Once a year, oil companies in Norway get together and dump oil into the North Sea. Don’t worry — it’s not what you might think. In fact, it’s an annual drill meant to increase preparedness and improve responses to oil spills worldwide.
Petroleum is big business in Norway — the country is the world’s seventh-largest producer of oil and the industry’s revenues make up 30 percent of the government’s income. But with opportunity comes the risk of oil spills that could devastate the environment. So, since the 1980s, the country has hosted the Oil on Water Exercise, an annual offshore oil cleanup drill that tests preparedness and new cleanup technologies.
The exercise is conducted by NOFO, the Norwegian Clean Seas Association for Operating Companies. According to the organization’s website, the association conducts hundreds of “dry” cleanup simulations every year, but oil on water is different. Taking advantage of Norwegian laws which allow oil to be released for the purpose of testing, the organization lets oil loose on open waters. Then, it tests different cleanup procedures, trains workers, deploys new technologies and compiles the results into an annual report that attracts international interest in the field.
During this year’s exercise, which took place between June 8 and 11, one of the participants was NASA. It was the space agency’s first time at the exercise, and scientists took advantage of the rare opportunity to test a new device in real, not simulated, oil spill conditions. In a release, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory details its test of a specialized aircraft that flies above an oil-slicked area and uses radar to detect the presence and depth of oil.
Regular oil spill drills aren’t the only sign of Norway’s cautious attitude toward oil. Last year, the BBC’s Sarah Treanor reported that the country has avoided “the curse of oil” with careful investments of oil revenues into a sovereign wealth fund that serves as a “giant savings account” for Norwegians.
That fund is now worth about $890 billion. But though it’s been touted as a bastion of responsible investment, it has also been the subject of controversy. Recently, the Norwegian Parliament raised eyebrows with an announcement that the fund will divest itself of companies that derive significant properties from coal mining — despite the fact that the country continues to bet big on other fossil fuels.