5 UK Oil Spill Response |
Oil Pollution Emergency Plans
94. UK offshore operators are required to have Oil
Pollution Emergency Plans (OPEPs), the details of which have to
be approved by DECC as required by the Offshore Installations
(Emergency Pollution Control) Regulations 2002,
and the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution and Preparedness, response
Co-operation Convention) Regulations 1998.
The plans are reviewed by DECC, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency
(MCA) and relevant environmental consultees, such as the Marine
Management Organisation (or relevant devolved authority), the
Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and the relevant inshore
statutory nature conservation body (for example, Natural England).
95. OPEPs set out the arrangements for responding
to oil spill incidents that have the potential to cause marine
pollution. They aim to prevent such pollution and reduce or minimise
its effects should it occur. OPEPs are risk assessments that are
relevant to a specific field or installation. The plans focus
on the worst-case scenario; following the Gulf of Mexico incident,
operators are now required to carry out additional modelling for
deepwater drilling installations, including an extended assessment
of oil spill beaching predictions.
96. OPEPs use computer models to determine the likely
movement of any spilled oil and the environmental sensitivities
of the location. Predicting the wind direction and sea-current
patterns are critical to the accuracy of such models and the subsequent
response. For instance, in the West of Shetland, prevailing westerly
winds would generally direct an oil spill towards the Shetland
shoreline, so in the case of an oil slick the response would move
immediately to coastal protection. It is acknowledged by DECC
that the computer model used industry-wide (OSIS) has limitations
with regard to predicting long term spill and deepwater effects.
The Oil Spill Response and Advisory Group (OSPRAG) are undertaking
a review of this model.
97. Depending on the nature of the spill, the response
can range from monitoring slick behaviour, through to the use
of chemical dispersants along with physical containment (the use
of booms and skimmers) and recovery of the oil. To ensure the
OPEP is, and remains, fit-for-purpose operators are obliged to
hold a personnel and equipment exercise every five years with
the MCA. Under the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness,
Response and Co-operation Convention 1990, adopted by the UK in
1994, all operators must test their OPEP offshore with every shift
at least once a year.
Dealing with an Oil Spill in
98. The MCA maintain stockpiles of counter pollution
equipment at various sites throughout the UK, with oil spotting
and dispersant spraying aircraft located in Inverness and Coventry.
If this equipment is required, control of the incident will pass
to the MCA and the Secretary of States' Representative for Maritime
Salvage and Intervention, SOSREP, who represents DECC in relation
to offshore installations, and the Department for Transport in
relation to shipping. Oil spill response is divided into three
categories depending on the amount of oil spilled:
- Tier 1100 tonnes or
740 barrelsa small sized spill that will employ local resources;
- Tier 2500 tonnes or 3,700 barrelsa
medium spill requiring regional assistance; and
- Tier 310,000 tonnes or 74,000 barrelsactivates
the National Contingency Plan.
99. For comparison, it is estimated that approximately
4.9 million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. The
National Contingency Plan (NCP) is one of the measures the UK
has taken to meet its obligations under the United Nationals Convention
on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), setting out the circumstances
in which the MCA's national assets are deployed. The NCP supports
and underpins an operator's required Oil Pollution Emergency Plan
(OPEP), the details of which have to be approved by DECC. These
include installation-specific risk assessments that model the
likely path of an oil spill and environmental sensitivities. The
date for testing OPEPs, NCPs and the powers of SOSREP has been
brought forward from 2013 to spring 2011.
100. While we acknowledge that oil spill response
plans often share procedures for dealing with oil spills, this
should not lead to complacency or a copy-and-paste culture in
Oil Pollution Emergency Plans (OPEPs). Mr McAllister told us:
"First of all, prevention; secondly, early containment and
capping [...] thirdly, what happens to the oil when it is released
from the well [...] you would not expect the oil spill response
plan to vary dramatically from one company to another".
