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The Swedish Continental Shelf Act

Whether in relation to exploring and extracting natural resources from the continental shelf or using the seabed in different ways, the Swedish Act on the continental shelf usually requires the issuing of a permit. Here we explain when you need a permit and how to apply for a permit. We also clarify different concepts linked to the Act.

To explore and extract natural resources from the continental shelf, a permit is required according to the Act (1966:314) on the continental shelf (Continental Shelf Act). The permit requirement also applies, for example, to investigations for the construction of offshore wind turbines and the laying of cables and pipelines on the seabed. 

Permits for the exploration of the continental shelf are normally granted by the Geological Survey of Sweden (SGU) or sometimes by the government (applies from 1 July 2022). Permits for laying cables and pipelines on the seabed or for constructing offshore wind farms are issued by the government, Permits for extracting natural resources from the continental shelf are also issued by the government, except for sand, gravel or stone extraction within marine public water areas, where permits are normally issued by SGU.

The continental shelf

In geological terms, the continental shelf is that part of the seabed that belongs to a tectonic plate. The continental shelf is generally 0-500 meters deep and ends in a continental slope.

kontinental-627x428.jpg

The map shows the relative depths of water, by shading, for the North Atlantic, North Sea and Baltic Sea. In the image, the continental shelf comprises the lighter blue fields adjacent to the land and the shelf is tilted at the continental slopes off the west coast of Norway, Great Britain, Ireland and France. The Swedish seabed is part of the continental shelf.

The continental shelf is also defined legally (and thus not just geologically), inter alia under the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Convention on the Law of the Sea is a global UN convention on how the countries of the world divide up the global ocean and its resources, i.e. the continental shelf and the seabed, but also the water column itself (the water mass). 

In Sweden, we have also adopted a national Act on the continental shelf, which implements the previous 1958 Convention on the Continental shelf and the Convention on the Law of the Sea. According to the act, the continental shelf is defined as the seabed and its base in the public water area and in a specific area outside the sea territory (or territorial waters), the so-called economic zone. You can read more about territorial waters and the public water area below.

karta-ekozon-legend-i-bild627.jpg

The map shows the legal limits for the Swedish continental shelf, for the Swedish territorial sea and for the Swedish economic zone, as well as the general spread of sediments and bedrock in the upper part of the seabed.

About the Swedish sea territory (territorial waters)

Sweden's sea territory includes so-called internal waters and the so-called territorial sea.

Inland waters include land and sea water areas within the national border and the so-called base lines. Baselines (normal and straight) are used under the Convention on the Law of the Sea to calculate the breadth of the territorial sea and are drawn between the baselines identified by the coastal state along its own coast. The territorial sea extends in principle 12 nautical miles beyond the area of internal waters.

Water belonging to an estate is referred to as individual water. Water that does not belong to the estate is referred to as public water. Public water is found in the sea, as well as in the lakes Vänern, Vättern, Hjälmaren and Storsjön. The other lakes consist only of private waters (see the Swedish Public Water Areas (Boundaries) Act [1950:595]).

Why a licence is required

According to the Swedish Continental Shelf Act, only the state has the right to explore the continental shelf and to extract its natural resources. However, the act also states that the government – or the authority appointed by the government – may issue a permit to parties other than the state to explore the continental shelf and to extract resources from it.

Permits are therefore generally required to explore the continental shelf and to extract natural resources from it, but as indicated, only for parties other than the state. A government administrative body does not therefore need a permit under the Continental Shelf Act.

Exploration may include, for example, geophysical measurement, measurement of the seabed from ships, drilling or blasting. Such investigations may be necessary, amongst other things for the establishment of offshore wind power, demonstration facilities for wave power or for pipelines or underwater cables to be laid on the seabed.

The continental shelf’s natural resources include mineral and other non-living natural resources on or in the seabed. For example, sand, gravel and stone can be used for bridge construction, beach nourishment, wind power foundations etc.

No permit is required for the capture of living organisms. However, note that the Swedish Fishing Act (1993:787) regulates fishing activities in Sweden's sea territory and in Sweden's economic zone.

Note that the terms of the Swedish Continental shelf Act on exploration and extraction also apply in principle to the laying of underwater cables and pipelines on the seabed, both in territorial waters and in the economic zone. The same applies to so-called carbon capture and storage.

Is it possible to obtain a licence for oil or gas operations?

No, the Swedish Continental shelf Act explicitly prohibits this.

Permit period of validity

The Swedish Continental Shelf Act only stipulates that a permit shall apply for a specified period of time. An exploration permit is normally limited to a period of validity of 3 - 5 years.

