Development west of Shetland represents a significant investment for the companies involved – including Total, Chevron and BP – and is worth billions of pounds to them. However, it is relatively minor in the general scheme of things.
Overall production in the UK has been in decline since 1999 and here we are talking about developments that produce tens of thousands of barrels a day. This compares to the 3.5 million barrels currently being produced in the North Sea off the UK and Norway. This is not going to be like the finds of the 1970s and it is not going to reduce our demand for imported crude, but the companies are there because there is nowhere else to go. This is the last place firms want to look for oil and gas, but they have already exploited all the easy finds onshore and in the shallow offshore fields, so now they must move to deep-water or to areas that are politically dangerous.
The deep-water environment is very different to the Gulf of Mexico where conditions on the surface of the water are, in general, very benign compared to Shetland, which is one of the harshest operating environments in the world with the prospect of hurricane force winds and peak waves of over 30 metres.
We still don't know the full detail of what happened in the Gulf, but the operators off Shetland will bring the highest standards and the best safety records. These are organisations with ingrained health and safety cultures.
The risk of a spill is low and the quantities of oil they have spilled in the history of floating platform operations are tiny compared to that which seeps from the ocean floor quite naturally every minute of the day.