Mr Naylor of the MCA explained that "certain elements of
a plan [...] will be applicable for many types of field and for
many types of activity".
However, Mr Naylor assured us that the MCA has changed the OPEP
requirements in light of the events in the Gulf of Mexico.
101. We acknowledge
that oil spill response plans often share procedures for dealing
with oil spills. There is some concern that in the past this may
have led to a culture of copying-and-pasting rather than the production
of site-specific plans which recognise the drilling environment
and the risk of high-consequence, low-probability events. We recommend
the Government re-examine oil spill response plans to ensure that
this is not the case.
The Role of SOSREP
102. The role of the Secretary of States' Representative
for Maritime Salvage and Intervention (SOSREP) was created in
1999 as part of the Government's response to Lord Donaldson of
Lymington's review of the grounding of the Sea Empress oil tanker
at the entrance to Milford Haven in 1996, which spilt around 70,000
tonnes of oil (over 500,000 barrels). SOSREP represents the Secretary
of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change in relation
to offshore installations, and the Secretary of State for the
Department for Transport in relation to ships and tankers. SOSREP
is empowered to make crucial decisions, often under time pressure,
without recourse to a higher authority, where such decisions are
in the "overriding UK public interest".
Lord Donaldson's Review had concluded that the involvement of
Ministers in operational decisions was not a practical option.
Mr Hugh Shaw, the current SOSREP, told us: "the bias for
my role is certainly towards the shipping [...] the triggers for
bringing myself in on the oil and gas side was probably [...]
less than 5% of actual incidents".
103. Legislation requires that every five years each
operator must conduct an exercise to test a facility's Oil Pollution
Emergency Plan (OPEP) with the involvement of SOSREP. The Maritime
and Coastguard Agency (MCA) maintain stockpiles of counter pollution
equipment at various sites throughout the UK, and have remote
sensing and dispersant spraying aircraft located in Inverness
and Coventry. If this equipment is required, control of the incident
will pass to the MCA and SOSREP. SOSREP automatically becomes
involved in any incident where there is a significant threat of
significant pollution, known as the "trigger point"
for intervention. The key responsibilities of SOSREP include:
acting at the earliest point during a shipping or offshore incident
to assess the risk to safety, to prompt the end of any such incident
and to ensure that increasing risk is evaluated and appropriate
measures taken to prevent or respond to escalation; monitoring
all response measures to significant incidents involving shipping
and the offshore industry; if necessary, exercising ultimate control
by implementing the powers of intervention, acting in the overriding
interests of the UK and its environment; and reviewing all activities
after significant incidents and exercises. 
UK SPILL STATISTICS
104. In August 2010 the HSE published its annual
offshore statistics for 2009-10. These included the number of
major and significant hydrocarbon releases, regarded as potential
precursors to a major incident but not necessarily an actual oil
spill to the sea.
The number of hydrocarbon (oil and gas) releases each year has
followed a falling trend from 2001-02 through to 2008-09, but
increased in 2009-10.
The HSE has recently increased the level of its offshore investigations
of all major and significant hydrocarbon releases to ensure that
operators identify and address the causes of the increase. The
data show that there was a significant increase in the total number
of major and significant hydrocarbon releases (85) in 2009-10
compared to the previous year's total of 61. This compares to
an annual average of 73 over the previous five years. From 2008-09
to 2009-10 the number of minor releases rose slightly from 96
to 100. Overall, the total number of releases rose by 26 in 2009-10.
105. These HSE Statistics on hydrocarbon releases
do not identify the incidents that led to a loss of liquid hydrocarbon
to the sea (an oil spill), as the HSE spill severity classification
focuses on safety implications to workers rather than environmental
impacts. This data is instead required by DECC, who reported that
during 2009 they were notified of 56 crude oil spills resulting
in 6 tonnes of oil released into the sea, which was a significant
reduction on the previous year when 83 crude oil spills led to
20 tonnes of oil released.