In relation to mining permits granted by SGU (see paragraph below "Applying for permits"), pursuant to the Proclamation concerning the Application of the Act on the Continental Shelf, permits may be valid for a maximum of 10 years.

A permit must be conditional

A permit shall be subject to the conditions necessary to protect public interests and individual rights, such as protecting human health and the environment against damage and inconvenience, promoting the long-term good management of land and water and other resources, and ensuring safety.

These conditions may relate, inter alia, to measures to prevent air or water pollution, protect wildlife, preserve deposits or boreholes, or to protect shipping or fishing.

They may relate to the way in which the undertaking is managed, the performance of the work, the design of facilities on the continental shelf for the work or the use of the products. The conditions may also relate to requirements for maps of works, sampling and reporting of activities.

Does a licence also constitute an exclusive right to explore or extract resources in the area in question?

No, other than in relation to permits to explore the continental shelf for carbon capture and storage.

Consequently, the Swedish Continental Shelf Act does not contain any provisions governing exclusive rights in the same way as the Swedish Minerals Act, for example, does. However, Section 7 of the Swedish Continental Shelf Act states that, in the case permits for extraction, work carried out under older permits must not be prevented by rights established by a more recent permit. The work must therefore be organised in such a way that holders of the previous permit have priority to carry out their work efficiently and to the minimum detriment of the holder of the more recent permit.

It may also be mentioned that the surveying of the continental shelf or the extraction of its natural resources must not be carried out in such a way as to damage underwater pipelines or to improperly encroach on shipping, fisheries or marine biology resources. Holders of permits (pursuant to the Swedish Continental shelf Act) are also responsible for ensuring that work to lay or maintain cables or pipelines within the permit area is carried out without undue impediment to the activity of the permit holder. Permit holders are also responsible for ensuing that specific scientific research is carried out within the permit area (Section 6 of the Proclamation concerning the Application of the Act on the Continental Shelf).

Applying for a permit

An application for a permit to explore the continental shelf is usually reviewed by SGU. If survey activities concern another state, are extensive in scale, or may cause significant harmful effects, or if the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management or the Swedish Armed Forces request it, SGU will express its own opinion and refer the case to the government for review.

Applications for permits, for example, to lay underwater cables and pipelines on the seabed, or to construct offshore wind farms, are reviewed by the government. Permits to extract natural resources from the continental shelf are also reviewed by the government.

Permits

However, if a permit application is submitted for sand, gravel or stone extraction in marine public water areas, SGU is the agency that reviews the application. If the extraction is on a larger scale, may have significant harmful effects, of if the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency or the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management request it, SGU will express its own opinion and refer the case to the government.

About survey methods

General

Exploration (surveying) of the seabed (continental shelf) can be carried out in a variety of ways, for example, by bottom sampling and video filming, or by drilling, blasting, piling, cone pressure testing and so-called vibrocoring. Surveys can also be carried out by geophysical measurement, for example with magnetometers and gradiometers. Surveying can also be carried out by sound-generating measurement methods, i.e. with various types of hydroacoustic measuring instruments, such as multi-beam sonar, side-scanning sonar, sediment sonar and seismics.

Both vessel movements (the survey vessel) and physical interventions in the seabed can generate sounds that can have negative consequences, especially for marine mammals, porpoises and seals. This applies to an even greater extent to sound-generating measurement methods, where instruments with certain lower frequencies – for example, seismic, sedimentation sonar (so-called SBP, sub-bottom profiles) or side-scanning sonar with low frequency sounds – are not possible at all in certain areas and in certain periods and otherwise only on condition that this is done under certain conditions, such as the use of so-called passive acoustic monitoring, as well as the so-called soft start-up of the surveying equipment. It may also be necessary to use various scaring methods and to have a dedicated observer with marine biological competence on the survey vessel.

The planning and conducting of surveys requires extensive and careful consideration. There are a number of market players offering these services.

Specific information on surveying prior to the laying of an underwater cable or pipeline

In general, a survey prior to the laying of a underwater cable or pipeline should focus, amongst other things, on mapping of sedimentation types to the relevant sediment depth, for example to determine where to take an environmental toxicity sample and to establish which methods (e.g. flushing, ploughing, covering) are best suited to laying the cable or pipeline in the sediment to the required depth. Normally, surveys should initially be performed using appropriate hydroacoustic measurement. The measurement data is then interpreted in order to determine, for example, where accumulation bottoms are located. Only then is it possible for environmental sampling at relevant locations to take place in order to find possible environmental toxins. For reliable results, environmental sampling requires high precision and therefore needs to be carried out at a suitable site, with appropriate equipment and by expert and experienced personnel.

