31 December 2012
Twenty years after the Braer crashed and gushed tens of thousands of tonnes of crude oil into the seas around Shetland, the multinational oil and gas industry has been accused of failing to learn lessons from the disaster.
Environmental groups pointed out that the world was still suffering “massive scale oil spills with horrendous consequences”. And they warned that venturing into the Arctic to extract more oil would be “devastating” for the planet.
Just before noon on Tuesday 5 January 1993, the Liberian-registered oil tanker, MV Braer, ran aground in hurricane force winds just west of Sumburgh Head, at the southernmost tip of the Shetland Islands. It was carrying 85,000 tonnes of light Norwegian crude oil.
Over the next ten days all the oil leaked into the sea, causing one of Scotland’s worst environmental disasters. Thousands of seabirds were killed, salmon farms were contaminated and fishing was banned for up to seven years.
Compensation payments totalling £45 million were paid out to businesses that had been hurt. If it had not been for fierce winter storms breaking up and dispersing the oil, the damage could have been much greater.
“This spill had a devastating impact on the local ecosystem and economy, though the consequences could have been much worse,” said Paul Daly, corporate accountability campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“Fishing had to be abandoned as traces of oil were still found in fish and shellfish. Local fish farms had to destroy their stocks because they were too toxic to be sold.”
But since the disaster, the number of spills had not been reduced, Daly argued. “We are still seeing massive scale oil spills with horrendous consequences. The oil industry only aims to meet the minimum legally required level of safety.”
If a spill occurred in the Arctic, which the industry is now trying to open up for oil exploitation, the results could be disastrous, he warned. “The type of oil that is expected to be found in the Arctic would be much more difficult to clean up,” he said.
"We need to be weaning Scotland off its dirty fossil fuel addiction, and move towards cleaner, safer, sustainable forms of energy production. Oil addiction is dangerous enough, without moving to the ends of the earth and threatening the pristine Arctic environment with the next devastating spill.”
Vicky Wyatt, a campaigner with Greenpeace UK, pointed out that hundreds of oil spills still happened in UK waters every year, despite government and industry reassurances. “Only last year, Shell was responsible for the biggest oil spill in the North Sea for decades because they hadn’t properly checked and maintained their equipment,” she said.
“Yet rather than getting a grip on the problem, the UK government is encouraging oil companies to drill in the deep waters to the west of Shetland, where hostile conditions and the remote location would make it even more difficult to contain and clean up a spill.”
The oil industry, however, defended its record. According to Mick Borwell, the environmental director of Oil & Gas UK, no oil spill was acceptable.
After the blow out at the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago, the UK reviewed and strengthened safety procedures, he said. Lessons learned in the US and elsewhere were taken into account.
“The mechanisms in place to prevent spills have been strengthened, as has the ability to respond to a spill should it occur,” Borwell said.
“While tanker accidents such as Braer have caused serious pollution, by comparison oil and gas production in Britain has not caused such damage. Spills associated with offshore oil and gas operations are infrequent and rarely exceed one tonne, which means there is zero impact on marine life.”
He added: “That said, the industry is not complacent and works constructively with regulators and marine and environmental groups to ensure safe and sustainable operations.”