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

Memorandum submitted by the Marine Conservation Society


The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) is the UK charity dedicated to the protection of our seas, shores and wildlife. MCS campaigns for clean seas and beaches, sustainable fisheries, protection of marine life and their habitats, and the sustainable and sensitive use of our marine resources now and for future generations. Through advocacy, community involvement and collaboration, MCS raises awareness of the many threats that face our seas and promotes individual, industry and government action to protect the marine environment.

MCS has sat on the Steering Group of the Strategic Environmental Assessment of oil & gas licensing rounds for many years. We welcome the Committee's inquiry into deepwater drilling.


MCS and other UK NGOs have long had concerns about proposed and licensed drilling in the "Atlantic Frontier", which we have raised with DECC and its predecessors. The "Atlantic Frontier" includes areas to the west of the Shetland Islands, west of the Hebrides and the "white zone" to the south-east of the Faroes.

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, MCS is calling for a moratorium on deepwater drilling, usually defined as 200m in relation to oil & gas. The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico made it apparent that there are technological problems in preventing an ecological catastrophe in the event of a blowout in deepwater, not least since divers cannot reach a wellhead below 200m and unmanned ROVs proved unsuccessful in capping the wellhead for months in the Gulf of Mexico. Deepwater Horizon confirms that the deeper the water the higher the risk. The wildlife to the west of Shetland is too important to take such risks, with cetacean regularly occurring in the area ranging from white-beaked dolphin, Atlantic whitesided dolphin, Risso's dolphin to long-finned pilot whale, killer whale, sperm whale, Sowerby's beaked whale, humpback whale and Sei whale. As such, until technology improves sufficiently to reduce the risk of blowouts, and just as importantly allow for the capping of the wellhead swiftly in deepwater should a blowout occur, MCS calls on the UK Government to introduce a moratorium on deepwater drilling.


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

The Gulf of Mexico blowout called into question whether governments were regulating the oil industry effectively, whether the technology was in place to enable safe, pollution free deepwater drilling and highlighted the devastation brought on the environment, economy and society of such an oil disaster. Like others, MCS were surprised to find that even the technological advances, knowledge and money of the 21st century were unable to prevent one of, or possibly the worst oil pollution disaster the world has ever seen. US President Barak Obama said the disaster "will have the same effect on the US psyche as 9/11."

MCS believes that the UK Government must introduce a moratorium on all deepwater drilling, until technology improves sufficiently to prevent such blow-outs and cap them, should they occur. At a minimum we would suggest this is for five years, to allow technology to further advance, at which point we would recommend another thorough independent investigation is undertaken to consider technological and regulatory advances and ensure that these are utilised in the UK. The Government must review how much industry is relied on for self-regulation and whether further regulation needs to fall to government to prevent such disasters happening in future. The industry must also be made to be more transparent on environmental matters, with oil companies obliged to be completely open when things go wrong. The Government must also review its contingency plans to deal with accidents on this scale.


(from MCS magazine Marine Conservation)

The impact on the environment of the Gulf of Mexico and society and economy of the southern states of America has been devastating.


The damage done to the natural environment in the vast area affected by the blowout has been enormous. Scientific assessments are at an early stage, but it is likely that large populations of fish and invertebrates have been adversely affected by the toxic, clogging oil, along with large numbers of seabirds, turtles and dolphins. The Gulf of Mexico is one of two major spawning locations for the endangered Atlantic Bluefin Tuna - much smaller spills of oil in the Gulf have been shown to have reduced the viability and survival of tuna eggs and their larvae.

The long term effect on wildlife both in and out of the sea is unknown, but it is likely to have far reaching impacts on fish, wildlife and the food chain within the Gulf, and in the wider Atlantic and Caribbean, as the oil remains in the water column and sea bed.

By the end of June, the US Fish and Wildlife Collection Report stated the following had been found dead, but these are likely to only be the tip of the iceberg: 997 dead birds were found, 749 oiled but alive and 93 have been cleaned and released. 400 dead turtles have been washed up, 84 oiled but alive turtles have been found and three have been cleaned and released. 47 dead mammals were also recorded.

Society & Economy

Compensation claims from victims are being thrashed out from a £13.5 billion fund set up by BP for the next four years.

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

MCS believes that the safety and environmental regulation could be considerably improved as detailed below. However, even with such improvements, MCS is concerned that the technology is still not advanced enough to prevent blowouts or cap the wellhead should they occur. We need to be certain that deepwater drilling is safe, and that drilling will not lead to environmental catastrophe. Only time, further review and improvement to regulation and technological advancement will ensure that.

