Regardless of whether Spanish energy giant Repsol decides to press ahead with its plans to develop the offshore fields close to Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, oil is now a reality in the Canary Islands. So far this year, more than 1,100 oil tankers have passed through the area, according to local maritime authorities. Many other, smaller vessels carrying hydrocarbons also navigate these Atlantic waters. In 2012, over 12 million tons of hydrocarbons passed through the archipelago, according to the Canary Islands Statistics Institute. Environmentalists and many local residents are angry about the increased traffic, and, fearing a spill, are organizing campaigns, as well as calling on the government to prepare contingency plans should a vessel be involved in an accident.
The Canary Islands was declared a Special Maritime Protection Zone by the UN's International Maritime Organization in 2005. This means that there are only two routes for vessels carrying dangerous cargoes through the islands. Such vessels must also inform the authorities about what they are carrying, where they have come from, and where they are heading. "This measure has been an improvement, but we need to do more. The area's marine life must be protected," says Beatriz Ayala of the Lanzarote branch of the World Wildlife Fund. Six of the seven islands are biosphere reserves.
If the Spanish government gives Repsol the green light to begin drilling for oil, the company will carry out two exploratory surveys around 60 kilometers off the coast of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, starting in May 2014. One of the main criticisms from opponents to the planned drilling is the absence of any contingency plan in the environmental impact report the company has prepared. Sources at Repsol say they are working on a plan, but do not know when it will be ready, but insist that an accident is "almost impossible." But they do admit that between 2006 and 2010 Repsol was responsible for more than 6,900 "incidents" worldwide involving not just exploration and drilling, but also land transport of crude oil.
The regional government of the Canary Islands is opposed to offshore drilling in the area, and is instead promoting its ports as a hub between Africa, the Americas and Europe. According to sources at the port in Las Palmas, in Gran Canaria, the islands receive ships from all over the world, the majority of them from Brazil and Equatorial Guinea.
"Around three or four oil rigs also come here each year, leaving between 800,000 and one million euros a day," says José Juan Socas, vice president of Fedeport, the port's business federation.
"There is no contradiction in rejecting exploration and promoting ourselves as a base for the global oil transport industry. We are not going to turn our backs on such an important industry," says regional deputy Fernando Ríos Rull of the Canaries Coalition.
Ríos Rull says it is the central government's job to provide contingency plans for how to deal with a potential oil spill. Sources at the Public Works Ministry say there are 13 vessels, along with a plane and two helicopters, based on Tenerife to deal with any accident involving an oil tanker. The ministry adds that Spain is part of a European rapid-response program to deal with spills. Ríos Rull argues that the Canary Islands has plans to deal with an emergency. "We are working on this, because if there is going to be drilling, then we need to be prepared. We will be discreet about it," he adds.
As well as vice president of Fedeport, Socas is also the head of the company that, among other things, is tasked with environment safety at Las Palmas port. He is critical of the regional government: "It should be carrying out emergency drills each year; its staff need to be trained." Jesús Cisneros, a physics lecturer at the University of Gran Canaria (ULPGC), and an expert in marine pollution, says not enough is being done to protect the archipelago's waters. He has analyzed Repsol's environmental impact study, and says the chance of a blowout is much greater than the company's estimate of one in 50,000, accusing it of basing its risk assessment on faulty methodology. "It is essential to install a detection system using buoys that automatically warn of a spill," he adds.
One of the main concerns about trying to control a spill in the archipelago is the currents, which would wash oil ashore not only on Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, but would also carry it to the rest of the islands. "There are a great many currents that converge on the islands. One of them begins on the African coast and then cuts through the eastern islands toward the south of Gran Canaria where it meets several others," says Alonso Hernández, the director of the Institute of Oceanography and Climate Change at ULPGC. "This is the dominant direction, but currents change, and there is a great deal of variability, which creates huge eddies," he adds.
A spill's behavior depends in large part on how deep under the water it is. If it is on the surface, it will be moved around by the wind. But if it takes place at significant depths — Repsol expects to be producing at between 800 and 1,000 meters — then it will be dependent on the ocean's currents.
Scientists say the Canary Islands are not only at risk from oil exploration and drilling in Spanish waters. "It's not just about deciding whether we want oil drilling in the Canary Islands, but about readying ourselves for a catastrophe that could take place somewhere else," says José Mangas, professor of geology at ULPGC. "A spill off the Moroccan coast could cause serious damage to the Canary Islands' ecosystem. We have to be prepared for this kind of eventuality," he says.