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

Memorandum submitted by Caroline Lucas MP

1.  Following press reports on 1 October of an announcement by DECC on that drilling is to be permitted at Lagavulin, West of Shetland, I contacted Chris Huhne's private office to ask how the announcement was made. There were no details of the announcement made on the DECC website and, despite repeated requests on how the announcement was made, I have still not been told. On the date of writing I can still find no details of the announcement or how it was made on the DECC website. It would be helpful to know both how the announcement was made and why it was made in recess, just a couple of weeks after the September sitting and just ten days before the House was due to return on 11 October.

2.  I wrote to the Secretary of State, Chris Huhne, to express my concern that the announcement had not been made to Parliament, thus denying MPs the chance to scrutinise. In response the Secretary of State referred to his statement on the floor of the House on 14 June on the issues surrounding the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. He also made reference to the work being done by the Climate Change Select Committee. However, I responded to point out that neither provided a substitute for a debate on the announcement that drilling is to be permitted at Lagavulin.

3.  On the work of the DECC Select Committee, I understand that the Committee is not expecting to report until the end of this year or possibly early 2011. It is scandalous that the Government has taken its decision before the Committee's Inquiry is complete. The very purpose of the Committee's work is to assess whether there should be a moratorium on deepwater drilling, as this from the Committee's website makes clear:
The Committee wants to find out about the safety and environmental regulations of oil and gas operations on the UK continental shelf - especially in the deepwater to the west of the Shetlands - and the potential positive and negative impacts of a moratorium on deepwater drilling.[76] 4.  Turning to the 14 June Statement, the Secretary of State clearly indicated that there was a need for detailed analysis of the factors that caused the Gulf incident before exploration begins in the deep waters west of Shetland.

For ease of reference the relevant Hansard record of this is below: 14 Jun 2010 : Column 630 It is my responsibility to make sure that the oil and gas industry maintains the highest possible standards in UK waters, and I have had an urgent review undertaken. It is clear that our safety and environmental regulatory regime is already among the most robust in the world, and the industry's record in the North sea is strong. However, as exploration begins in deeper waters west of Shetland, we must be vigilant. Initial steps are already under way, including a doubling of the Department's annual environmental inspections of drilling rigs. I will also review our new and existing procedures as soon as detailed analysis of the factors that caused the incident in the gulf of Mexico is available. That will build upon the work already begun by the newly-formed Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group. Given the importance of global deep-water production during our transition to a low-carbon economy, I will also ensure that lessons and practice are shared with relevant regulators and operating companies.

5.  However, the Committee will be aware, and the Secretary of State acknowledged in his letter to me, that US formal investigations into the factors that caused the Gulf incident will not be complete until 2011. It cannot be called "vigilant" to make the decision to permit drilling before the review that you promise will take place can be undertaken.

6.  In his letter to me, the Secretary of State used the track record of offshore drilling in the UK as a justification for the decision to go ahead with drilling at Lagavulin before the Gulf investigation is complete. However, only a small percentage of UK deep water wells have been sunk in the Atlantic Frontier / West of Shetland. It is not reasonable to say "West of Shetland will be fine because we have dug hundreds of deep wells in the UK and they've been fine" because the industry simply doesn't have a significant experience of working in this region. Working here is very different from drilling shallow wells in the North Sea.

7.  The oil industry has been reticent to develop deep water West of Shetland because of its remoteness, the technical difficulties in extracting oil and the high cost of doing so. It is only because of recent tax breaks the previous government, and now the coalition, have given to the oil industry to support development of new unconventional UK fields that companies are gearing up to go there.[77] The Committee will know that this is an extreme and hostile environment with very deep waters (Lagavulin, though not the deepest ever UK well - that was around 1,900m - is, at 1,569m, very deep and technically very challenging), strong winds, currents, big waves and cold temperatures.

8.  The Committee will also be aware that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) this year issued a stern warning over the increase in both serious accidents and spilled oil in UK waters, labelling the industry's performance "not good enough." The HSE's head of Offshore Division added, "I am particularly disappointed, and concerned, that major and significant hydrocarbon releases are up by more than a third on last year. This is a key indicator of how well the offshore industry is managing its major accident potential, and it really must up its game to identify and rectify the root causes of such events."[78] Again, this represents another reason why it is not acceptable to casually rely on the notion of a "strong track record".

9.  To conclude, DECC granted drilling consent before either the Select Committee scrutinising this policy area had finished its inquiry and before the formal US investigations have been completed. The announcement was not made to Parliament, was not posted on the DECC website and I still haven't been told how it was made despite repeated requests. The Government is rushing ahead with new deepwater drilling with no care for a precautionary approach and should be condemned for its actions. I very much hope the DECC Select Committee will call for the Government to introduce a moratorium on new deepwater drilling, at the very least, until it has concluded its Inquiry and the US formal investigation has reported.

November 2010

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