This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.

At a distance of 280km from the Norwegian mainland, stands what the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage calls one of the “largest and most complex cultural monuments of our time” (Kulturminne Ekofisk). Descending through 75m of the North Sea to subsea formations 2900- 3250m below the seafloor and rising around 100m above the 30m extreme wave threshold, Ekofisk City is a production hub and center of field operations for this extreme south-eastern corner of the Norwegian continental shelf (Kvendseth, 1988).

Fig. 2. Schematic diagram of the Greater Ekofisk area (ConocoPhillips)

At its height, this vast machine represented the greatest concentration of infrastructure on the North Sea, comprising 8 oil-and gas-fields, 32 platforms, 2 flare stacks, and an oil storage tank the size of a city block (Trotter, 1974). Ekofisk City was constructed for the purpose of extracting petroleum- the driving force of our contemporary societies and perhaps the most characteristic viscous material of our time.

Viscosity is a fluid’s resistance to flow. Fluids with a naturally high viscosity are frequently valuable (oil), precious (honey) or essential to life (blood). Viscosity is inherently relational, depending not only on the composition of the fluid but also on temperature and environment. At increased temperatures, solid gold, steel or sand become viscous fluids and can be poured into molds to take on new solid shapes. In this way viscosity disrupts binary assumptions such as the boundary between solid and liquid (Barry 2018). To discuss the volumetric sovereignty of viscosity—the laws and principles by which it is shaped and the spaces produced by interactions with viscous materials—we argue that it is necessary to consider both its physical and metaphorical properties.

Spaces that resist binary assumptions are frequently transitional or intermediary. At the littoral zones of intersection between land and sea, a viscous space of rich exchange exists where terrestrial and marine ecosystems intertwine, and land- and seaborne urban systems converge. These are also challenging places for planning and design, since viscosity eludes constant states and formats but is volumetric and requires space to maneuver. Planners have not always ceded space to viscous processes, rather have prioritized the binaries of fixity or flow, and in doing so have negated the inherent volumetric sovereignty of viscosity. On the other hand, principles of fluid dynamics – the flow of liquids and gases – steer innumerable urban services and processes. But traditions have seeped into our contemporary behaviors, laws, and thinking, effectively creating viscous governmental structures and policies despite the pressure to flow. Hence, viscosity is all around us but seldom discussed.

Petroleum is a thick and coveted liquid which does not easily flow and which drives much institutional viscosity. Despite its ubiquity in industrialized northern Europe, its volume is difficult to measure – the spaces which form the petroleumscape are multi-layered (or palimpsestic), sometimes thin and ephemeral, and mostly secured and disguised (Hein, 2018). They are so omnipresent as to hardly be noticed and so obscured as to remain far out of mind. For the petroleum industry, the invisibility of its volumetric infrastructure is crucial- it is communicated to the public as a simplified, effortless, flowing linear system in order to avoid societal debate over the ownership of oil or the environmental damage caused by extraction and production (Couling & Hein, 2018). To examine the volumetric sovereignty of the petroleumscape is to encounter a microcosm of the contradictory relations between water, oil and land—relations characterized throughout by the opposing properties of friction and malleability.

Native northern European oil is found offshore. Sprawling North Sea agglomerations such as Ekofisk City are designed to force petroleum to flow from the sophisticated injection of high-pressure liquids into reservoirs deep under the seafloor, pressing hydrocarbons up to the preliminary processing stations on makeshift steel settlements high above the waves, to the pumping of oil through pipelines and into the global supply networks downstream. All of these actions require powerful machinery, complex infrastructure, multinational investments, purpose-built legal frameworks, and a constant workforce that circulates around the North Sea (each person on rig tours of 2-3 weeks).

