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

Memorandum submitted by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee


The Joint Nature Conservation Committee is the statutory advisor to Government on the nature conservation implications of deepwater oil spills. The greatest nature conservation interest at risk from oil spills in deepwater areas is to seabird populations, with coastal habitats at risk should an oil spill be driven towards the shore. Available information on seabird distribution in offshore areas is now becoming old (much was collected more than 15 years ago); this means that both risk assessment, planning and response is not based on best possible data. JNCC has recommended that a programme to update information on seabird distribution and other key environmental features be funded.

1. Introduction

1.1 The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is the statutory advisor to Government on UK and international nature conservation, on behalf of the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, the Countryside Council for Wales, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage.

2. Background to the JNCC's work in relation to deepwater drilling

2.1 JNCC are statutory consultees for oil and gas activities under several pieces of environmental legislation and are consulted for advice by DECC, the regulatory authority, concerning proposals that involve all drilling, including in deep water. We provide advice in offshore waters beyond 12 nautical miles, extending to the limit of the United Kingdom Continental Shelf. The main issues we provide advice on are the potential environmental impacts of proposals on seabirds, cetaceans and benthic communities.

2.2 In addition to advising on all drilling proposals, JNCC also comment on the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) process for oil and gas licensing rounds.

2.3 In the event of a major oil spill, JNCC would provide advice to the Secretary of State's Representative as outlined in the National (oil spill) Contingency Plan. This would be done through representation on a Standing Environment Group. In addition to advising on appropriate measures to mitigate impacts on seabirds and other marine life at sea we would work with the relevant country agency (i.e. SNH, NE or CCW) to provide advice in relation to measures to address impacts on coastal habitats.

3. What are the implications of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill for deepwater drilling in UK?

3.1 The Gulf of Mexico oil spill clearly raises the need to review in some detail the potential implications for the UK. The remit of the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group (OSPRAG) established by Oil and Gas UK is comprehensive in this respect. JNCC's participation with OSPRAG is to the Oil Spill and Emergency Response Review Sub Group.

3.2 From JNCC's perspective the key implications are with respect to both the Government's and the industry's ability to understand and predict the environmental impacts of any oil spill. This is needed for both planning (to ensure the most appropriate response is available) and in responding should a spill occur.

3.3 A novel aspect of the response to the Gulf of Mexico spill has been the injection of dispersants into the spill at its source on the seabed. The traditional use of these dispersants has been at the water surface. We will be particularly interested to see an analysis of the effectiveness of this response as it adds to the range of possible tools that might be available should a blowout occur in deepwater areas of the UK.

4. To what extent is the existing UK safety and environmental regulatory regime fit for purpose?

4.1 From a nature conservation perspective, we consider that the current framework of regulatory control, with advice provided by JNCC, effectively meets the UK's various international and national obligations under the terms of the OSPAR convention, Marine Strategy Framework Directive, Habitats and Birds Directives, EIA & SEA Directives and the Marine and Coastal Access Act and Marine Act (Scotland). The statutory framework also provides the potential to deliver best practice measures.

4.2 The Oil Pollution Emergency Plans (OPEPs) are the key documents produced by operators in order to ensure appropriate measures are in place in the event of a major oil spill. JNCC are content that the legislative background requiring suitable planning for an oil spill is in place. Following consultation with JNCC, OPEP's are approved by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) Energy Development Unit (Offshore Environment and Decommissioning). The extent to which the content of OPEPs should be reviewed in response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is an issue that will be considered by OSPRAG.

5. What are the hazards and risks of deepwater drilling to the west of Shetland?

5.1 From JNCC's perspective, all oil spills can pose a hazard and risk to marine life. There are examples where relatively minor oil spills of a few hundred litres have led to severe environmental damage, while other very large spills have had nearly undetectable effects. The two critical factors appear to be the speed at which an oil is broken down in the marine environment, and the particular nature of the environment in the vicinity of the spill.

5.2 In general light oils break down faster than heavy oils. The two producing oil fields in deep water west of Shetland (Foinaven and Schehallion) have viscous or very viscous oils that will relatively rapidly form stable emulsions on the water surface. Should there be other such oil fields west of Shetland, this would increase the hazard relative to e.g. some of the light oil fields in the North Sea.

5.3 The greatest risks to nature conservation of oil on the offshore (deepwater) sea surface are to seabirds. Should the spill persist and be driven ashore, coastal habitats and species may also be severely affected, especially "low energy" habitats such as salt marshes and estuaries. There is relatively little evidence of effects on whales and dolphins (partly due to the difficulty of studying these animals), but seals can be affected badly. Little evidence is available on the effects of oil spills on deep-water seabed habitats.

5.4 In order to plan effective response to oil spills (or to avoid risky activities at times when seabirds are particularly concentrated in an area), it is necessary to have a good understanding of their distribution at sea throughout the year. The predecessor to JNCC established a major seabird project in the 1980s and 1990s to collect this information, using funding from a consortium of relevant Government and industry partners. Although some further information has been added in the past 15 years, including from partners in other European countries, the majority of information that is presently relied upon is now becoming old and potentially out of date (see Tasker et al. 1990 and Pollack et al. 2000). We are recommending to OSPRAG that a programme be established to update information on seabird distribution relevant to current and future oil and gas development and exploration areas.

5.5 Additional proposals to OSPRAG to collate and update information on the vulnerability of coastal habitats are an important first step to ensure an appropriate response is planned. JNCC have also made suggestions that would help improve our understanding of the possible impacts of a major oil spill on cetaceans. At the time of responding to this consultation we do not know the fate of these proposals.

6. Is deepwater oil and gas production necessary during the UK's transition to a low carbon economy?

6.1 JNCC has no comments to make in relation to this question.

7. To what extent would deepwater oil and gas resources contribute to the UK's security of supply?

7.1 JNCC has no comments to make in relation to this question.


Tasker M L, A Webb, N M Harrison and M W Pienkowski 1990. Vulnerable concentrations of marine birds west of Britain. Peterborough, Nature Conservancy Council. 48pp.

Pollock C M, R Mavor, C R Weir, A Reid, R W White, M L Tasker, A Webb and JB Reid 2000. The distribution of seabirds and marine mammals in the Atlantic Frontier, north and west of Scotland. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Aberdeen. 92pp.

September 2010

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