Conservationists are calling on the Government to revoke dozens of new licences for oil and gas exploration in UK waters, fearing hundreds of thousands of seabirds could be at risk if they are granted.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has asked the coalition to rethink an upcoming round of offshore contracts on offer, days after the worst UK oil spill in a decade was brought under control off the coast of Scotland.
The charity said that a number of the 144 extraction licences available, which cover more than 300 blocks in UK waters, came closer to protected wildlife sites than ever before. It warned that birds such as such as puffins, gannets, razorbills and kittiwakes could be driven from their colonies if contracts were sold.
The public consultation into the 26th Oil and Gas Licensing Round since they began in the 1960s has now ended. Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland, told The Independent on Sunday that the spread of blocks open for bidding were "worrying close to a whole range of seabird colonies". He said he had seen "nothing quite like this in the recent past".
He added: "We are extremely concerned. 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 by a globally important puffin colony."
RSPB has identified several European-designated wildlife sites that it believes would be threatened by exploration. These include sites in Shetland and Orkney, which are home to the continent's largest concentrations of cliff-breeding seabirds, and in the Western Solent, which the critically endangered Balearic shearwater passes through.
The total number of licences granted in the latest round has been cut by more than a quarter, after environmental concerns were expressed last year. A Department of Energy and Climate Change spokesman said: "We take the risks of damage to the environment very seriously, and our licensing regime has robust safeguards in place for any applications that are close to important wildlife areas."
Greenpeace is urging ministers to suspend new drilling licences in deeper North Atlantic and Arctic waters off the west coast of Shetland, after Shell's latest oil spill.
Shell said it has stopped the leak from a flowline to the Gannet Alpha platform in the North Sea more than a week after it was detected. At least 200 tonnes of oil have entered the North Sea from the pipe since 10 August.