From The Independent
Internal company documents seen by The Independent show that the worst-case scenario for a spill from its North Uist exploratory well, to be sunk next year, would involve a leak of 75,000 barrels a day for 140 days – a total of 10.5 million barrels of oil, comfortably the world’s biggest pollution disaster.
This would be more than double the amount of oil spilled from its Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico last year, which had a maximum leak rate of 62,000 barrels a day in an incident lasting 88 days – and triggered a social, economic and environmental catastrophe in the US which brought the giant multinational to the brink of collapse.
The North Uist well, in a seabed block named after the Hebridean island but located 80 miles north-west of Shetland, is part of BP’s ongoing attempts to open up the West of Shetland sea area, sometimes referred to as the “Atlantic Frontier”, as a rich new oil province to replace the dwindling productivity of the North Sea.
The project appeared to have been shelved by the former BP chief executive Tony Hayward last year in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon and the barrage of criticism directed at the company for its safety record. But it is now going ahead, and the well will be drilled by a drilling ship, the Stena Caron, some time from January onwards, as long as it is given a licence by the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne.
The company already has three West of Shetland wells producing oil, at depths from 140 to 500 metres (460 to 1,640ft). But North Uist, described by BP as “stepping out, in terms of depth”, will be nearly three times as deep, at 1,290m below the surface, in immensely testing conditions similar to those of its ill-fated Gulf well, which was located 1,500 metres down, and began its unprecedented “gusher” leak in April last year.
The difficulty of capping a gushing well at such depths, vividly illustrated by the three months it took for Deepwater Horizon to be staunched, is greatly concerning British environmentalists who point out that the waters which might be affected by a North Uist spill are among the most wildlife-rich in all the UK.
Seabirds including many rare species are found in enormous concentrations on Shetland, the nearest landmass to any spill, and in the surrounding waters, which also contain large numbers of whales, dolphins and seals, as well as substantial fish stocks.
A major destination for wildlife tourism, Shetland has already been badly affected by a previous oil spill, that of the tanker MV Braer, which ran aground on Shetland in January 1993. BP documents referring to the North Uist project themselves list more than 20 vulnerable Shetland nature sites, including eight Special Protection Areas, two Special Conservation Areas and 12 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which involve the breeding grounds of otters and rare birds such as the great skua, the red-throated diver and Leach’s petrel.
“This project is so risky that even BP is quietly planning for the possibility of the world’s worst ever oil spill happening off Scotland’s precious coastline,” said John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK.
“It would be utterly reckless for Chris Huhne to approve this plan as if the Deepwater Horizon disaster never happened.
“Instead of chasing the last drops of oil from one of our country’s most sensitive and important natural environments, ministers should be developing a comprehensive plan to get us off the oil hook.”
A spokesman for BP said that the company was legally obliged to model the worst-case scenario, “but the reality is, the chances of a spill are very unlikely”. Since Deepwater Horizon, he added, BP had invested “a huge amount of time and resources strengthening procedures, investing in additional safety equipment and further improving our oil spill response capability”.
In particular, a major new well-capping device, designed for use at depths of up to 10,000ft, has been constructed, tested and made available, and could quickly be deployed, and any leak from North Uist is likely to be at a much lower pressure than that in the Gulf.
“We are confident that the improvements that have been made provide the level of assurance necessary against the risks,” the BP spokesman said.
North Uist: The story so far
In the storm of criticism of its safety record that followed the Deepwater Horizon blow-out, BP blew hot and cold about drilling the North Uist well. After confirming that it would go ahead, in August 2010, the company faced more criticism that such a similar deep well was inappropriate in the aftermath of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Tony Hayward, BP’s chiefexecutive at the time, hinted to the House of Commons Energy Select Committee in September 2010 that BP would hold its plans for deep water drilling off the Shetlands. He left the company shortly afterwards, and a final decision was taken to go ahead with North Uist, although more than a year later than originally intended.
BP has held a public consultation about the project, which ended last week. However, it was not widely advertised, had virtually no publicity, and a BP spokesman said there had been “no responses” from the public.
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The four tugs, put in place as a result of the calamitous oil spill from the tanker Braer, which ran aground in Shetland in 1993, are to come out of service in a fortnight as part of the Government’s public spending cuts.
The move, which will save £8m a year – vastly less than the cost of dealing with any major oil spill – goes against the clear recommendations of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and is being described by concerned MPs as “inviting disaster” and “crazy”.
The Government hopes that commercial tug operators will fill the gap when needed, but there is great concern that while this may happen in the Channel and the Southwest Approaches, it will be impossible in Scotland’s Northern and Western Isles – which are both the most environmentally sensitive waters around Britain and the most dangerous to shipping.
The four tugs, or emergency towing vessels (ETVs), have been stationed since 1995, at public expense, in four zones around Britain: the Dover Strait, the Southwest Approaches, the Minches (the Hebrides) and Fair Isle (the Shetland Islands).
They are sturdy vessels, much stronger than harbour or coastal tugs, fitted with powerful towing gear which enables them to take even the largest supertankers under control.
They were put in place after a direct recommendation from Lord Donaldson in his report on the grounding of the Braer on the Shetland coast in January 1993, which saw nearly 85,000 tonnes of oil spilled and the mass deaths of seabirds.
The Donaldson report was a savage indictment of Britain’s failure to address properly the danger of severe coastal pollution from oil tankers, and prompted a shake-up of emergency arrangements – of which the stationing of the ETVs was the most prominent measure.
Since Lord Donaldson’s recommendations, three further reports have emphasised the value of and need for the tugs, the most recent written for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in 2008.
Produced by the consultancy Marico Marine, it stated: “The United Kingdom appears to have little option but to continue its involvement in the contracting of emergency towing vessels.
“Lack of capability within the commercial tug and towage sector (in effect, market failure), European Union obligations and societal expectations (zero tolerance of major marine environmental incidents) combine to dictate the need for this contingent capability.”
It added: “In cost benefit terms, averting one major shipping disaster and environmental incident of the scale of the Prestige [the oil tanker which broke up off the coast of Spain in 2002] would justify a contract price far in excess of that currently being paid until its expiry in 2011 and beyond.”
However, the Department for Transport believes otherwise, and as part of the comprehensive spending review from the Chancellor, George Osborne, last October, announced that government funding for the vessels would be withdrawn when the present contract expires at the end of this month.
“The Government believes state provision of ETVs does not represent a correct use of taxpayers’ money, and that ship salvage should be a commercial matter between a ship’s operator and the salvor,” the department said.
Since then, despite vehement protests, especially from MPs and local authorities in Scotland, and from the House of Commons Transport Select Committee, the department – in the shape of the Maritime Minister, Mike Penning – has remained deaf to all appeals to rethink the decision.
“It is completely crazy,” said Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow South. “It is incredibly irresponsible to be without these emergency vessels, even for a day. I sympathise with the need to look after the public purse, but that cannot come before lives and before the environment. This is a very dangerous game the Department for Transport is playing.”
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