UK ill-prepared to deal with major North Sea oil spill say MPs

A committee of MPs has raised ‘serious doubts’ about the UK’s ability to combat oil spills from deep sea rigs following the BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster last year. The Energy and Climate Change Committee also warned that taxpayers could pay for a major spill in the North Sea.

The committee’s report singled out the ‘harsh conditions’ off the west coast of Shetland, where oil wells are being drilled more than 1,000 metres deep. There were ‘serious doubts’ about the ability of clean-up equipment to function in such an environment, it added. But the committee said a moratorium on deep sea drilling would undermine the UK’s energy security and is unnecessary.

Committee chair Tim Yeo said safety procedures could be ‘tightened up’ but on the whole the industry is safe and the regulatory system oi’robust’, following reforms brought in after the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988. ‘Safety regulations on drilling in the UK are already tougher than they were in the Gulf of Mexico, but oil companies mustn’t use that as an excuse for complacency. Companies cannot continue producing cut and paste oil spill response plans and rig operators must make it easier for staff to raise concerns without fear of intimidation,’ he said.

However, Ben Ayliffe of Greenpeace responded that recent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures had shown an increase in both serious injuries and spilt oil in rigs operating off the UK. Major injuries offshore almost doubled from 106.3 per 100,000 in 2008/09 to 188 in 2009/10 while spills of hydrocarbons were up from 61 to 85. ‘They are pressing ahead regardless of the holes in their own regulatory system,’ he said. ‘It is like they have learned nothing from the Deep Water Horizon spill.’

Before he overdoses on complacency, Mr Yeo would do well to refer to a statement made on 24th August last year by Steve Walker, head of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) offshore division, who bluntly told companies that their health and safety record covering 27,000 workers is “simply not good enough.” He might also recall a £300,000 fine imposed on Schlumberger last December for placing oil rig workers at risk of radiation poisoning. 

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