Environmental regulation

DECC, and its predecessors, have been reasonably successful in the past decade or so in working with industry to implement international commitments that require reductions in the operational impact of oil & gas exploration and production, for example reinjection of produced water and replacing oil based drilling muds with alternatives. DECC has also been proactive in taking steps to meet EU Directives including the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive, Habitats and Species Directive and EIA Directive. However, we have found that while DECC is prepared to follow the processes necessary to be seen to implement the letter of the law with regard to EU Directives, in MCS view licensing still proceeds sometimes in contravention of the Directives. While MCS support Government bodies such as DECC in their essential role in regulating industry, we find that they are sometimes drawn between implementing environmental regulation and implementing Government's policy, as detailed in the draft UK Marine Policy Statement, "to maximise economic development of the UK's oil and gas resources, reflecting their importance to the UK's economic prosperity and security of energy supply". Is this a case of the fox guarding the hen house? MCS think it probably is and as such we recommend that an independent Science Advisory Panel is established by Defra and devolved administrations, similar to the one developed to advise on Marine Conservation Zone selection. The panel of experts could analyse the work of DECC in their environmental regulation and advise Parliament of any concerns.

Safety regulation

The HSE expects companies to manage their own risks under a "goal-setting" approach. While this may give companies the flexibility to choose the best methods and equipment they believe are available, rather than relying on prescription from the HSE, it could also allow companies too much flexibility, enabling less expensive safety options to be chosen over more expensive, but possibly less safe technology. One of the reasons for the Deepwater blowout was thought to be lack of investment in an expensive acoustic switch on the BOP - an acoustic system is typically a back-up to the primary control that are either hydraulic or electronic. Ironically, given the flaws we now see in America's oil drilling, Oil & Gas UK's parliamentary brief states that they often base their standards on those from the American Petroleum Institute. It is time that the HSE provided more guidance and possibly regulation with regard to the best available technology and methods to use.


While the oil industry, HSE and DECC conducted a review of the existing safety and environmental regulatory regime through the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group (OSPRAG), this happened behind closed doors with no request for input from Defra, MMO, JNCC, NE or environmental organisations. How thorough and honest this investigation was without independent overview is therefore questionable.

MCS hence welcomes an inquiry by the Select Committee, and suggests that should sufficient information not be forthcoming from those called to give evidence that an independent body is asked to review the existing UK safety and environmental regulatory regime and ensure they are fit for purpose.

Lessons must be learnt from a major oil disaster such as occurred in the Gulf of Mexico.

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

The hazards and risks of deepwater drilling to the west of Shetland are in MCS' view, two-fold. Firstly the increased risk of an oil pollution disaster, and secondly, the unique wildlife assemblages and habitats that the UK has an international legal responsibility to conserve, together with the impacts of oil spills on local economies.

The first point regarding the increased risk of an oil pollution disaster in deepwater is covered above.

The west of Shetland is of unique importance to a diverse range of cetacean and fish, as detailed by the (then) DTI in their Strategic Environmental Assessment for the region - see box below. There are also other wonderful habitat and wildlife assemblages that can be found on the DECC web site:


Source: DTI Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) 4 for the West of Shetland

Fisheries are very important in the SEA4 area, the mixed demersal fishery for cod, haddock and whiting, the pelagic fisheries for herring and mackerel, and the industrial fishery for sandeel, being the most important. Fish communities in the SEA4 area associated with the coast, shelf and shelf edge have affinities with communities elsewhere in the UK EEZ, such as to the west of the Hebrides, but the deep-water fish communities found in the very cold water below about 500m water depth in the Faroe Shetland Channel are unique to the UK EEZ.

The SEA area is of undoubted importance internationally for cetaceans with the following species regularly occurring in the area: harbour porpoise, white-beaked dolphin, Atlantic whitesided dolphin, Risso's dolphin, long-finned pilot whale, killer whale, minke whale, fin whale and sperm whale. In addition to these, other, rarer species such as Sowerby's beaked whale, humpback whale, Sei whale and common dolphin are also known to regularly occur in the area. (SEA 4 p.99). A further eleven cetacean species and four pinniped species are occasional visitors, while grey seal, harbor seal, hooded seal are also occur regularly.

