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West of Shetland spill clean up impossible

A GOVERNMENT committee report rejecting European calls for a moratorium on deep sea drilling for oil and gas off Shetland has been welcomed by a local critic of the industry.

Wildlife tour operator Jonathan Wills said the report by the House of Commons energy and climate change committee into deepwater drilling following the Gulf of Mexico disaster last year was “a model report”.

Dr Wills, who gave evidence to the committee last October as an unpaid consultant for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said he was delighted they had taken up many of the recommendations put to them.

During his presentation to the committee he said: “I haven’t seen any containment, dispersal or clean-up system that works in the open Atlantic.”

He welcomed the report’s acknowledgement that it would be virtually impossible to respond to an oil spill in the harsh environment of the open Atlantic west of Shetland.

As a result the report emphasises that “prevention is better than cure” and that any “capping, containment and clean-up systems” take full account of the tough offshore environment the industry is moving into as resources dwindle.

“Many of us have said things like this for many years, but it’s good that this has been recognised,” Dr Wills said on Thursday, after the report’s publication.

“The actual recognition that oil spill containment and clean up kit doesn’t work out there is a big step forwards because it focuses people’s attention on prevention and compensation.”

The committee’s report has called for the government to introduce stricter safety controls offshore, raising concerns that the oil and gas industry is not fully prepared for disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon blowout on 20 April 2010.

While acknowledging the UK and Norway currently have higher safety standards than the US, the industry is geared to “responding to disasters, rather than anticipating worst-case scenarios and planning for high-consequence, low-probability events,” the report said.

One such safety measure the report recommends is the introduction of a second blind shear ram, the device that failed on the Deepwater Horizon that should have sealed the well and prevented the blowout that leaked 8.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Other recommendations include having someone based on every offshore rig with the experience and authority to shutdown a well; greater protection of whistleblowers; and extra Health and Safety Executive inspections to check basic systems like batteries are working – it was a low battery that prevented the blind shear ram on the Deepwater Horizon from functioning.

Dr Wills said: “The critical point is that the oil and gas companies are basically responding to disasters rather than anticipating the worst that can happen, planning for rare events that have catastrophic consequences.”

The report also criticised the current compensation system run by the voluntary Offshore Pollution Liability Association that sets a limit of $250 million, a fraction of the billions it is costing to clean up the damage caused in the Gulf of Mexico.

The report calls for measures to tighten legal loopholes to enforce the “polluter pays” principle, forcing oil companies to prove they have the resources to cover the cost of a clean up and making smaller companies take out third party insurance.

The committee recognised this would add to the cost of investing in new oil and gas production, and urged the Treasury “to reflect this when considering incentives to such investments”.

Any new exploration and production licences should also depend on the company producing a site specific oil spill plan, proving the operator can deal with a blowout.

Dr Wills concluded: “I never expected the committee to recommend a moratorium. We don’t need a moratorium if companies follow best practice and national and international law.

“This is a significant report and I think Tim Yeo and his all party committee have done a very good job. We always despair that the government will ever listen, but this time they really have listened.

“It won’t please everyone in Greenpeace and the Green Party, but I think it’s a step forwards and there are people in the oil industry who will be very pleased to see this report.

“Whatever your views on carbon footprints, if we are going to have an oil industry out there it is possible to run it cleanly and safely.

Northern isles MP Alistair Carmichael added: “This is a sensible report from the select committee. It is right that drilling should be allowed to happen – it is very important to the future of Shetland’s economy.

“The report makes it very clear that there is no need for a moratorium. I think that is absolutely the right decision. That’s not to say that I am complacent or anybody here in Shetland is complacent about the inherent dangers.

“But the report says that these are dangers that can be managed. I think it is very important though that we take the dangers seriously and we do actually manage them.”

The report will feed into the review of the UK’s oil and gas environmental regulatory regime promised by energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne following the outcome of investigations into the Deepwater Horizon incident.

The full report can be found at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmenergy/450/45002.htm

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