DECC's Energy Development Director, Mr Campbell told us: "HSE
look at hydrocarbon releases on the platform [...] [whereas] we're
in small numbers here in terms of actual spills to the water".
Methods of Dealing with Spills
USE OF SUB-SEA DISPERSANT
106. One of the methods BP used to deal with the
oil escaping from the Macondo Well was the use of chemical dispersants
at the well head. Chemical dispersant had only previously been
used on the surface. Dr Wills told us that "the use of dispersants
on the surface is largely cosmetic"
and Dr Hayward explained that "the volume of dispersant [used
sub-sea] you had to apply was much smaller than you needed to
apply at the surface to achieve the same effect,
[...] [and the sub-sea use of] the dispersant was approved by
the US Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]".
We are concerned that the decision to use sub-sea dispersants
was made after the event; the use of sub-sea dispersants was not
a part of BP's oil spill response plan for the Deepwater Horizon.
There was no scientific basis for the efficacy of dispersants
used underwater, and we are therefore concerned about the potential
unknown environmental impacts of sub-sea dispersants used in the
Gulf of Mexico should they be employed in UK waters.
107. The use of sub-sea dispersants may have unknown
effects. Mr Naylor of the MCA told us that he was "not sure
that the technology [sub-sea use of dispersants] is sufficiently
well developed to say that it is a response that could be used
at the moment".
Mr Cohagan of Chevron UK explained that "if we thought sub-sea
dispersant would be something that would be a positive attribute
to help disperse it [the oil spill], we would bring that forward".
Mr Campbell, Energy Development Director at DECC, confirmed that
"we would use [sub-sea] dispersants if the overall outcome
was better than the oil alone".
However, Mr Campbell also noted that any sub-sea use of dispersants
would require a permit from DECC.
108. We recommend
that the Government draw up clear guidelines on the sub-sea use
of dispersants in tackling oil spills, based on the best available
evidence of both their effectiveness and their environmental impact.
We also recommend the Government monitor the effects of sub-sea
dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico to inform these guidelines.
CAPPING AND CONTAINMENT SYSTEMS
109. BP eventually developed containment systems
to deal with the oil leaking from the blownout Macondo well, and
a capping system to seal it off finally. Mr McAllister of OSPRAG
told us: "a lot of the costs for BP were because it took
time to design these [oil containment devices]".
Dr Hayward told us that BP was shipping two of these containment
devices to the UK, to be based at the Oil Spill Response Centre
The Minister told us that in addition: "We've got a Chevron
facility that will be a capping device".
110. We welcome the new capping and containment systems,
but believe that they are not a substitute for fully functioning
blowout preventers. We also observe that the absence of such equipment
in the first instance is another example of the oil and gas industry's
inability to prepare for high-consequence, low probability events.
Dr Wills told us: "there isn't any cure. The only option
in town is prevention".
He went on to explain to us:
We can see where the oil is going. We still can't
do anything about it [...] there is no way you could contain or
clean up a significant amount of oil and I don't think the Committee
should be under any illusion about this.
recognise that the UK's oil spill response system is robust and
rightly focuses on prevention, followed by containment and then
clean-up. We welcome the development of new capping and containment
systems capable of dealing with a sub-sea blowout. However, we
feel that the absence of these devices before the Macondo incident
is indicative of the industry's and the regulator's flawed approach
to high-consequence, low-probability events. Prevention is better
than cure, and we recommend once again the Government recognise
that in its regulatory regime these systems are not a substitute
for fully functioning blowout preventers.
THE WEST OF SHETLAND ENVIRONMENT
112. The physical characteristics of the deeper waters
to the West of Shetland (WoS) are significantly different from
those encountered in the Gulf of Mexico, and the wells are more
remote from the coast (the Macondo was 50 miles from Louisiana,
whereas BP's Schiehallion Field is 110 miles from Shetland). Comparing
the Gulf of Mexico and the West of Shetland, Mr McAllister told
us that they were "very, very different marine environment
in terms of the waves, in terms of natural dispersal of the oil".