Fig. 3. Jack-up accommodation rig, Haven, 2018 (Couling)

Brent crude, one of the five major international oil benchmarks against which oil is evaluated and priced, is based on oil from the Brent, Forties, Oseberg and Ekofisk fields in the North Sea. It is a sweet, light crude with a dynamic viscosity of 16 mPa.s, (Environmental Technology Centre, 2001) which is less than crude from the Opec Reference Basket and easier to pump, transport, and refine—and hence more valuable.  Originally transported by ship, crude oil is now mostly delivered through pipelines that criss-cross the bed of the North Sea. Minimizing viscosity/maximizing flow through these lines is an industry priority.

Compared to petroleum, water is fluid, but compared to freshwater, the sea is thick and viscous. Although our perception of the sea is overwhelmingly focused on the surface (literally superficial), the body of the sea is a volume composed of distinct water-masses differentiated by salinity, temperature, and atmospheric pressure. Stratification occurs when bottom currents and salinity differ from those of the surface, creating saline boundaries and temperature gradients in seasonal variations. So in the North Sea, denser, saltier water of a higher viscosity flows seasonally below less saline surface water in an arc through the North Sea from the Atlantic to the Skagerrak and the entrance to the Baltic Sea.

Compared to land, however, the sea has a low viscosity (Kayle & Laby, 1995). At sea, border and ownership conditions which create resistance on land, are reduced and subject to interpretation. Subsea pipelines and cables hold a privileged position in international law—their installation cannot be prevented by bordering states. Public and corporate actors can achieve undisputed large-scale interventions and companies can simply drop cables into the sea from vessels in open waters (Starosielski, 2015). The sea is therefore a favored site for network infrastructure, and companies steer valuable flows through fibre-optic cables and gas and oil pipelines.

In particular in relation to oil, the sea’s volume is ruled by viscous sovereignty. The United Nations developed the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UN, 1982)—the comprehensive legal framework for ocean space—largely in response to pressure from the post-war oil industry and to President Truman’s claim that the US had sovereignty over resources on its continental shelf (Chapman, 1976). The resulting Exclusive Economic Zone rule stipulated that littoral nations have the right to exploit resources up to 200 nautical miles offshore, in what had previously been international waters.

Fig. 4. The Exclusive Economic Zone offshore, UNCLOS (Couling)

Governments license surface blocks to oil companies, temporarily “renting them out,” but those blocks are merely abstract outlines far above the space of true interest- ancient geological formations thousands of metres below the seabed. Measuring 9km in width x 12 km in length and 300m in height, the Ekofisk reservoir is only one of many within the Ekofisk geological formation; it in turn is part of the vast Mandal-Ekofisk system of sedimentary rocks, an area below the central North Sea of around 90 x 280 km.

Fig 5. Lithostratigraphic chart of the Norwegian North Sea (Norwegian Petroleum Directorate)

The volume of a surface block’s water column – its composition, currents, temperature and marine life – is of no relevance to companies’ interests in either the two-dimensional 200 nautical mile border extensions or the grid of licensing blocks.

Fig. 6. The North Sea petroleum extraction grid. (Couling)

Oil platforms are either fixed directly to the seafloor by steel or concrete foundations, or they are floating vessels connected solely by anchor lines and risers delivering oil from wellheads attached to the seabed. They are connected to submerged land, as if the viscous sea did not exist and the waters that swept in to flood “Doggerland” in the central North Sea roughly 10,000 years ago (Spinney 2012), had again retreated.

The North Sea is the world’s largest agglomeration of drilling rigs (Statistica, 2018) which is up for decommissioning as mature wells run dry.

Fig. 6 Decommissioning the Brent Delta topside 2017. Source: Able Ports UK

Over the last 50 years, this infrastructure has filled up the North Sea floor, water column and surface and increased its overall resistence to flow. At the same time, trawlers swept clean the once stony seafloor of the southern North Sea, leaving only sand. Marine life has colonised petroleum hardware, infiltrating the metal surfaces that provide a diversification of habitat. Although by law, companies must remove installations from the seabed, the evolution of subsea foundations into habitats has triggered discussions among environmental groups on its possible long-term function as a system of artificial reefs. This would be one way in which the viscous condition of the “cultivated sea”—a rich entanglement of cultural and natural systems—can be given space.

Authors’ Note

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 753882


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