Making money or preserving nature? – The Greenlanders’ opinion about oil industry

by Arto Heitto, Liine Heikkinen, Nina Sarnela, Otso Peräkylä, Yuqin Liu and Heikki Junninen

Currently fishing is the primary livelihood of Greenland. In order to achieve stronger economy Greenland is investigating the potential of new sources of income: oil drilling is one of the most prominent ones. Oil industry in the pristine Arctic environment easily provokes negative thoughts among people looking at it from a distance. But what are the feelings of people that would really be affected by it? This is what we wanted to find out when we made our way to Greenland’s national oil company, Nunaoil, for discussion and also conducted a small survey on the streets of Nuuk to find out opinions of citizens towards oil industry.

Treasure hunting in the Arctic sea

Nunaoil is a small company with five staff members. It participates in all oil exploration and exploitation licences in Greenland. This Greenland’s government-owned company has been working for over thirty years now but in addition to some test drillings, no oil has yet been drilled in Greenland nor has any decision about starting to do that been made. We went to meet Nunaoil’s legal advisor, Betina Præstiin, and  senior geologist, Signe Ulfelt Hede, to discuss Greenland’s prospects in oil industry and got warmly welcomed to the office of Nunaoil in the centre of Nuuk. In the interview their love of Greenland and strong need to strengthen its economy came across.

Currently there are 17 active exploration licences in five different sites in Greenland, Annual Report 2015, Nunaoil AS
Currently there are 17 active exploration licences in five different sites in Greenland, Annual Report 2015, Nunaoil AS

Betina and Signe see the oil exploration as a treasure hunt – large discovery of oil could really make a difference for Greenland. Oil industry was seen as a mean to achieve the needed economic growth and the possible risks that could come along with it were thought to be under control due to the liability contracts under which all the oil companies are working. Betina and Signe introduced us to the thought that Greenlanders don’t want their land to be just a national park where tourists can visit and send a postcard from, but instead they want it to be more independent, well functioning state. The discussion gave us a lot of new information but left us wondering what is the public opinion in Greenland towards the oil industry.

Arctic summer school students Nina Sarnela, Liine Heikkinen, Yuqin Liu, Arto Heitto and Otso Peräkylä discussing about the potential of oil industry in Greenland with a senor geologist Signe Ulfelt Hede and legal advisor Betina Præstiin (fourth and fifth from the right) from Nunaoil in Nuuk.


Finding the public opinion in Nuuk

So to get some insight about the public opinion, we then scattered to the streets of Nuuk to make a quick survey about the people’s attitudes towards the oil industry in Greenland. We asked a total of 28 people how they felt about starting oil industry in Greenland and got 27 answers, both for and against the idea. Unfortunately, due to our shortage in language skills, we were mainly restricted to interviewees that spoke English, but still we felt that we got quite good overview of public opinions.  We were a bit surprised to find out that the majority of the people we met didn’t have any strong opinions about the issue. This is actually quite understandable since even though the explorations have been done for years, no decision about starting the oil industry has been done, so the topic is not on top of people’s minds.

The outcome of our survey in the centre of Nuuk showed that the opinions were quite equally divided for and against oil industry in Greenland. We interviewed 28 people aged between 20 and 70 years who were living or have lived in Greenland and got 27 answers to our survey.

Getting a new perspective

When doing the survey we heard several thoughts and concerns of the citizens. The economic situation of Greenland was on people’s mind and many of the interviewees were in favour of oil industry because it’s possible contribution to economic growth. The concerns that rose in many discussions were the possible changes in society due to immigrants coming to work in Greenland and the environmental risks. Since the fishing industry is currently the main livelihood in Greenland, the possible conflicts with it were also worrying some of the citizens. In total the opinions were divided very equally between positive and negative feelings towards oil industry. We had a fun day discussing with many friendly Greenlanders and we learned totally new perspectives to the prospects of oil industry in Greenland from them. We can recommend this kind of exercise to all natural scientists – just go out and listen to the opinions and ideas of the public. We promise it will widen your perspective of things!

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