MPs say keep drilling despite risk from oil spill

  • @oliver_wright

Britain lacks the ability to deal with a large-scale North Sea oil spill in bad weather conditions but nonetheless should allow oil companies to continue deep water drilling off the coast, MPs will say today.

The Energy and Climate Change Committee said it could become impossible to contain a serious oil spill in the deep water drilling fields off the west coast of Shetland, but it opposed any moratorium on deep water drilling for oil in the UK's seas, because such a move would undermine the country's energy security.

The MPs launched their inquiry to examine the implications of the disaster in which BP's Deepwater Horizon rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coast exploded, killing 11 workers and spilling millions of barrels of oil into the sea.

They heard from ministers, outgoing BP chief executive Tony Hayward and UK oil industry leaders - who claimed no moratorium was needed as the UK regulatory regime was “very, very strong”.

But in its report published today (THURS) the committee said that the physical characteristics of the deeper North Sea waters off the west of Shetland were significantly different from those encountered in the Gulf of Mexico and would make a clean-up operation harder.

During the Gulf of Mexico incident 3 per cent of the oil released was recovered by skimming and 5 per cent by burning. Another 25 per cent naturally evaporated. In contrast a skimmer would find it difficult to contain a spill in the rough seas, where it would also be harder to burn the oil.

The surface temperature of the water is also lower meaning natural evaporation would be slower.

In addition the committee warned there was a limited supply of rigs that could drill relief wells if this were to prove necessary. Moving available rigs into remote areas during the bad weather would also logistically challenging.

“The harsh and windy conditions in the North Sea would make an oil spill off the coast of Shetland very difficult to contain or clean up,” said the committee's chairman Tim Yeo.

But he added: “A moratorium on deep water drilling off the west coast of Shetland would undermine the UK's energy security and isn't necessary.”

The report said the Government must ensure company plans for responding to an oil spill must be site-specific and any new systems for capping wells and containing a spill must be designed with the bad weather and cold, rough waters of the seas off Shetland in mind.

It also said the £158 million liability limit in the voluntary Offshore Pollution Liability Association is not enough, and only covers "direct damage" - a definition which is unclear and need toughening.

The committee also said the equipment which should have acted as the last line of defence against the blow-out on the Deepwater Horizon rig failed in part due to a failure to make simple checks such as whether the device's battery was charged.

It said the UK inspection regime should never allow “such simple, potential failures” to go unchecked.

And it urged the Health and Safety Executive to consider making two of the devices, known as blind shear rams which are designed to slice through the drill pipe and seal it, a requirement on all UK deep water rigs.