Contents of the application

The main content that an application must have is established by the Proclamation concerning the Application of the Act on the Continental Shelf. However, the requirements for the content of the application are different depending on the application (for example, surveying the seabed, sand extraction or laying underwater cables).

It is therefore always necessary to assess what information an application should contain on a case-by-case basis:

  • information on the applicant, address, etc.,
  • information on the area and the period for which the application is made,
  • information on the activity, its purpose, which vessel(s), platforms, methods, instruments and sampling equipment are being deployed,
  • information needed to assess compliance with the general review rules laid down in chapter 2 of the environmental code and to assess the possible impact of the activities on the biological and physical environment;
  • information on hydrography, for example water depth, exposure to wave effects, currents and stratification and properties of the water mass;
  • information on geology, for example, the make-up of the seabed, properties, geotechnical conditions and the distribution of sediment, bedrock and surface substrates, as well as the structure of the seabed, properties, geotechnical conditions and make-up (sediment layers) down to the relevant sediment depth below the seabed surface; in some cases also information on the existence of natural erosion protection in the form of coarse residuals, young mud-rich sediments and sulphur-bearing sediments, known as sulphide soil
  • information on sediment-dynamic conditions, such as the occurrence of erosion, transport or accumulation bottom at the site, the occurrence of accumulation of fine-grained sediments with a high organic content, sand transport systems and fine-grained sediments with natural erosion protection on the erosion or transport bottom);
  • an indication of environmental conditions and loads, for example: content of high levels of organic pollutants and metals, see Class 5 and higher levels according to the criteria of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency; in particular with reference to young mud and silt sediments;
  • information on flora and fauna, for example: presence of number of species, number of individuals, vegetation, marine mammals, bird life, species of animal or plant which are threatened, rare or require consideration for any other reason;
  • information on, amongst other things, sand, gravel and mineral resources, pollution situation in sediments and water, antiquities, aberrant objects, wrecks, unexploded ordnance, etc. in the area in question,
  • information on the measures the applicant considers necessary to prevent water pollution and encroachment of shipping, fisheries and other public and private interests;
  • work program for the activities,
  • information on the applicant's technical and economic conditions for the activities,
  • map (prepared in accordance with SGU instructions for the individual case), positions (preferably in SWEREF 99 TM) and a description of the site in question,
  • copy of/information on the necessary distribution permits (see paragraph below "Specific information on hydrographic surveying and distribution permits", and
  • environmental impact assessment (if required).

When is an environmental impact assessment required?

If the application relates to exploration of the continental shelf involving blasting or drilling, or if the application is for the extraction of natural resources from the shelf, the applicant is normally required to draw up an environmental impact assessment in accordance with the provisions established in Chapter 6 of the Environmental Code, if the activity or measure is likely to have significant environmental impacts.

Obtaining the required information

In the general planning for construction or extraction, SGU's marine-geological products can be used, such as maps with themes in various presentation scales and related descriptions, as well as information from the sediment samples taken.

SGU also has results from analyses of a variety of heavy metals and organic compounds in samples taken in marine areas where sediments accumulate (sedimentation), giving an indication of environmental conditions and load.

All of these data provide an overview of the properties of the seabed and sediments for different sea areas and are displayed on the SGU map viewer Marine geology, Marine geology metals and nutrients, Marine geology organic environmental toxins and Environmental monitoring, marine sediments. Descriptions are available at SGU Geolager. The databases can also be ordered through SGU customer services.

To obtain detailed information on the data that should be included in an application for extraction or laying of pipes/cables, you may be required to conduct your own surveys (which may also be subject to licensing, see the above paragraph "Why a permit is required"). For example, surveys of seabed conditions (physical environment as well as biology) and sampling and analysis of sediments at the site in question.

The studies can be carried out using, amongst other things, hydroacoustic instruments such as multi-beam sonar, side-scan sonar or sedimentation sonar) and/or geophysical instruments such as magnetometers).

Handling licence cases

Provisions on handling are laid down both in the Swedish Continental shelf Act and in the Proclamation concerning the Application of the Act on the Continental Shelf. General procedural rules are also laid down in the Swedish Administrative Procedure Act (2017:900).

