The proposed Cambo oilfield off the coast of Shetland is controversial for several reasons, including the additional greenhouse gas emissions burning the oil will cause, and for the way in which the original licensing approval for the site was awarded.
This week environmentalists have warned the project could have a devastating effect on marine life in the area if it gets the green light from the government.
The project “could jeopardise hundreds of species over several decades, as well as livelihoods”, a review by the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (Elaw), has warned.
But why is the UK pursuing a new oilfield deal, and what are the risks to animals?
What are the proposals?
The site is around 75 miles off Shetland’s west coast, where the water is just over 1,000 metres deep.
The area is where five cold water masses converge, bringing a unique array of nutrients which support a huge variety of life.
The entire oilfield is believed to hold around 800 million barrels of oil, though Siccar Point Energy along with Shell, which have put forward the proposals have said the oil field would likely deliver up to 170 million barrels of oil during a 25-year operational life.
Why is the plan controversial?
Extracting this much oil would generate emissions equivalent to the annual carbon pollution from 18 coal-fired power stations, according to Friends of the Earth.
The original exploration licence for the site was granted back in 2001, and earlier this year, the government said it would allow oil companies to keep exploring the North Sea, despite legally binding targets to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, provided new drilling passed a “climate compatibility” along with existing environmental checks.
However it subsequently emerged the Cambo project would not be subject to the compatibility test because the government said the plans were an “extension” to the existing licence.
While the government has been reluctant to talk about the development during the Cop26 climate summit a few hundred miles away in Glasgow, a decision is pending.
If approved by the Oil and Gas Authority, drilling could start as early as next year.
With detail about the project emerging in the months before the UK hosted the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, there were major concerns that the government’s refusal to rule out such a major new oil project would seriously undermine global efforts to rein in rising greenhouse gas emissions.
The government’s reticence to halt the plan came as it also faced criticism for failing to “call in” a planning decision on the UK’s first deep coal mine for 30 years in Cumbria, which is also still on the backburner during Cop26.
Scores of the world’s most respected scientists called on prime minister Boris Johnson to put his foot down and stop Cambo from going ahead, urging no further fossil fuel expansion anywhere if global climate targets are to be met.
Last month, lawyers ClientEarth wrote to business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, warning him the government could expect legal action if it gives the go-ahead for the project.
The environmental law charity told The Independent: “We are concerned that the update to the Offshore Energy Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEAOE) has been significantly delayed, meaning that decisions on licences for new oil and gas projects are currently being considered using analysis that is almost 5 years old.”
“We are considering taking legal action if the updated environmental assessment – once published – does not provide the full picture of climate impacts.”
Now, environmental campaigners are focusing on the potential damage to life in the sea if the project goes ahead.
What are the risks to animals?
Such a large project poses huge risks to local flora and fauna, as well as migrating species and all other life on Earth, due to the emissions the project will create.
“Here we are during Cop26 and talking about a potential new oilfield of Shetland”, said John Hourston, a sealife expert and founder of campaign group the Blue Planet Society.
“Any industrial disturbance of the seabed or the water column will impact cetaceans. They are very noise intolerant because they use echolocation for navigation. So any disturbance in terms of noise, the seismic surveys which are required to find these things, sonar, which they use to survey the area and the drilling, the pipeline laying, and the digging up of the seabed, there will be disturbance.”
Mr Hourston said the drilling comes amid the expansion of renewable offshore energy projects, which instead of replacing oil and gas sites, are being added while oil and gas are also expanding, putting further compromising marine habitats round the coast of the UK.
“We’re putting huge amounts of pressure on the ocean, and the problem is we’re not removing the old technology – the fossil fuels. We’re piling these renewables on top of fossil fuels, so we’re adding to the overall impact.”
The seas around the north of Scotland are now warming by 0.5C every decade, due to the worsening climate crisis, driven by fossil fuel emissions.
This has already resulted in significant changes in the behaviour of some species, with numerous species of seabirds such as puffins and kittiwakes imperilled due to lack of food, and the expansion in range of others such as common dolphins and particular species of shrimp.
Dr Paul Ramos, who is part of a team which sailed to Glasgow, monitoring ocean health on the way told The Independent last week: “The extreme rate of change both in sea temperature and key indicator species in our coastal ecosystems is, and should be, extremely alarming: ecosystem changes today could mean ecosystem collapse tomorrow.”
Which species are at risk?
The seabed species in the direct path of the 22-mile-long pipelines which have been proposed across the “Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt”, which is supposedly a UK Marine Protected Area (MPA) include the rare deep-sea sponges known as “cheese-bottoms” by fishermen, and ocean quahogs, a species of clam which has been known to live for over 500 years, making it one of the oldest-living creatures on Earth.
Industrial activity will also impact other local and migratory species, experts said.
“There are humpbacked whales up there, but in the deep sea we’re talking about beaked whales,” Mr Hourston told The Independent.
While it is difficult to directly link these incidences to energy projects, “we do know that we’re getting increasing numbers of deep sea species washing up, which shouldn’t be.”
“We’ve had beaked whales, we’ve had northern bottlenose whales, and ironically, the short-beaked common dolphin has migrated north because of the increase in sea surface temperature.”
He also said there had been increasing sightings of humpbacked whales off Shetland, and the area is also home to orcas, white-beaked dolphins and white-sided dolphins.
“The ocean is at tipping point and the more pressure we add to it the closer we’re going to get to the point where irreversible damage occurs,” he said.
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