No 'Deepwater Horizon' Lessons Learned, UK Gives Backing to Deep Water Drilling
MPs have ruled out a moratorium on deep water drilling in the North Sea, despite concerns it could lead to a disaster worse than BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.
Following the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Energy and Climate Change Committee was asked to look into the risks of drilling in deep water off the UK.
Oil companies have openly admitted that current plans for deep water drilling off the Shetland islands could cause an oil spill worse than the Gulf of Mexico disaster.
But Tim Yeo, the Chairman of the Committee, said both the energy and national security of the UK depends on the newly discovered oilfields.
He said safety procedures could be "tightened up" but on the whole the industry is safe and the regulatory system "robust", following reforms brought in after the Piper Alpha disaster.
"Although we heard evidence it is not always done right - and I am sure it is not always done right. Nevertheless, I think the concerns are nothing like big enough to justify stopping the process," he said.
A quarter of the UK's currently discovered oil and gas reserves, around four million barrels, lie in deep water off the West of Shetland.
Oil companies are already drilling in the ‘new frontier' and expect to open up hundreds of new wells in future.
Just four fields are currently producing oil west of the Shetland Islands but more than 100 exploration licences have been granted by the Government with more pending.
Ben Ayliffe of Greenpeace pointed out that independent studies into what caused the disastrous spill in the Gulf of Mexico have not concluded yet.
He also pointed to recent Health and Safety Executive figures that show an increase in both serious accidents and spilt oil in rigs operating off the UK. Serious accidents almost doubled from 106 per 100,000 in 2008/09 to 192 last year, while spills of hydrocarbons were up from 61 to 85.
"They are pressing ahead regardless of the holes in their own regulatory system. It is like they have learned nothing from the Deep Water Horizon spill," he said.
Greenpeace are currently trying to block any more deep water drilling through the High Courts by claiming that it is threatens environmental sites protected under EU law.
If successful, the action will affect over 20 oil production licences - mainly west of Shetland - and could halt future licensing rounds
Rare species in danger include several species of whales, dolphins, sea birds and seals. There are also important cold water coral reefs in the area.
The environmental consequences could be worse than the Gulf of Mexico because the oil disperses more slowly in cold water and dispersants would be less effective.
Conditions can also be more difficult because of storms and rough seas in the area.
The Marine Conservation Society also want a moratorium on drilling in the area because of the risk to wildlife and fisheries.
Chevron has admitted its new deepwater drilling campaign off the Shetland Islands could release 77,000 barrels per day - 25 per cent more than gushed into the Gulf of Mexico last year.
The US oil giant is currently drilling the Lagavulin prospect around 160 miles north of the Shetland Islands in 1,569m of water - deeper than BP's ruptured well.
In written evidence BP also admitted that there are risks to deep water drilling.
"It is impossible to eliminate risk from any aspect of North Sea operations, whether in shallow or deep water," read a statement. "But the lessons to be learnt from the tragic accident of the Gulf of Mexico will enable the industry to reduce greatly these risks, and to help prevent a similar occurrence happening elsewhere."
The oil company insisted that delay to deep water drilling would have "implications for the security of UK oil and gas supplies" and West of Shetland has the "greatest exploration potential".
Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, has acknowledged that an oil spill off the West of Shetland would be "an absolutely enormous environmental disaster" but he has insisted the measures governing the oil and gas industry in UK waters are "fit for purpose".