North Sea oil industry under fire as spills rise

The number of spills from oil rigs in the North Sea has risen sharply to reach a 14-year high, according to a UK government report.

The revelation comes in the wake of a major spill a week ago from oil giant BP’s Clair rig off Shetland. It has prompted fierce criticisms from environmentalists and trade unions of the industry’s “appalling” and “abysmal” safety record.

Oil companies, however, defend themselves by pointing out that they report every incident, no matter how small. The UK government says that some of the increase may be due to better reporting.

The latest survey for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) reveals that UK offshore oil and gas platforms reported a total of 601 accidental releases of oil and chemicals in 2014. This is an increase of 14.5 per cent on 2013.

The report points out that the number of oil spills – 380 – was the highest recorded since 2000. In 2014 there were 100 more oil spills reported than the average for the previous 13 years, it says.

An analysis of the data by The Ferret shows that 55 of the oil and chemical spills in 2014 were from 11 BP rigs. These included three major chemical leakages totalling 30 tonnes, blamed on various equipment failures.

Other spills were attributed to corrosion, pipework leaks and faulty hoses. Drains blocked and overflowed, fittings came loose and valves failed (see table below).

The report was compiled for the MCA by the expert Advisory Committee on Protection of the Sea. It has not yet been published but was released on request. The report for 2015 is not yet available.

Last week BP reported that 95 tonnes of oil had escaped from the Claire platform, 75 kilometres west of Shetland, at 10am on 2 October because of a “technical issue”. The rig was shut down, an investigation launched, and planes sent up daily to monitor for pollution.

The environmental group, WWF Scotland, called for a crackdown on the North Sea oil industry. “BP has a pretty appalling track record when it comes to leaks and spills ,” said director, Lang Banks.

“Worse still, it looks like the oil and gas industry as a whole is going backwards on spill prevention. Serious questions need asked as to why this is happening.”

He warned that the industry always ran the risk of major pollution or worse. “In the interests of protecting people and our marine environment, we should be putting the oil and gas industry on a much shorter leash,” he argued.

According to Jake Molloy, offshore organiser for the RMT trade union, cost cutting was threatening the safety of workers and the environment. “The abysmal record of BP here in the UK sector of the North Sea should serve as further evidence, if it were needed, of why investment in the infrastructure is critical,” he said.

“What we are seeing across the sector is a continuing slash and burn approach of cost cutting to every aspect of operations. RMT and our trade union colleagues in the offshore coordinating group remain seriously concerned.”

Jess Worth from the protest group, BP or not BP, labelled BP as a “serial spiller”. It was found “grossly negligent” for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, she said.

“What is more shocking is that governments and arts organisations continue to support and promote this company. It’s time to walk away from North Sea oil before BP does irreversible damage to Scotland’s ecosystems and economic future.”

BP, however, defended its record. “BP’s policy is to report every release, no matter how small,” said the company’s spokesman, David Nicholas.

He pointed out that more that half the releases in the report were less that 10 kilograms and many were of low toxicity. “We actively seek to avoid releases to sea by maintaining our equipment and following good operating practices,” he added.

“BP is committed to minimising its impact on the environment and, while environmental challenges differ depending on where we operate and the lifecycle stage, our overarching goal is no damage to the environment. The North Sea oil and gas sector is subject to strict environmental regulations, with which we strive to comply with at all times.”

The industry body, Oil & Gas UK, pointed out that the leaks were tiny in comparison with the 74 million tonnes of oil produced in 2014. “The oil releases recorded in the report represent 0.00004 per cent of production,” said safety policy director, Mick Borwell.

“The size of the accidental releases is small. The average size is 0.094 tonnes or 9.4kg, which we would expect to rapidly disperse in the sea.”

The UK Government argued that third parties had been encouraged to report spills in 2014 and that this had been a “significant factor” in the number rising. “We insist that all spills, however minor, are reported so that they can be assessed and appropriate action taken,” said a Westminster spokesman.

“We take safety and environmental compliance by our oil and gas industry very seriously.”

