UK Winning Fight to Soften International Scrutiny of Offshore Drilling
Attempt by Germany to introduce independent reviewing of 15 countries' drilling practices appears to be quashed
The British government was today successfully fending off an attempt to introduce international scrutiny of offshore drilling that was proposed by Germany in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Richard Benyon, a minister at Defra dispatched to Bergen, Norway, for a meeting of signatories to the Convention of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, appears to have won the support of other oil producers such as Denmark and Holland.
The meeting is still under way but the latest draft documents – now supported by Britain and Germany – show a diluted agenda, under which nation states will undertake their own review of drilling practices and then report back to OSPAR, the commission of fifteen European countries behind the convention.
An earlier draft proposed by Germany and seen by the Guardian specifically recommended an international review and talked about a "moratorium on certain new oil exploration activities in deep waters".
The original documents made clear that Germany's worries lay beyond just BP's Deepwater Explorer accident and it made specific reference to North Sea incidents.
It mentioned loss of life or hydrocarbon releases with the Maersk Explorer rig in 1977, the Ecofisk Bravo platform in the same year, the Ocean Odyssey semi-submersible in 1988 and the Piper Alpha platform disaster when 167 workers were killed and 670,000 tonnes of oil were spilled into the North Sea.
The UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change, which has sent its own officials to monitor the talks, said that it was taking all necessary steps to ensure deep water drilling off Britain was done to the highest possible standards, and rejected the idea of a moratorium such as the one that could have resulted from the original German proposal to OSPAR.
"The government is determined to drive forward our move to a low-carbon economy and develop the UK's renewable energy sources but this cannot happen overnight. The fact is that in the meantime we will be dependent on oil and gas," said a DECC spokeswoman.
"So it is a choice between producing oil and gas here in UK waters – where we have one of the most robust safety and regulatory regimes in the world, with all the economic benefits that will bring – or paying to import oil and gas from elsewhere," she added.
Deep water drilling off Britain is concentrated in the region west of Shetlands where BP already has four producing fields but is pushing for further rig work on the North Uist prospect. Chevron and Total are also talking to DECC about undertaking further drilling west of the Shetlands, which the government believes may hold 17% of all UK remaining oil and gas reserves.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace activists continue with a protest against a drilling vessel, Stena Carron, chartered to Chevron, which was expected to be used for drilling on the Lagavulin prospect, west of Shetlands.
The environment group is threatening legal action against the coalition government in an effort to stop the granting of new permits for deep water drilling. Last month Greenpeace lawyers wrote a "letter before action" to ministers – the precursor to seeking a judicial review of the decision to permit new deep water drilling before the lessons from the BP disaster have been learned.
"When the self-styled 'greenest government ever' sends its ministers overseas to block international scrutiny of its deepwater drilling regime, its obvious they have something to hide. With ministers acting as special envoys for the oil industry, its no wonder people feel they need to take peaceful direct action against new deepwater drilling, to protect their oceans and their climate," said Ruth Davis, policy director at Greenpeace.
Britain has also rejected suggestions from the European Energy Commissioner, Guenther Oettinger, that there might need to be a moratorium on deep water drilling.
The UK's Health and Safety Executive, which reports annually on the offshore industry's safety record, this year issued a stern warning over the increase in both serious accidents and spilled oil.
The HSE labelled the industry's performance "not good enough", while Steve Walker, head of the offshore division, expressed disappointment and concern that major and significant hydrocarbon releases were up by more than a third on last year.
He added: "This is a key indicator of how well the offshore industry is managing its major accident potential, and it really must up its game to identify and rectify the root causes of such events."