As many as 18 companies from across the world have been named and shamed by the UK government for a catalogue of blunders on offshore oil and gas rigs, including numerous equipment failures, pipe leaks, breaks and flaws.
The revelations have shocked and angered environmentalists who attack the oil and gas industry for “conning” the public about safety. Companies are putting workers, wildlife and ultimately the world at risk, they say.
Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling, accused companies for playing down “the potentially catastrophic consequences” of gas and oil leaks.
“These are very worrying figures that cannot be slicked over by government agencies and industry,” he said. He blamed “corporate failures” for polluting the sea, and pointed out that the number of reported chemical leaks had more than doubled since 2005.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has released details of all spillages of oil and related chemicals in the North Sea since the beginning of January. This follows growing controversy over the implications of the continuing gas leak from the Elgin rig, run by the French company, Total, 140 miles east of Aberdeen.
The British oil giant, BP, comes out as the company guilty of by far the most pollution lapses, with 23 of the 69 spills occurring at its rigs. Total was the second worst with seven spills, closely followed by another British company, Shell, with six spills.
Other companies implicated included British Gas, the UK firms Enquest and Perenco, and the Canadian companies Nexen and Talisman. There were also spills at platforms run by Denmark’s Maersk, the US’s ChevronTexaco and Abu Dhabi’s Taqa Bratani (see tables below).
Just over half of the spills – 37 - were chemicals, while the rest were different types of oil. The leaks included crude oil, diesel, condensate, glycol, methanol and other chemicals used in the drilling process.
Among the mishaps listed by DECC were “subsea hose failure”, “faulty connection”, “weld failure”, “control line failure” and “hose defect”. The last entries on the list are the latest leaks from Total’s Elgin platform on 25 March, which are said to be “under review”.
The list discloses that Total suffered an earlier leak on the same platform on 10 January. Oil spilled after a safety valve on a hydraulic oil accumulator wrongly opened.
The company also had chemical spills at its Sedco, Dunbar, Rowan Gorilla and Alwyn North rigs. Separate information from the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows that Total was served two legal improvement notices last year because of safety lapses on the Alwyn North rig.
In August the company was accused by the HSE of failing to properly assess the risks of moving heavy loads that “led to an accident occurring causing a serious injury”. And last May it failed “to adequately control exposure of persons to substances hazardous to health,” HSE said.
Dr Richard Dixon, the director of WWF Scotland, thought that people would be shocked to learn that there had been so many mishaps in such a short space of time. “The companies involved should be ashamed of this catalogue of faulty valves, operator mistakes and broken hoses,” he said.
“Getting oil and gas from the North Sea is a dirty and polluting business that produces fuels which go on to change the climate. We urgently need a plan to move from offshore fossil fuels to offshore renewables, transferring jobs and creating new technologies here in Scotland.”
Oil and Gas UK, which represents offshore companies, defended the industry’s record by arguing that many of the leaks were “relatively small and unlikely to impact on the marine environment”. Many of the chemicals accidentally spilled were “benign”, it said.
The government’s figures show that 1.7 tonnes of chemicals and 600 kilograms of oil have been spilt in the last three months, though in many cases figures are not given because the leaks are still “under review”. More than 4,600 tonnes of chemicals and 300 tonnes of oil have been spilt in the North Sea since 2005.
Mick Borwell from Oil & Gas UK said that companies tried hard to avoid spills. “The industry takes its obligations to the environment very seriously and is committed to continuing to work with the government and environmental agencies to minimise the environmental footprint of operations,” he said.
BP pointed out that all releases, no matter how small, were reported to the government. “The industry continues to make every effort to improve its environmental performance, including the elimination of even the smallest releases,” said a company spokesman.
Total said that three of its previous leaks were less than 100 litres, though one was six tonnes. “We take all possible measures to prevent spills and, as we hope our current actions on the Elgin gas leak demonstrate, we try to respond quickly and effectively should they occur,” said a company spokesman.
Shell argued that lessons were learnt from every spillage. “No spill is acceptable and we are working hard to stop spills wherever they may happen,” said a Shell spokeswoman.
Greenpeace, however, maintained that oil companies were misleading the public over their safety record. “These figures show the scale of the confidence trick they have perpetrated,” said the environmental group’s energy campaigner, Vicky Wyatt.
“Nearly every day there’s a serious incident on either a gas or oil platform. So far we have been lucky and avoided a major disaster. But the luck of companies like BP and Shell can’t go on forever and when their luck does run out it will be the people of Scotland and the natural habitat that will pay the price.”
North Sea oil spills
Between 6 January and 25 March this year 69 oil and chemical spills were reported to the Department of Energy and Climate Change by oil companies in the North Sea. By far the most – 23 – were at rigs operated by the British multinational, BP. Seven were at rigs run by the French company, Total, and six at rigs run by the British company, Shell.
company / date / platform / spill / problem
BP / 9 January / Foinaven / leak of biocide / “chemical injection routed incorrectly”
BP / 9 January / Cleeton / methanol leak / “hose failure”
BP / 14 January / Clair / escape of diesel / “hose leak”
BP / 14 January / Mungo / chemical leak / “under review”
BP / 15 January / Byford Dolphin / hydraulic oil leak / “loose fitting”
BP / 16 January / Harding / leak of chemicals / “failure of conductor tensioner”
BP / 23 January / Bruce / escape of diesel / “supply line leak”
BP / 24 January / Marnock / oil leak / “loose connection”
BP / 24 January / Minerva / leak of glycol / “supply line failure”
BP / 29 January / Foinaven / crude oil leak / “under review”
BP / 31 January / Marnock / oil leak / “hydraulic fitting failure”
BP / 7 February / Cleeton / oil leak / “drain overflow”
BP / 7 February / Foinaven / chemical leak / “assembly connection release”
BP / 9 February / Cleeton / diesel leak / “release to drain”
BP / 12 February / Cleeton / methanol leak / “under review”
BP / 16 February / Foinaven / chemical leak / “under review”
BP / 16 February / Foinaven / chemical leak / “under review”
BP / 17 February / Mungo / crude oil leak / “flowline fitting leak”
BP / 21 February / Foinaven / chemical leak / “hydraulic hose failure”
BP / 23 February / Eres & Ceres / methanol leak / “under review”
BP / 28 February / Andrew / diesel leak / “filter equipment release”
BP / 3 March / Cleeton / oil leak / “under review”
BP / 4 March / Harding / crude oil leak / “flow line weld failure”
Total / 10 January / Elgin / oil leak / “safety valve lifted”
Total / 14 January / Rowan Gorilla / chemical leak / “residual mud released”
Total / 14 January, Sedco / multiple chemical leak / “under review”
Total / 9 February / Alwyn North / chemical leak / “mud hose failure”
Total / 1 March / Dunbar / chemical leak / “under review”
Total / 25 March / Elgin / condensate leak / “under review”
Total / 25 March / Elgin / chemical leak / “under review”
Shell / 30 January / Curlew / oil leak / “under review”
Shell / 2 February / Clipper / condensate leak / “drum overflow”
Shell / 6 February / Gannet / hydraulic oil leak / “under review”
Shell / 9 February / Teal / oil leak / “under review”
Shell / 18 February / Sedco / chemical leak / “under review”
Shell / 27 February / Shearwater / oil leak / “deck washing operation”
company / number of North Sea spills January-March
Spillages in previous years
year / oil spilled (tonnes) / chemicals spilled (tonnes)
2005 / 75 / 347
2006 / 27 / 414
2007 / 63 / 854
2008 / 37 / 703
2009 / 51 / 1,300
2010 / 23 / 593
2011 / 42 / 410