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North Sea oil leak raises pollution fears

Cormorant Alpha, one of many North Sea platforms approaching 40 years of age. Pic. S Preston

MONDAY’S leak on the Cormorant Alpha platform that shut down the entire Brent pipeline system or two days exposed Shetland’s vulnerability to pollution, according to a leading local councillor.

Shetland Islands Council development committee chairman Alastair Cooper said platform owners TAQA Bratani deserved “full marks” for containing the leak inside one of its giant concrete legs.

However he warned that Cormorant Alpha was not the only ageing North Sea installation that was likely to become increasingly prone to such incidents, which could threaten the islands’ valuable seafood industry.

TAQA, the Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, said on Wednesday evening that it had begun restoring a daily flow of 80,000 barrels of oil through the pipeline, 10,000 less than normal.

The Brent system, which handles almost 10 per cent of UK oil production, was closed as a precautionary measure after “a small hydrocarbons release” in one of the platform’s legs.

TAQA said no oil entered the sea and three specialists have been flown in to “mitigate” the leak in preparation to plug it and carry out repairs.

Almost 100 non essential personnel were airlifted off Cormorant Alpha on Monday as a precaution, leaving 68 on board the platform 100 miles north east of Lerwick.

TAQA said investigations showed there was no connection between the damaged pipeline and the Brent system and a thorough evaluation had shown it was safe to restart the system, while Cormorant Alpha itself remains closed.

The Brent system normally feeds about 90,000 barrels of oil per day from 30 fields through eight platforms to Shetland’s Sullom Voe oil terminal and is used as a key benchmark for global oil prices.

Cormorant Alpha houses the main pumping station for the system, which is why it had to be shut down while investigations were carried out.

SIC development committee chairman Alastair Cooper is concerned about pollution impacting the seafood industry.

Cooper said Monday’s incident was a sign of the times and the oil industry had to do all in its power to protect the marine environment.

“What we have is kit that is coming up to be 40 years old and while there is a very good record in terms of pollution, we are at the stage where there are going to be more downtime losses with defective pipelines,” he said.

“I am concerned that if there is any significant pollution, Shetland’s seafood sector would be very heavily impacted, and let’s be clear about it, this is worth £340 million a year.

“Full marks to the industry about how this has been handled over the years but we have some quite ageing kit operating in very hostile waters and who knows what might happen next time. The industry has to be vigilant.”

Shetland’s other concern is that any loss of production on Brent affects the local authority’s income from running the port at Sullom Voe.

“Ten days of lost production on Brent means one less tanker and we need every tanker we can get,” Cooper said.

“We want the terminal to continue to operate, we want to see safe production in the East Shetland Basin and we want our seafood sector to draw fish from a pristine environment.”

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