Memorandum submitted by the Joint Nature
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.
1.1 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
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
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
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.