Michael McCarthy: Shell needs to come fully clean

This is the biggest spill on the UK continental shelf for more than a decade

It may be appropriate to remind Shell UK that many people are watching closely to see how it handles the current oil spill at its Gannet Alpha production platform in the North Sea.

This does not look like a disaster: it is small, for example, in the context of last year's giant spill at BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, with just over 200 tonnes of oil having been released so far, compared with between 300,000 and 700,000 tonnes in the Gulf. But 200 tonnes, or nearly 1,500 barrels, is by no means nothing – in fact it is the biggest spill on the UK continental shelf for more than a decade, and was described as "substantial" by the Government yesterday.

Although the oil on the surface appears to be dispersing and is unlikely to reach the shore, the risk to young, newly-fledged seabirds remains, while there is also concern that the leak, which is on the seabed in immensely difficult conditions, 300 feet down, has not yet been stopped nearly six days after it began.

While sympathy is entirely natural for engineers grappling with such a problem, as the RSPB said yesterday, Shell needs to be transparent: if it is having difficulties, it should say so. After Deepwater Horizon, the safety stakes – and the reputational stakes – in offshore oil have never been higher.