UK Deepwater Drilling - Implications of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill - Energy and Climate Change Contents

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,[139] and the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution and Preparedness, response Co-operation Convention) Regulations 1998.[140] 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.[141] The Oil Spill Response and Advisory Group (OSPRAG) are undertaking a review of this model.[142]

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.[143]

Dealing with an Oil Spill in the UK

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 1—100 tonnes or 740 barrels—a small sized spill that will employ local resources;
  • Tier 2—500 tonnes or 3,700 barrels—a medium spill requiring regional assistance; and
  • Tier 3—10,000 tonnes or 74,000 barrels—activates the National Contingency Plan.[144]

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.[145]

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".[146] 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".[147] However, Mr Naylor assured us that the MCA has changed the OPEP requirements in light of the events in the Gulf of Mexico.[148]

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".[149] 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".[150]

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. [151]


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.[152] 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.[153] 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.[154]

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.[155] 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".[156]

Methods of Dealing with Spills


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"[157] 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,[158] [...] [and the sub-sea use of] the dispersant was approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]".[159] 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".[160] 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".[161] 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".[162] However, Mr Campbell also noted that any sub-sea use of dispersants would require a permit from DECC.[163]

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.


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]".[164] 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 in Southampton.[165] The Minister told us that in addition: "We've got a Chevron facility that will be a capping device".[166]

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".[167] 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.[168]

111. We 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.


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".[169] 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".[170] However, Mr Naylor of the MCA explained that the weather itself would act to break up and eventually disperse any spilt oil.[171]

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.[172] From 1 January 1999 to 11 August 2010, there were no crude oil drilling operation spills in water depths of over 300m.[173]

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.[174] 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 May—12 days after the blowout of the Macondo Well—which 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.[175]

116. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (a statutory government adviser) noted that the two producing fields WoS—BP's Foinhaven and Schiehallion—have heavy oils that will "rapidly form stable emulsions on the water surface [...] [increasing] the hazard relative to light oil fields in the North sea".[176] 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".[177]

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 of Shetland.

139   The Offshore Installations (Emergency Pollution Control) Regulations 2002 (SI 2002/1861) Back

140   The Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation Convention) Regulations 1998 (SI 1998/1056) Back

141   Ev 596 Back

142   Ev 596 Back

143   Ev 596 Back

144   Ev 67 Back

145   Q 302 Back

146   Q 48 Back

147   Q 193 Back

148   Q 199 Back

149   Ev 596 Back

150   Q 301 Back

151   "SOSREP Role and Responsibilities", Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Back

152   HSE, "Offshore industry warned over 'not good enough' safety statistics", HSE Press Release, 24 August 2010 Back

153   Ev 631 Back

154   Ev 631 Back

155   Ev 596 Back

156   Q 295 Back

157   Q 201 Back

158   Q 170 Back

159   Q 171 Back

160   Q 195 Back

161   Q 245 Back

162   Q 291 (Campbell) Back

163   Q 291 (Campbell) Back

164   Q 64 Back

165   Q 123 Back

166   Q 286 (Hendry) Back

167   Q 201 Back

168   Q 213 (Wills) Back

169   Q 50 Back

170   Q 207 Back

171   Q 211 (Naylor) Back

172   Ev 593 Back

173   Ev 596 Back

174   Ev 596 Back

175   Ev 594 Back

176   Ev w4 Back

177   Q 176 Back

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Prepared 6 January 2011