Dr Wills identified the overriding problem as "[...] the
weather. It's appalling [...] if something goes wrong, it's going
to be more difficult to fix".
However, Mr Naylor of the MCA explained that the weather itself
would act to break up and eventually disperse any spilt oil.
113. The Shetland region has major currents, meaning
a spill would not be as contained as in the Gulf of Mexico. While
hurricanes are common in the Gulf of Mexico, the WoS sea is consistently
rougher throughout the year, which has implications for oil recovery.
These factors would make physical containment of a spill difficult,
although the Braer tanker oil spill in 1993 (which spilt 85,000
tonnes of light crude oil) showed that prolonged storms can be
effective at naturally dispersing some types of oil spill.
From 1 January 1999 to 11 August 2010, there were no crude oil
drilling operation spills in water depths of over 300m.
114. It is estimated that during the Gulf of Mexico
incident 3% of the oil released was recovered by skimming and
5% by burning. Booms which direct oil to a recovery resource such
as a skimmer would find it difficult to contain a spill in the
rough seas WoS, where it would also be difficult to burn the oil.
The surface temperature WoS is lower than in the Gulf of Mexico;
meaning natural evaporation (which accounted for the fate of 25%
of the oil released from BP's Macondo Well) is far slower. Around
8% of the oil released from the Macondo well was dissipated using
chemicals dispersants released at the well head on the ocean floor.
115. BP began drilling relief wells on 2 May12
days after the blowout of the Macondo Wellwhich intersected
the well on 16 September, pumping in cement and finally killing
the well two days later. The British Rig Owners Association believe
that there is a limited supply of rigs in the WoS that could drill
relief wells if this were to prove necessary as a long term solution
to killing a well. Moving available rigs into remote areas during
the bad weather often experienced WoS would be logistically challenging.
116. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (a statutory
government adviser) noted that the two producing fields WoSBP's
Foinhaven and Schiehallionhave heavy oils that will "rapidly
form stable emulsions on the water surface [...] [increasing]
the hazard relative to light oil fields in the North sea".
The Shetland Islands Council, in partnership with industry, has
drawn up a pollution contingency plan. However, it only extends
a short way out to sea and focuses on tankers in the Sullom Voe
Port, and with potential spills from the terminals there. Dr Wills,
an independent councillor for Lerwick South, told us: "I
haven't seen any containment, dispersal or clean-up system that
works in the open Atlantic".
117. There are
serious doubts about the ability of oil spill response equipment
to function in the harsh environment of the open Atlantic in the
West of Shetland. We recommend that the Government ensures that
any capping, containment and clean-up systems are designed to
take full account of the harsh and challenging environment West
139 The Offshore Installations (Emergency Pollution
Control) Regulations 2002 (SI 2002/1861) Back
The Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and
Co-operation Convention) Regulations 1998 (SI 1998/1056) Back
Ev 596 Back
Ev 596 Back
Ev 596 Back
Ev 67 Back
Q 302 Back
Q 48 Back
Q 193 Back
Q 199 Back
Ev 596 Back
Q 301 Back
"SOSREP Role and Responsibilities", Maritime and Coastguard
Agency, www.mcga.gov.uk Back
HSE, "Offshore industry warned over 'not good enough' safety
statistics", HSE Press Release, 24 August 2010 Back
Ev 631 Back
Ev 631 Back
Ev 596 Back
Q 295 Back
Q 201 Back
Q 170 Back
Q 171 Back
Q 195 Back
Q 245 Back
Q 291 (Campbell) Back
Q 291 (Campbell) Back
Q 64 Back
Q 123 Back
Q 286 (Hendry) Back
Q 201 Back
Q 213 (Wills) Back
Q 50 Back
Q 207 Back
Q 211 (Naylor) Back
Ev 593 Back
Ev 596 Back
Ev 596 Back
Ev 594 Back
Ev w4 Back
Q 176 Back