The impact on marine mammals of oil & chemical dispersants depends on the amount of internal or external exposure and the method of exposure, i.e. inhaled, ingested, absorbed, or external. Impacts can include ulcers, respiratory problems, immune suppression, reproductive failure, organ damage or death. With a large spill, such as in the Gulf of Mexico, marine mammals will be exposed for a long period of time. In addition, they will consume prey containing oil based chemicals that will lead to bioaccumulation of contaminants. For further information see Appendix I - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Effects of Oil on Marine Mammals and Sea Turtles

All dolphins, porpoises and whales are listed on Annex IV of the Habitats Regulations.

Regulation 10 of The Offshore Petroleum Activities (Conservation of Habitats) Regulations makes it an offence to deliberately disturb these animals or cause deterioration or destruction of breeding sites or resting places of any such creature. Under the Habitats Regulations, the competent authority, DECC, must not grant a licence unless they are satisfied that the action authorised will not be detrimental to the maintenance of the populations of the species concerned at a favourable conservation status in their natural range.

In addition to learning lessons from the Gulf of Mexico, we must learn from risks caused to wildlife and local economies in UK waters. The MV Braer ran aground off the coast of Shetland on the 5 January 1993, spilling 85,000 tonnes of oil and killing some 5,000 seabirds, with 32,000 birds in total estimated to have perished. The Braer grounding could have been a much greater disaster for the Shetland. Breeding birds were away from Shetland, and the stormy weather dispersed the oil, with most being swept out to sea and less than 1% washed ashore. Inshore fisheries and salmon farms were badly affected, with oil concentrations up to 20,000 times higher than normal, and the harvests were lost. Fishing in the area was suspended for several weeks. Fish, shellfish, marine mammals and various bird species were all affected by the spill. Oil settled into the sediment in the Fair Isle Channel, which meant that the langoustine fishery remained closed for over a decade. Much of the light crude oil the Braer was carrying dispersed quickly, but it is more toxic than the heavier crude oils which were carried by the Prestige and the Erika.

On the evening of 15 February 1996 the oil tanker Sea Empress, carrying crude oil to Milford Haven in South West Wales, ran aground at St Ann's Head in the entrance to the Milford Haven waterway. The spill affected the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, and the main spill area affected 35 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, two national nature reserves (at Stackpole and Skomer), and one of the UK's three marine nature reserves (Skomer). Over the next seven days approximately 72,000 tonnes of light crude oil was released, mainly at low tide, and 480 tonnes of heavy fuel oil escaped whilst the vessel was being re-floated and towed to a jetty within the waterway. The total cost of the accident was estimated at £45 million for the clean-up and salvage operation, £90 million in economic costs, and £29 million in environmental impacts.

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

Deepwater oil and gas production is not necessary during the UK's transition to a low carbon economy because:

¾  The UK is already heavily reliant on imports to meet our needs for oil & gas, just as we are for food, cars, timber etc. Similarly we can also select more sustainable sources of these products, in the case of oil, only utilising oil from shallower offshore reserves (both imported and national) for the next five to ten years until deepwater exploitation is less risky, more sustainable and more technologically advanced.

¾  A proportion of the UK's oil & gas must be kept in reserve in order that we maintain security of supply for the UK's essential goods and services, even once we are in a low carbon economy (see answer to next question below).

¾  Further exploitation and availability at this time (when oil & gas is relatively plentiful) will only further put off the difficult decisions, investment and commitment needed in the UK's transition to a low carbon economy. This includes the UK's objective of delivering 32 GW energy from offshore wind that MCS supports, providing developments are located and installed to avoid damage to nationally and internationally important sites, species and habitats and to avoid areas of particular sensitivity where there should be a presumption against development.

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

The suggestion that deepwater oil reserves must be exploited today regardless of tomorrow is illogical, and counter to the "UK's security of supply". Security of supply of oil & gas (as well as fish, timber etc) should not be viewed as a short term objective for the next five or ten years or so, but rather a long term goal. As such we need to hold some oil in reserve and not exploit it, in order that in times of real need, due to real scarcity of supply as imports are restricted, or due to war, the critical services that the UK needs to operate can continue - such as trains, ships, hospitals etc. The UK oil & gas policy as presently drafted in the draft UK Marine Policy Statement is therefore misguided: "The UK's policy objective to maximize economic development of the UK's oil and gas resources reflecting their importance to the UK's economic prosperity and security of energy supply" (pp 45 draft UK Marine Policy Statement).

October 2010

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