The Scottish Government stressed that it worked with all stakeholders to encourage effective stewardship of the marine environment and North Sea oil. The Claire oil spill had dispersed naturally and no residues could now be seen, it said.

55 spills at BP oil platforms

date in 2014oil platformleakcause
14-FebClair1kg chemicals"corroded drum leak to deck"
26-JunClair493kg chemicals"subsea isolation valve failure"
29-JunClair0.006kg oily waste"pinhole leak on drainage pipework"
27-DecClair0.77kg oil"entrained oil"
13-MayFoinaven6,731kg chemicals"failure of subsea control module"
24-MayFoinavan1kg oil"subsea release"
18-JunFoinaven0.19kg chemicals"leak at subsea umbilical connection"
12-JulFoinaven90kg chemicals"pinhole leak on chemical line"
8-OctFoinavan0.001kg oily waste"overspill of drains bund"
19-NovFoinaven0.2kg chemicals"solenoid failure"
20-NovFoinaven362kg chemicals"solenoid failure"
16-DecFoinaven5,600kg chemicals"hose parted from coupling"
20-FebMagnus15.6kg oil"hose failure caused by abrasion"
9-MayMagnus337kg diesel"drains overflow"
20-MayMagnus0.003kg diesel"release from vacuum breaker"
27-MayMagnus147kg oily waste"oil release from hole in caisson"
23-JunMagnus1kg chemicals"leak from hydraulic system tubing"
11-OctMagnus55kg oil"failure of hydraulic hose"
25-AprSchiehallion4.4kg oil"release from riser connectors"
4-JulSchiehallion14kg oil"release from subsea ROV PIT unit"
5-JulSchiehallion1.2kg oil"release from subsea ROV PIT unit"
16-MarAndrew2kg chemicals"failure of hose fitting"
12-JunAndrew1kg diesel"residual released from turbine exhausts"
29-JulAndrew0.25kg diesel"release to overboard drain"
8-AugAndrew8kg diesel"bund was not secure"
9-NovAndrew0.1kg chemicals"incorrectly assembled connection"
14-Feb-16Bruce D0.2kg oil"overflow from drip tray"
24-MayBruce D0.3kg oil"bund contents during deluge testing"
28-MayBruce D0.002kg oil"failed pipework on platform crane"
16-JulBruce PUQ0.07kg oily waste"blocked drain"
19-JulBruce D108kg diesel"ruptured temporary hose"
2-AugBruce D4.8kg oil"deck washing release"
5-AugBruce D0.1kg"cutting into redundant pipework"
14-SepBruce D8.4kg oily waste"hazardous drains tank overflow"
21-DecBruce PUQchemicalsnot known
21-JanMarnock1kg diesel"temporary bund overflow"
4-MarMarnock15kg oily waste"small release from well annulus"
9-MarMarnock25kg oily water"overflowed from drains"
17-MarMarnock337kg chemicals"failure of bursting disc"
6-AprMarnock1kg oil"bursting disc failure in accumulator"
18-MayMarnock25kg oily water"failure of choke valve"
13-JunMarnock17,394kg chemicals"failure with fluid circulation"
19-JunMarnock1.6kg diesel"wind blown to sea"
23-JunMarnock2kg oil"suspected drains release"
29-JulMarnock0.4kg diesel"failure of instrument pipework"
23-SepMarnock10kg oil"small leak on hydraulic control panel"
7-OctMarnock0.005kg oil"release from emergency generator engine"
1-NovMarnock0.3kg oil"release during crane maintenance"
6-DecMarnock0.04kg diesel"release from joint in bunkering hose"
12-DecMarnock26kg oil"topside hydraulic hose failure"
16-AprMachar800kg chemicals"loose fitting on subsea package"
9-JunMachar642kg chemicals"subsea hydraulic fluid release"
14-NovMungo1.75kg oil"valve failure"
8-NovMonan813kg chemicals"subsea hydraulic fluid release."
16-MarMiller0.001kg oil"crane maintenance spill"
source: Maritime and Coastguard Agency

The report for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency

A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 09 October 2016.

Photo thanks to Grahame C Anderson, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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