A case is essentially handled as follows:

  • The application and its annexes, as well as any environmental impact assessment, are checked. If supplements are required, they are requested from the applicant.
  • The application is referred to the relevant authorities, such as the Swedish Armed Forces, the Swedish Coast Guard, the Swedish Maritime Administration, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management and the Swedish National Heritage Board In addition, the matter is sent to the relevant county boards and, in the case of wind power or gas pipelines, also to the Swedish Energy Agency and the Energy Markets Inspectorate.
  • The applicant is given the opportunity to respond to the comments received.
  • SGU collates the comments received and the applicant's response to them.
  • SGU makes a judgement on the case. SGU's knowledge and experience of the geological conditions of the site and the possible environmental impact of marine activities are in many cases of crucial importance to the assessment.
  • SGU makes a decision on the case. If the application must be reviewed by the government, SGU submits an opinion to the government with a decision-making proposal (including a proposal for terms and conditions).

Usual duration of the processing period

In accordance with the Swedish Continental shelf Act, SGU's processing of a case takes an average of approximately 6-12 months. If the matter is dealt with on behalf of the government, the government's own time for processing the matter is added to this. However, the duration of the proceedings may be shorter and longer depending on the circumstances of the individual case.

Sometimes only one application is sufficient

Sometimes it is sufficient to submit an application to SGU instead of a permit application. This is the case for certain scientific surveys carried out by a Swedish scientific institution or another survey carried out by a Swedish natural or legal person within the territorial boundary and which does not include, amongst other things, blasting, drilling or any other significant intervention in nature. Note that the notification obligation, just like the licensing obligation (see information under the heading "Why a permit is required" above), only applies to parties other than the State. A government administrative body therefore is not required to submit a notification.

Notification must be submitted in writing to SGU at least 14 days before the start of the work.

There is no explicit regulation determining what a notification should contain. However, it must contain the information necessary for SGU to be able to determine whether the activity is actually only subject to the notification obligation or whether a permit must be applied for. In addition, a notification must contain information on the area to be surveyed and sufficient information to assess any protective measures and precautions which the applicant should be required to take. SGU may ask the applicant to submit such information if it is not given in the notification.

With regard to both the issue of notification or licensing obligations and the issue of any safeguards and precautions that may be necessary, there are a large number of factors that should be taken into account, such as:

  • the duration of the survey (the survey period),
  • when the survey is going to take place (time of year),
  • how large the survey area is (geographical extent, coordinates),
  • the type of site concerned (e.g. based on marine-geological conditions or on whether the area is protected, such as Natura 2000 areas or equivalent)
  • the type of survey or survey method concerned (for example, penetrating sonar, multi-beam sonar, side-scan sonar, video surveying, etc.),
  • if bottom samples or sediment samples are to be taken in a particular way (for example, with clamshell bucket, box corer or equivalent) and in such a quantity or volume that the sampling may have a significant impact on the bottom,
  • the water depth at which the sediment is to be sampled and to which depth (in the sediment),
  • whether so-called cumulative effects may arise, in particular as a result of the fact that in the area in question, activities impacting the environment are already being carried out and
  • whether the issue concerns a so-called UXO survey (survey of the seabed to detect unexploded ordinance).

About SGU's service obligation

SGU, like all administrative bodies, has a specific service obligation to individuals (see Section 6 of the Swedish Administrative Procedure Act [2017:900]). However, this obligation does not extend to providing, for example, legal advice or assistance with the development of an application, for example by giving various forms of prior notification. It also follows that SGU has to avoid competing with private operators and therefore may only carry out contract activities to a limited extent (see Section 10 of Ordinance [2008:1233] instructing the Geological Survey of Sweden). In addition, prior notification, etc., may conflict with SGU's role as the reviewing and supervisory authority responsible for the Swedish Continental Shelf Regulation.

Licences may be revoked

Licences may be revoked by the government or by SGU (if the permit has been granted by SGU) if the provisions or the terms and conditions have not been observed. Revocation may also take place for exceptional reasons, but the permit holder may be entitled to compensation.

SGU has the right to receive geological results

SGU is normally entitled to follow the work of the permit holder in geological terms and to receive the geological results of the work (Section 9, Swedish Continental Shelf Act). Permits (and notification decisions) pursuant to the Swedish Continental Shelf Regulation therefore include a condition stipulating that, upon completion of the surveys, a copy of all geological/geotechnical information collected from the Swedish continental shelf area, both raw data and interpretations and summaries, must be submitted to SGU in a format approved by SGU.

A summary of formats approved by SGU is set out below. SGU also generally accepts formats equivalent to those listed below.

