Way we live: Out on the oil prospecting frontier, it's a struggle to stay clean, and green

Should Britain cease offshore oil exploration to help prevent global warming? As Greenpeace complete a 250,000-signature petition demanding a halt, Environment Correspondent Nicholas Schoon visits the deep waters of the Atlantic frontier.

It takes two hours of shuddering, noisy helicopter flight from Aberdeen to reach the Sedco Sovereign Explorer, contracted by US company Conoco to drill a well in water 2,500 ft deep. Here, 100 miles north of the Outer Hebrides, is the edge of the Continental Shelf, where the shallower under-sea planes of Europe begin to fall away into the Atlantic's abyss. The depth of water, storms and huge waves also put it on the edge of what is possible for exploiting any oil below the sea bed.

Greenpeace says the oil men should not be here at all. Its first line of argument is that oil and gas reserves sufficient to cause disastrous changes in climate and sea level have already been found around the world, so the hunt for more must stop while efforts to develop non-polluting alternatives must intensify. Its second is that the extreme conditions on the frontier make the risks of a life-damaging spillage too high.

But BP and Shell have already found oil on the frontier and 24 other companies, including Conoco, have government licences to explore and exploit any fields they find. This region is the great hope for the future of Britain's offshore industry; it could keep thousands of jobs and big export revenues far into the next century as North Sea oil and gas runs down.

This summer Greenpeace made its point by occupying Rockall, a tiny isolated rock far out in the Atlantic, for several weeks. Then it attached the survival pod its activists had sheltered in to a BP exploration rig on the frontier for several days. It also obstructed the work of seismic boats which shoot sound waves into the rock strata below the sea bed in a search for potentially oil-bearing formations. And it fought and lost a court case in which it alleged that the Government had failed to comply with EU nature conservation laws when it granted oil companies their frontier licences.

All of this hectic and expensive campaigning in the run-up to the Kyoto Climate Summit next month has had little noticeable effect on the new Government. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, and John Prescott, his deputy, have explicitly rejected Greenpeace's demand for a halt. Undaunted, Greenpeace intends to hand a petition to Downing Street next week for which more than 200,000 signatures have been collected so far, and it claims the support of several dozen MPs.

Conoco, owned by the huge US Du Pont chemical group, spent thousands of pounds flying a small group of London-based journalists up to Aberdeen and then to the Sovereign Explorer last Friday, to show them how seriously it took environmental concerns. But one thing the company refused to discuss was whether the rig had found any trace of oil. The 90 crew have been forbidden to comment for reasons of commercial confidentiality.

A lubricating mixture of chemicals and water known as drilling mud is constantly circulated down the hole as the drill bit screws into the earth. The mud comes back to the surface carrying rock cuttings which are then filtered out and dumped into the sea, along with some of the mud clinging to them. These liquids used to contain toxic oils, but they are now water- based and far less harmful to life, says Conoco. Besides, by the time they reach the sea bed half a mile below they are very thinly dispersed.

Two vessels are constantly on station near the floating rig, one a support ship for emergencies and the other for any oil spillages. For much of the time, however, the sea is too choppy to put down floating booms to contain the oil which, in calm conditions could then be sucked up. The vessel carries chemical dispersants to break up any spilt oil, but these would probably only be used for a big spill that had some chance of reaching the coast. For small spills, the best environmental option is thought to be letting them disperse naturally.

Conoco says it has searched for Lophelia, the deep, cold water coral found along the Atlantic frontier which Greenpeace says is at risk from oil exploitation, and on which it based its court case. So far, using side-scan sonar and remote-control submarines with cameras and bright lights, the company has found none of the coral around the Sovereign Explorer. But the television pictures reveal plenty of other life swimming and crawling along the muddy, sunless seabed, including a five-ft shark. Dolphins and pilot whales have been seen from the rig at the surface.

As for the dangers of extreme wind and wave, the rig has encountered two gales with wind of more than 70 mph since arriving on station in August. It heaved up and down 30 feet but stayed in place, thanks to eight 12- tonne anchors attached to one and a half miles of chain and cable.

Ian Blood, Conoco's UK head of exploration, accepts that the increasing use of oil and gas was likely to alter climate and that alternatives had to be developed. "They will take their place in the market eventually, 20 to 30 years out," he said. In the meantime, it was up to voters and politicians to decide if they wanted the very significant changes in lifestyles and abandoning fossil fuels involved, he said. "It's not for a company like us to tell the public what to do."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Walker and Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious 5
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss