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

Memorandum submitted by Dr Jonathan Wills

"The area of Atlantic Ocean to the West of Shetland on the edge of the continental shelf, is characterised by extreme environmental conditions such as strong winds, huge waves, very low temperatures and significant water depths."

  This quotation is from Total Exploration and Production UK,[12] describing their new Laggan-Tormore gas project, lying 125km west of Shetland,[13] in 600 metres of water. These are the harshest conditions in UK waters.

  So why go there?

  Total's public documents explain:

    — West of Shetland has the potential to produce 2.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent;

    — The area holds around 17% of the UK's remaining oil and gas reserves;

    — They contain more than 1 trillion cubic feet of gas, plus some condensates—equating to about 230 million barrels of oil equivalent; and

    — Peak production rates are expected to be about 500 million standard cubic feet per day.

  Even though the development costs of the first group of wells are in the order of £2.5 billion, it is still worthwhile extracting gas out there. It's going to happen, along with further development of other gas and oil deposits and fields not yet discovered.

  The question is whether the regulators have the power, the determination, the staff and the money to ensure that it is done without unacceptable environmental damage.

  Let me first declare a direct and pecuniary interest in this subject: I make part of my living at Noss National Nature Reserve,[14] showing tourists the amazingly rich and varied marine wildlife of the Shetland Islands.[15] And I lost a lot of business the one and only time we had a big oil spill, in 1993. So I have more enthusiasm than most for keeping the sea clean, even though I work on a boat that burns 21 tonnes of diesel a year (that's about 10 litres per passenger). I also have grandchildren in London and Prague and am thus a disgracefully frequent flyer. So while I may sometimes have been seen as a critic of the industry, I'm also a very good customer. And I think that gives me the right to say what I think the oil and gas corporations ought to be doing better.

  I've watched BP at close and critical quarters in Shetland since the mid-1970s, in my former careers as a journalist and environmental consultant and, more recently, as a councillor. I don't subscribe to the view that the initials BP stand for Bad People. Most of the BP officials I've met were honestly trying to do a good job. Not all succeeded, of course, but I should also declare that I believe BP's environmental performance in Shetland over the past 31 years has been mostly first class. They got off to a bad start when the 12th tanker[16] to call at the Sullom Voe oil terminal, in December 1978, collided with a jetty and spilled 1,142 tonnes of fuel oil. The accident wasn't BP's fault but the failure to contain and clean up the spill certainly was. They learned their lesson and in April 1979, in co-operation with Shetland Islands Council, BP instituted a pioneering tanker safety scheme and one of the best pollution prevention and response regimes in the world. It went far beyond normal best practice and was enforced by the clauses in commercial contracts for the uplift of oil cargoes. This mechanism to ensure compliance was very effective but, alas, has not been widely copied in other oil provinces around the world.

  Given BP's record in Shetland I was rather surprised, in 1989, to find the company up to its neck in the Exxon Valdez disaster, where a BP-dominated firm, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, in association with the US Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, repeated all the spill prevention and response mistakes BP had made in Sullom Voe a decade before. The learning curve clearly had some big steps on it. I wrote this up in newspaper articles and a book. BP Alaska were not best pleased with me. They were still upset when, in 1999, I wrote a paper reviewing the impressive improvements that BP and its Alaskan partners had belatedly introduced after Exxon Valdez, and pointed out one or two things they appeared to have missed. They prevailed on my client, a citizens' advisory group established in Alaska by President George Bush (The First), not to publish my paper.[17] I would be happy to provide the committee with a copy if it is of interest.

  Each oil or gas disaster brings demands for new laws and better working practices. Often the disaster could have been avoided if people had just complied with existing laws and best practice. In Shetland I have seen with my own eyes that it is possible to have a profitable oil and gas industry without causing widespread environmental pollution, ecological catastrophe, social disruption and the impoverishment of the majority. I admit this is a fairly uncommon situation, taking the world as whole, but I insist that it is possible. So I remain an optimist, the latest Gulf of Mexico blow-out notwithstanding.

  We're asked: "Could it happen here?" The answer seems to be "Yes". But we really don't know how likely a seabed blow-out is in the West Shetland oil and gas fields. The Macondo experience is telling us that there may be serious and hitherto unsuspected problems with blow-out preventers (BOPs). The record in the shallower waters of the North Sea over the past 40 years should be encouraging—there has been only one very prolonged, serious blow-out that I can recall (Ekofisk), although there have been some close calls. The Piper Alpha disaster caused terrible loss of life but the pollution was neither extensive nor prolonged.

  A question the technical experts surely must now answer is this: are the blow-out preventers properly designed for the much higher pressures of deep water drilling? And does the industry have credible contingency plans to deal promptly and effectively with deep sea blow-outs? In the relatively shallow North Sea it is usually possible to send down saturation divers to tackle problems. In the very deep waters west of Shetland it is not. As in the Gulf of Mexico, any response to a seabed blow-out would depend to a large extent on remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs). These submarines are ingenious machines and can do a great deal but, as we have seen with the Macondo well, they are slow and cumbersome. Contingency plans ought to reflect this.

  If a damaged wellhead has to be sealed off permanently, the only way to do it is to drill a relief well. As we saw in the Gulf of Mexico (and north of Australia not long ago), this can take months. The technology is impressive but progress is necessarily slow. Because it takes so long, should relief wells be drilled alongside every group of new wells? And what would this cost?

  Of course, seabed blow-outs are relatively rare. Most spills come from exploration rigs, production platforms and floating production, storage and offloading vessels (FPSOs) at the surface. Most leaks are small and many are chronic. They have been a daily occurrence in the North Sea for almost four decades, although performance has improved with the progressive implementation of the OSPAR[18] accords by member states.

  In the early 1970s we were very worried about the potential for massive pollution from submarine pipelines but, as far as I am aware, there have been no large, prolonged leaks from the thousands of miles of seabed pipeline laid since the 1970s. In fact, submarine pipelines in the North Sea appear to have a much better safety record than pipelines on land.

  We mainly learn about leaks of oil and gas from the polluters. This self-reporting is a problem because under the present enforcement regime there is no such thing as a surprise inspection to check on compliance. Ronald Reagan's principle of "Trust but Verify" is not applied offshore. It ought to be. It might have helped at Macondo.

  Another concern is the use of FPSOs in the "Atlantic Frontier" oilfields west of Shetland for the past dozen years. There have been several incidents, including a ship collision, and this system of oil production in deep water appears to be inherently more accident-prone than fixed or tethered platforms with subsea wellheads connected to pipelines. Should it be allowed to continue?

  Numerous official reports[19] on accidents and incidents in the offshore oil and gas industry[20] suggest that the biggest danger to safe operations is in fact routine interference in the work of expert drillers and other technical staff, often by shore-based managers chasing financial targets, resulting in repeated failures to follow industry best practice. This seems to have been the case, yet again, with the Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Some managers fail to ensure compliance with safety regulations; others turn a blind eye to corner cutting; and some even order operations staff to ignore the rules in order to get the job done on time and under budget. This seems to be what was happening on Transocean's Deepwater Horizon rig. Perhaps someone in government should have noticed. If they did, nothing was done in time.

  Other questions that can be answered by witnesses more qualified than I am include:

    — Are the pollution prevention plans for West Shetland adequate? In partnership with the oil and gas industry, Shetland Islands Council has drawn up a pollution contingency plan,[21] although it is not obliged to do so by law. However, it only extends a short way out to sea and deals mainly with tanker traffic in the port of Sullom Voe and with potential spills from the onshore oil and gas terminal there.

    — Are the government and industry response plans adequate for dealing with a deep-water spill?

    — Do we have an adequate compensation regime in the event of a spill from a wellhead, pipeline, production platform or drilling rig? The recent report by Client Earth[22] would suggest not.

  What I can try to tell the committee, from my personal experience and knowledge, is:

    — How the Gulf of Mexico and West Shetland offshore environments differ.

    — Where seabed and surface spills are likely to end up.

    — What's at risk in those stormy waters off the west coast of Shetland.

    — Why this area is so exceptionally rich biologically.

    — Why conventional oil spill response techniques are unlikely to be effective west of Shetland.

    — And, last but not least, what the economic effects of a major, prolonged spill might be.

How do the Gulf of Mexico and West Shetland offshore environments differ?

  Much of the Gulf of Mexico is far deeper than the area beyond the edge of the continental shelf west of Shetland. Around our islands the seabed is less than 200 metres deep, gently shelving down to a depth of about 500 metres. It doesn't reach 1,000 metres until midway between Shetland and Faeroe, part of the area currently being developed for oil and gas extraction.

  Whereas the Gulf of Mexico is a basin, in which the main currents rotate in what oceanographers call a "gyre", the West Shetland sea area has more complicated currents, due to a broad, undulating ridge between Shetland and the Faeroe Islands. Here the relatively warm surface currents mostly run from south-west to north-east all year round, while the cold, dense, saltier water of the bottom currents spills over the Faeroe-Shetland ridge from north to south. However, there are significant variations and near the edge of the shelf the current may flow in the same direction on the seabed as on the surface.

  Total's researchers[23] describe these currents as "complex" with "various strong non-tidal currents interacting with relatively weak tidal flow". At the surface, wind and waves certainly dominate the water movement: "On the surface, the deep water over the West of Shetland continental slope is exposed to a large fetch and strong winds, particularly from the west and southwest. These conditions generate an extreme wave regime in the area which is more severe than that experienced in the northern North Sea. The area is also affected by long periods of ocean swells generated from Atlantic storms."

Where are seabed and surface spills likely to end up?

  The bathymetry of the Gulf of Mexico basin and the prevailing winds mean that most oil spills will stay in the Gulf of Mexico. Things are rather different in the North-east Atlantic, where the remains of any spill are likely to end up in the Arctic Ocean. We now have a good idea of the probable track of oil spills at the surface west of Shetland. The research[24] done for the Foinaven and Schiehallion oilfields in the 1990s, together with more recent work in connection with the environmental assessment for Total's new gas fields, confirms that surface currents and wind will tend to take surface slicks in a generally north-easterly direction, parallel to the edge of the shelf, past the coast of Shetland and out into the Norwegian sea. This prediction is based on the prevailing south-westerly winds but strong winds may blow from any quarter at different times of year. The Meteorological Office wind rose data[25] make this very clear. A strong and sustained north-westerly wind, very common at some seasons, would blow any oil slick ashore on the west coast of Shetland within two or three days.

  The track of a seabed spill from a wellhead or pipeline, on the other hand, is harder to predict. The cold, bottom current flowing to the south and south-west is not uniform and it is difficult to calculate its effect on a wellhead spill, although Total have tried.[26] However, being warmer than the surrounding water, any leaking oil or condensate would tend to rise towards the surface, where the current would certainly carry it in a predominantly north-easterly direction. But, once on the surface, it would be subject to the dominant influence of the wind.

  Further research may be needed if we are to model accurately the probable tracks of seabed spills in this area. We also have no clear idea of what proportion of a seabed spill would reach the surface in these cold, northerly seas. But it is interesting to note that seabed water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are surprisingly similar to the cold depths west of Shetland,[27] although surface temperatures are, of course, much higher all year round.

  What we can be sure of (although Total say it is "unlikely" as far as the condensates from their gas fields are concerned)[28] is that at least part of any large and prolonged spillage, whether it occurred on the seabed or at the surface, would be very likely to hit the shoreline somewhere in the 100 miles between Fair Isle at the southern end of Shetland and Muckle Flugga at the northern. Any beachcomber knows that.

What's at risk on the west coast of the Shetland Islands?

  When oil spills come ashore they generate words and pictures as the media reports the latest wildlife disaster to the world. The media coverage of the Braer oilspill, which took place in midwinter when most of the seabird population was well away from Shetland, gives some idea of the publicity firestorm that could result from a midsummer spill in idyllic islands made justly famous by Simon King's wildlife TV shows. And the Braer was before the internet, Facebook and Twitter. Shetland's high media profile, as one of the best places in Europe to watch seabirds and marine mammals at close range, guarantees that any spill, let alone a blow-out, will make global front pages for many days, and for legitimate reasons.

  The public naturally becomes enraged when confronted with footage of thousands of oiled and dying seabirds on a beach. It is harder to feel sympathy for microscopic plankton and ugly anglerfish. Oil dispersed under the surface, particularly when it is 70 miles from shore, is unseen by reporters and camera crews but may have even more serious effects on marine ecology than a high profile coastal spillage.

  Even in summer, the open Atlantic west of Shetland is, more often than not, a grey, cold, stormy place. From the deck of a ship it can look deserted, apart from scattered flocks of seabirds. Most people find it hard to imagine its cold depths as anything other than cold, deep and empty. In fact this ocean and its seabed are teeming with life-forms—equipped to thrive where we cannot survive.

  To quote the Atlantic Frontier Environmental Network (AFEN): "Contrary to general expectations, the abundance of animal life in the deep waters of both the Rockall Trough and Faeroe-Shetland Channel is not markedly lower than that encountered in shallower waters. In the Rockall Trough and the waters to the north of Shetland, animal abundance appears to increase with depth."[29] Over 2,000 different species of animals were recorded during seabed surveys in 1996 and 1998.

  Total's Environmental scientists[30] have found the same:

    "In general, deep sea habitats demonstrate a decrease in biomass and abundance with increasing water depth but the West of Shetland area, because of its dynamic currents, temperatures and contours and trenches[31] on the seabed, does not follow this trend…"

  Various species of sea urchin are the most common seabed animals here, along with burrowing worms, polychaete worms, shrimps, hermit crabs, sponges, sea anemones and colonial, encrusting animals such as bryozoan crinoids ("sea fans") and cold-water corals.

  The Atlantic margin west of Shetland is an important nursery and feeding ground for many commercial fish species, including haddock, monkfish, whiting, cod, saithe, ling, herring and mackerel. Valuable shellfish landed from this area are brown crabs, scallops, squid and prawns.

  The most abundant seabirds here are the northern fulmar, the black-legged kittiwake and the gannet. Common guillemots, arctic terns, puffins and storm petrels are seasonal visitors, on passage to and from their breeding colonies ashore in Shetland.

  In observations over the past 20 years, 16 species of whale and dolphin have been sighted in the West Shetland oil and gas fields. The edge of the continental shelf has been described as "a whale motorway".

Why is this area so biologically rich?

  The best summary of Shetland's ecological significance that I have seen is in J. Laughton Johnston's book, A Shetland Naturalist (Poyser, 1999):

    "Shetland is a spectacular group of islands with a varied geology, a wonderful landscape and a special flora and fauna… …Shetland remains one of Britain's national treasures."

  The most outstanding features include the following:

    — The inshore waters around Shetland are still pristine, and certainly the cleanest in the North Sea (although marine litter is a significant problem).

    — The unusual "jigsaw" shape of the islands packs a profusion of coastal and marine life into the 1600-mile-long coastline of a land area of just 567 square miles. There is about 20 times as much coastline per square mile of land in Shetland as in Sussex or Norfolk.

    — The variety of inshore habitats over short distances is remarkable—from seabed over 120m deep to cliffs over 200m high; from tidal lagoons and sandy beaches to caves and kelp forest; from oxygen-depleted waters at the head of Sullom Voe to the turbulent, oxygen-rich waters of Bluemull Sound. It is doubtful if such a wide variety of coastal geomorphology could be found in an area of similar size anywhere in Britain.

    — Unlike much of Scotland, Shetland has a "drowned" coastline, due to a rise in relative sea level of some 120 metres since the end of the last glaciation. This has provided material for the outstanding diversity of sand and shingle bars, spits and "tombolos" (causeways), not found in such numbers anywhere else in the UK. All of these features are highly vulnerable to oil pollution. The submarine topography is extraordinarily varied over short distances, creating rich habitats for inshore sea life, particularly in the kelp forest, which may have an area of over 200 square miles (no-one has yet charted it accurately).

    — The continental shelf around the islands is one of the richest and most productive seas in the world. As a plankton producer it ranks with the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Russia's Sea of Okhotsk and the Gulf of Alaska. Like the deeper waters west of the shelf edge, it is far more "biodiverse" than a casual observer might suppose.

  One reason for this is the extreme turbulence of our coastal waters, due to the mingling of Atlantic, Arctic and North Sea currents, the churning effect of tide races in the narrow sounds between the islands, and the upwelling of bottom water as tides and currents run over the drowned cliffs and ridges extending offshore from many headlands. Some of these submarine obstructions rise 30-40m from the seabed. In addition, Shetland experiences an average of about 100 days a year when the wind is Force Seven (near-gale) or higher.

  The turbulence caused by all these factors traps large amounts of nutrients (mainly from rotted seaweed and dead plankton) in sunlit water less than 30 metres deep (the "photic zone"). Underwater visibility in Shetland is therefore surprisingly poor between March and September, due to the plant plankton "blooms" fed by the profusion of nutrients. This phytoplanktonic "fog" is in turn eaten by swarms of animal plankton. This zooplanktonic "snow", including the larvae of all our commercial finfish and shellfish, is food for fish, basking sharks and baleen whales.

  These blooms and swarms of plankton extend out to and beyond the continental shelf margin, well into the area currently being explored and exploited for oil and gas. Research[32] into the effects of oil spills on plankton suggests very serious and long-lasting damage can occur—even if we don't spread the pollution throughout the water column by spraying dispersant on surface slicks or injecting it into plumes of oil leaking from a seabed wellhead. The plankton may be out of sight and, for most people, out of mind, but it is the basis of the coastal ecosystem.

  The plant plankton also produces a significant proportion of the oxygen we breathe. Without it the oxygen level in the atmosphere would drop below the 21% level at which we have evolved. This surface layer indeed gave rise to the first plants and still contains most of the world's flora, by mass. It is extraordinarily thin and fragile, rarely more than 30 metres deep. In comparison with the diameter of the Earth, the phytoplankton layer is thousands of times thinner than the skin of a bubble. The precautionary principle strongly suggests that we should make all possible efforts to avoid damaging or disrupting it.

  At the top of the plankton-based food chain, Shetland's seabird breeding colonies[33] are of international significance and among the largest in the North Atlantic. The Hermaness National Nature Reserve,[34] for example, lies directly downwind and downstream of the Foinaven and Schiehallion FPSOs that have been producing oil since 1998.

  The island of Foula[35] is another ornithological jewel, lying in the track of spills from the West Shetland fields when the wind is between west and north-west. A single spill during the breeding season could cause severe and widespread damage, all along the west coast of Shetland, to populations of gannets, fulmars, puffins, guillemots, black guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, arctic and common terns, great and arctic skuas, shags, cormorants, eiders, red-breasted merganser and red-throated divers.

  A prolonged spillage from a blow-out, lasting weeks or months, could easily develop into a major ecological catastrophe. Even in winter, there are large populations of vulnerable seabirds inshore around the islands—including rare winter visitors such as great northern divers, slavonian grebes and long-tailed duck.[36]

  Shetland is a vital staging post for migratory birds and has a world-famous ornithological observatory on Fair Isle. Shore birds and wintering wildfowl are particularly vulnerable to coastal oil pollution.

  Our populations of grey and common seals and otters are nationally important. Shetland has the highest density of otters in the UK. Grey seals have been recorded as far as 70 miles out in the Atlantic.

  The coastline is also of special botanical interest, with some surviving rarities such as oyster plant, surprisingly lush cliff meadows and very interesting plant communities now developing on more than 60 small holms where sheep are no longer grazed.

  Geologically, Shetland is more varied than almost any area of similar size in Europe. The islands have recently gained Unesco Geopark[37] status because of this. The rock exposures along the shoreline range from basalt cliffs and ancient oceanic crust through almost every major rock type to Devonian fossil beds and desert sandstones. Classic sites include major structural features such as the northern extension of the Great Glen Fault and glacial overflow channels. Shetland's long ridges of hills and voes (sea lochs) are a textbook example of "Appalachian" landforms, related directly to the underlying geology. Coastal geological exposures of international scientific significance are all critically exposed to oil pollution.

  As the most northerly stretch of coast in Britain, Shetland is literally a place on the edge. The shoreline lies in the frontier zone between temperate and sub-arctic marine ecosystems. For some northern species it is the southern limit of their range, and vice versa. It is an ideal place to monitor and measure the ecological consequences of climate change, which is likely to have extreme effects in Shetland, particularly with the expected further rise in sea level.

  Shetland's environment is exceptionally well documented, with a larger literature about it in the natural sciences than for any similar-sized area in Scotland. A bibliography, which I compiled in 2003 for Shetland College and UHI, ran to 63 pages and over 1,000 books and papers. It was by no means exhaustive. There is a vast amount of "baseline" information about Shetland's coastline, due in part to the work of the Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group[38] (SOTEAG) which for over 30 years has carried out regular biological sampling and monitoring under the auspices of Aberdeen University, to accumulate some of the longest-running, most detailed and methodologically consistent data sets of their kind in the world. Scottish Natural Heritage also has a long-running programme of wildlife and habitat monitoring, while the North Atlantic Fisheries College marine centre[39] in Scalloway, Shetland, has recently completed a major piece of baseline research for the Shetland Marine Spatial Plan.[40] This is part of the Scottish Sustainable Marine Environment Initiative (SSMEI) and one of the first—and certainly the most detailed—such projects in Britain. The Marine Atlas in the plan is a remarkably valuable data set, compiled in collaboration between scientists, fishermen and other marine industries, including tourism operators.

  So we know what we have at present and we would be able to say with some accuracy what we had lost if a major spill occurred, whether or not it beached. Unfortunately, there is no known way of compensating for such a loss.

Will conventional oilspill response techniques work west of Shetland?

  The simple answer is "No". The reason is the weather. The Macondo slicks have shown us, yet again, that even in calm weather in the Gulf of Mexico the best containment booms, skimmers and other oil recovery techniques are unlikely to recover more than 20% of a spill, and much of that will in fact be a water/oil emulsion. This has been detailed in the US Government and Congressional inquiries into the disaster. Few floating booms can hold oil in waves of more than one metre. Such small waves are almost never found in the West Shetland oil and gas fields. So most oil spilled will not be contained. Nor will it be recovered, as there is currently no open ocean skimmer capable of recovering more than insignificant token amounts, and then only during rare weather windows. Even if it were recovered, how could it be transferred to tankers and barges in the open ocean?

  Natural evaporation is far slower in the cold water of the North-east Atlantic than in the Gulf of Mexico and may be largely discounted, at least insofar as a spill reaching the coast in a few days is concerned.

  Burning oil at sea is possible in the Gulf of Mexico but impracticable in the rough, cold seas of the North-east Atlantic. So we can forget that also.

  The only practical way to deal with an offshore seabed spill is by injecting dispersants into the plume of oil at the wellhead or pipeline leak, and to spray the surface slicks as they appear. However, the risk of causing serious ecological damage to the plankton may outweigh the largely cosmetic benefits of dispersing a slick. It looks good on television but it's fairly ineffective and that's about all you can say for spraying dispersants.[41]

  That leaves Nature to clean up. And sometimes she can. Although Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean hurricanes have long since blown themselves out by the time they have crossed the Atlantic, the remains of these storms do reach Shetland, where hurricane force winds of Force 12 are sometimes recorded several times a year. The Braer oil spill in January 1993[42] showed that prolonged, violent storms can be more effective than human efforts at cleaning up (or, at least, dispersing) some types of oil spill. This may also prove to be the case in the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 hurricane season. Violent storms can disperse some oil but for best effect their energy needs to be concentrated by topography, as happened when a sustained (and rather unusual) Force 11 storm dispersed most of the Braer's 85,000 tonnes of oil by churning it up with the sea in two sandy bays less than 15 metres deep. This natural mechanism for dispersing spills is likely to be less effective in the open ocean.

  In summary, only a very small fraction of any open Atlantic spill west of Shetland is ever likely to be recovered or dispersed by human agency. Various snake oil salesmen and perpetual motion machine inventors will try to convince us otherwise but there is, in fact, almost nothing useful we can do once it happens. That is the awful truth and we would do better to face it and concentrate on preventing spills rather than entertain technological fantasies about mega-skimmers funded by celebrities and slurping up thousands of tonnes of oil. In your dreams…

What are the likely economic effects of a major, prolonged spill?

  Shetland's fisheries (including salmon and mussel farms) were worth £225 million in 2006, in the most recent detailed economic study. The figure is now probably about £250 million. This is about four times the annual value of the Sullom Voe oil and gas terminal to the local economy.

  We know from experience in Cornwall (Torrey Canyon), Brittany (Amoco Cadiz), Alaska (Exxon Valdez) and Shetland (Esso Bernicia and Braer), that oil spills, particularly large ones, usually have some or all of the following consequences:

    — closure of fishing grounds;

    — massive destruction of farmed fish and shellfish;

    — loss of markets in the short and longer term;

    — loss of product reputation built up over many decades;

    — bankruptcies among boat owners, fish farm companies, processing factories, sales agents and local suppliers;

    — widespread unemployment among boat crews, fish farm workers, factory hands and employees of local suppliers; and

    — and that's before we consider the mental and physical illness caused to local people and cleanup workers.[43]

  In addition, any spill gives an area massive bad publicity, which persists long after the oil has ceased to be visible. This depresses markets for all local products and particularly for tourism, which is likely to be severely affected for a full year after the spill and may take many years to recover. Tourism is a growing industry in Shetland, currently worth about £18 million. Its growth is mainly spurred by wildlife tourism, helped by some carefully targeted and highly effective publicity organised by the new Promote Shetland[44] marketing organisation.

  On top of these losses to private businesses and individuals, a spill inevitably creates costs for local authorities and voluntary organisations who try to respond, often when they have no statutory duty to do so. A spill such as the Braer can mean bills far beyond the means of a small coastal local authority. In the end central government has to pay up if, as in the case of the Braer, the shipowners and their insurers contrive to escape full liability.[45] So all spills cost the taxpayer.

  Compensation for victims of oil tanker spills is typically, slow, grudging and inadequate. But at least some of those who suffered financially from the Amoco Cadiz, Exxon Valdez and Braer spills eventually got something.[46] And the spills I have mentioned are all "single-point" incidents where all the oil was in the water within a few days of the grounding. An uncontrolled leak from a seabed blow-out in the open Atlantic west of Shetland—pumping thousands of tonnes of oil a day into the ocean over many weeks—could devastate the Shetland economy, cripple the finances of the local authority and have long-lasting and far-reaching financial effects that are, literally, incalculable.

  With a spill from an offshore installation, it appears that there is little or no compensation available from the polluters or their insurers and the whole cost could well fall on the public. This surely amounts to the nationalisation of risk and the privatisation of profit, a phenomenon with which we are all wearily familiar in this country.

  The Gulf of Mexico spill appears partly to have been the result of lax enforcement and excessive familiarity (not to say conviviality) between the regulators and the regulated but in one respect at least the USA is ahead of us: in American courts it is possible to win exemplary damages (if the Supreme Court doesn't intervene) and also to sue for damage to environmental assets like birds, whales, seals and even plankton. It is a sad irony that in Shetland, where we have far better baseline information about our world-class environmental treasures than almost anywhere else in the world, the gannets, fish and plankton are not worth a penny in the eyes of the law.

  So I'm glad Parliament is looking into these problems and I hope you will propose some practical solutions soon. A good place to start would be Europe-wide laws on adequate compensation for spills from rigs, platforms and production ships. A firm but fair enforcement regime would be useful. A law to allow pollution victims to sue for environmental damage would help. And we should not forget the extraordinary power the insurance industry can wield, if it chooses, to require and enforce compliance with the highest standards of design, operation and maintenance.

  We are going to need quite a lot of oil and gas for at least a century, by the look of things, so the sooner we minimise its adverse effects on the marine life that sustains us all, the better.

  Thank you for the invitation to take part in your inquiry. It is much appreciated.

September 2010

12   See Total's "Project Overview" at: and also their "West of Shetland Environmental Statement" at Back

13   For an introduction to the Shetland Islands, see: Back

14   See: Back

15   See: Back

16   The Exxon-owned tanker Esso Bernicia. For an account of this incident and the parallels with the Exxon Valdez clean-up, see Wills, J, 1991. A Place in the Sun-Shetland and Oil. Mainstream, Edinburgh. Back

17   Wills, J, 2001. Partners or Regulators? Prince William Sound/Sullom Voe Comparisons, 1989-99. Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, Contract Report No. 400.00.1, Valdez, Alaska. Back

18   The Oslo-Paris Convention to protect the environment of the North-east Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic. See: Back

19   See, for example, the Cullen Report into the Piper Alpha disaster, at: Back

20   See also the records kept by the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC), now the offshore workers' branch of the RMT trade union Back

21   See the recently updated version at: Back

22   See: Luk, S & Wilks, S, September 2010. Legislative Briefing: International and EU regulation of oil rigs and other offshore activities. Analysis and proposals for reform. Client Earth, 274 Richmond Road, London E8 3QW. Back

23   See: "West of Shetland Environmental Statement", Section 6, at Back

24   See: Bett, B J & Masson, D G, 2000. Main discoveries of the AFEN research project. Section 6.1. Back

25   See wind rose on foot of web page at: Back

26 Back

27   The two regions even share similar cold-water corals of the Lophelia family. Back

28   See pp.193-196 of the Laggan-Tormore Environmental Statement at: Back

29   Bett, B J & Masson, D G, 2000, op. cit. Back

30 Back

31   These trenches-and there are hundreds of them-are plough marks made by icebergs that grounded thousands of years ago when the sea level was much lower. Back

32   See: Patin, S A, 1999. Environmental Impact of the Offshore Oil & Gas Industry. EcoMonitor Publishing, East Northport, New York. ISBN 0-967 1836-0-X. and Wills, J. W. G. 2000. Muddied Waters A Survey of Offshore Oilfield Drilling Wastes and Disposal Techniques to Reduce the Ecological Impact of Sea Dumping. Back

33   See: Gage, J D, 2000. Deep-sea benthic community and environmental impact assessment at the Atlantic Frontier. Back

34 Back

35 Back

36   SOTEAG = Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group. See the annual reports of SOTEAG's monitoring programme, 1978-2000. Back

37 Back

38 Back

39 Back

40   The plan is available online at with the marine atlas section at Back

41   There has been an interesting debate about this in the US press. For example, see: Back

42   For a non-technical description of this incident see Warner, K and Wills, J W G, 2003. Innocent Passage-the Wreck of the Tanker Braer. Mainstream, Edinburgh. The scientific work is summarised in Kingston, P et al, 1994. Recovery of the Marine Environment following the Braer spill, Shetland. Ecological Steering Group on the Oil Spill in Shetland (ESGOSS), available online at: Back

43   See two books by Dr Riki Ott, an Alaskan marine toxicologist who studied the health effects of the Exxon Valdez spill: Ott, R, 2005. Sound Truth & Corporate Myth$. Lorenzo Press- Ott, R, 2008. Not one Drop. Chelsea Green- _O628ijPXeIZa40ZdMk&hl=en&ei=p5COTO_RHNS7jAfcgtWgBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=16&ved=0CFAQ6AEwDw£v=onepage&q&f=false Back

44   See: Back

45   See: Wills, J W G, 2001. What Really Happened on the Braer. Shetland Post, Lerwick. Back

46   Although many Amoco Cadiz and Exxon Valdez claimants had died before the final payouts were made, 18 and 21 years respectively after the events. Back

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