BP faces challenge to Shetland drilling

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BP's "public consultation" over its plan for a controversial deepwater oil well off the coast of Shetland, closed this month, has been reopened by Chris Huhne, for further comments.

The consultation exercise about the proposed North Uist exploratory well attracted no responses from the public, and angered environmental groups who said they did not know of its existence.

Leaders of Greenpeace, the RSPB, WWF and Friends of the Earth wrote to Mr Huhne, the Energy and Environment Secretary, complaining they had not been made aware of it, and raising concerns about the difficulty of coping with a deepwater oil leak in the hostile conditions of the Atlantic.

Now Mr Huhne, who will decide whether the well should go ahead, has told the green groups that his officials will consider any further representations about North Uist until the end of this month.

The Independent disclosed two weeks ago that BP's own worst-case scenario for a spill from the well, to be drilled at 1,290 metres (4,230ft) below the surface, would involve oil leaking at 75,000 barrels a day for 140 days. That would constitute the worst oil spill in history and one more than twice the size of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico last year which brought the oil giant to the brink of collapse.

The well, in a seabed block named after the Hebridean island of North Uist but located 80 miles north-west of Shetland, is part of BP's continuing attempt to open up the West of Shetland sea area, sometimes referred to as the "Atlantic Frontier".

The concern of environmentalists is that a spill from a deepwater well in the extreme sea conditions in the area might be very difficult if not impossible to contain. In particular, they are worried about the Shetland islands, which BP says "may be affected" in the event of a spill – and where a million seabirds breed every summer.

BP says that a new well-capping device, developed under the auspices of the Oil Spill Response and Advisory Group is available, and can be used at depths of up to 10,000ft.

In his letter to the green groups, Mr Huhne says that the cap "would not be deployable in weather conditions where the sea state or swell exceeded five metres."

However, he says: "It is unlikely that drilling would be conducted in such conditions."

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