfest by giant liquified natural gas carriers and transported along the Norwegian coast.

It is because of this increasing pollution threat that the Norwegian authorities have felt compelled to take action.


The proposed act would increase the Norwegian territorial sea by some 40,000 square kilometres (km) along the continental coastline, and by an additional 28,000 km around the islands of Svalbard and Jan Mayen in the Norwegian Sea.

More importantly, it would enable Norway to establish traffic separation zones along the coastline. Under international law, states may not interfere with the innocent passage of ships through their territorial sea. However, a state may establish traffic separation zones for safety reasons (Section 22 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982). Accordingly, Norway could direct tankers laden with oil and heading south to sail in a separation zone further out to sea than where they sail now. Northbound ships, which will mainly be shipping in ballast, would be allowed to travel closer to shore. This would reduce the possibility of a machinery failure or navigational error turning into a grounding, with resulting pollution, as occurred with the capesize-bulker Arisan and the panamax-bulker John R, respectively.

Further, Norwegian environmental legislation would become mandatory for larger sea areas. Widening the Norwegian territorial sea will enable the coastguard to exercise its powers further from the coastline than it can today, thus empowering it to order ships that pose an environmental hazard further out to sea than is presently allowed. Such powers could be of great help in cases where the master of a stricken vessel refuses to accept assistance, as occurred with the Arisan, which grounded and broke up off Alesund in 1992.

The proposed act may also make it easier for Norwegian authorities to intercept suspected illegal immigrants or drug smugglers.

Other Measures Under Consideration

The proposed act is only one of several measures being taken to prevent a Prestige-type disaster from striking the Norwegian coast. The Norwegian authorities have already reached a unique agreement with Russian authorities, whereby the Russians will give two to three days' prior notification before the departure from northwestern Russia of any laden tanker heading down along the Norwegian coastline. Other measures being considered include:

  • increasing the number of rescue tugs available in the northern parts of the country;

  • increasing the number of oil booms and skimmers available at depots along the coast; and

  • the establishment of new and better traffic control centres, like the one recently opened on Kvitsoy near Stavanger.

However, Norwegian authorities have ruled out the possibility of providing every laden tanker sailing along the coastline with an escort tug.

For further information please contact Gaute Gjelsten or Trond Eilertsen at Wikborg, Rein & Co by telephone (+47 22 82 75 00) or by fax (+47 22 82 75 01) or by email ([email protected] or [email protected]).