  Data type Format Comment
Raw data Profile data SEG-Y, version 1.X Sub bottom data
  Side scan sonar data (HF/LF) XTF  
  Data from Multi beam, Swath sonar, etc. Instrument´s default format Depth and backscatter data including all relevant sensor data
  Video Optional default format Incl. position File if available
  Photo Optional default format Incl. position File if available
  Sensor data Optional default format Incl. position File if available (e.g. CTD, SVP, oxygen and current)
  Magnetometer/gradiometer data Optional default format  
Overview maps Line map/line maps ESRI Shape and pdf Position overview (Trackchart) for all measuring instruments/data types
  Point map/point maps ESRI Shape and pdf position overview (Pointchart) for all sample points/observation points/measurement points/photo points/video points/sensor points, etc.
Processed data Processed profile data SEG-Y, version 1.X Best available resolution and quality
  Side scan sonar data (HF/LF) Mosaic in GeoTIFF (floating point) Best available resolution and quality
  Multi-beam data, swath data etc. GSF Cleared data
  Depth data (Multi-beam, Swath sonar, etc.) GeoTIFF (floating point) and BAG Best available resolution and quality
  Backscatter data (Multi-beam, etc.) GeoTIFF (FLOATING POINT, Db) Best available resolution and quality
 

Magnetometer data (Anomalies)

GeoTIFF (floating point)

Best available resolution and quality

Interpreted/classified data

Maps (geological, biological, etc.)

ESRI Shape (incl. lyr file) and pdf

Shape in the best available resolution and quality. PDF in scale and format that enables viewing.

 

Profiles (geological)

pdf

In scale and format that enables viewing.

 Other data

Observation descriptions and logs

pdf or optional default format

For example, descriptions from camera observations, sediment samples and CPT measurements.

 

Analysis results

pdf or optional default format

E.g. Particle size analyses and environmental chemical analyses.

 

Reports

 pdf

 

 

Summaries

 pdf

 

 

Project description

 pdf

Free text about project and data

All data must be handed over when the data are collated, processed or produced under licence (or notification) in accordance with the Swedish Continental Shelf Regulation. All data must include coordinates.

SGU and the Swedish Coast Guard are responsible for supervision

SGU oversees compliance with the regulations and conditions governing licences under the Swedish Continental Shelf Act;

However, the Swedish Coast Guard is responsible for supervision in respect of the laying of underwater cables and pipelines on the continental shelf outside territorial waters.

It is a criminal offence not to comply with the provisions of the Swedish Continental shelf Act

You can be sentenced to fines or imprisonment if, for example, you explore the continental shelf without permission or if you infringe a licence condition. However, in certain cases, special government decisions are required for prosecution purposes.

Here are the rules!

The rules on licensing obligations, etc., are primarily laid down in the Act (1966:314) on the Continental shelf and in the Proclamation (1966:315) concerning the Application of the Act on the Continental Shelf.

In addition, there are a large number of relevant provisions in other legislation, for example:

  • The Environmental Code (including general rules of consideration, management provisions, environmental quality standards and provisions on environmental impact assessment and Natura 2000 sites)
  • Act (2017:1272) on Swedish Territorial Waters and maritime zones
  • Act (1992:1140) on the Swedish Economic Zone
  • The Public Water Areas (Boundaries) Act (1950:595)
  • Act (2016:319) on the protection of geographical information (inter alia, on hydrographic surveying and distribution permits)
  • Act (1996:518) on liability for compensation for damage to underwater cables, pipelines, etc.
  • Electricity Act (1997:857) (on network concessions, etc.)
  • Act (1978:160) on specific pipelines

Specific information on hydrographic surveying and distribution licences

The Act (2016:319) on the protection of geographical Information establishes provisions for the protection of data relevant to total defence. The Act contains provisions limiting the right to hydrographic surveying. According to the Act, "hydrographic surveying" means the permanent recording of geographical information in a specific water area or at a specific distance from a water area. As a general rule, no hydrographic surveys may be carried out in Swedish territorial waters, except lakes, rivers and canals. Issues relating to permits for hydrographic surveying are reviewed by the Swedish Armed Forces.

The Act also contains provisions limiting the right to dissemination of a summary of geographical information. According to the Act, a summary of geographical information refers to geographical information in the form of mapping, description or measurement. As a general rule, such dissemination is prohibited if the summary refers to conditions in a specific water area or at a specific distance from a water area which relates to Swedish territorial waters, except lakes, rivers and canals. Issues concerning permits for the dissemination of summaries of geographical information shall be reviewed by the Swedish Maritime Administration if the conditions apply to Swedish territorial waters.

Last reviewed 2022-07-06