Important wildlife sites for seabirds such as puffins could be hit if an oil spill occurred in areas being considered for new fossil fuel exploration off the UK coast, conservationists warned today.
Following the Shell oil spill, which saw more than 200 tonnes of oil leak into the North Sea in the worst incident of its kind in a decade, wildlife charity RSPB has called for a Government rethink of plans for new exploration sites.
The RSPB is concerned that the latest round of exploration licences could lead to full-scale drilling and extraction of oil and gas as little as a few miles from internationally important seabird colonies.
It fears oil spills near to areas which are designated as special protection areas (SPAs) and special areas of conservation (SACs) under EU law for their importance to wildlife could pose an "untenable" risk.
And the increased air and sea traffic and new pipelines and infrastructure needed for oil and gas exploitation could disturb key seabird colonies.
The RSPB issued its warning as a consultation on the 26th oil and gas licensing round closed.
Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland, said: "This process will result in exploration licences, allowing companies to go out looking for oil and gas. If they are successful, that is highly likely to lead to full-scale drilling and exploitation.
"We've seen off the coast of Aberdeenshire that no matter how carefully drilling is done there is always the risk of an oil spill.
"In this case, the spill happened far away from any vulnerable wildlife colonies - but just imagine if that oil was washing ashore at a globally important puffin colony.
"These risks are real, and are clearly untenable."
The RSPB wants the Government to turn down applications for exploration licences close to the SPAs and SACs.
Mr Housden added: "We cannot stand by and allow demand for fossil fuels to increase the pressure on our already threatened coastal wildlife.
"Instead of investing in new oil and gas infrastructure we should be doing the right thing and investing in renewable energy like wind power, and the development of green technology such as electric cars."