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MPs publish report on UK deepwater drilling

Doubts raised about oil spill response in UK – but MPs on the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee warn against moratorium on deepwater drilling 

The MPs conclude that extra precautions should be considered to ensure that a deepwater drilling disaster does not happen here – but that a moratorium would undermine energy security and is not necessary.

The Committee states it has serious doubts about the ability of oil spill response equipment to function in the harsh conditions off the west coast of Shetland – where wells are being drilled over a thousand metres deep.

A lack of clarity in UK liability rules could also see taxpayers pick up the tab for a major oil spill in the North Sea, the Energy and Climate Change Committee has warned.

Tim Yeo MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"The harsh and windy conditions in the North Sea would make an oil spill off the coast of Shetland very difficult to contain or clean up.

 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."

Response plans

The Government must ensure that oil spill response plans drawn up by companies are site-specific – taking into account local conditions – and not merely copy and pasted.

Any new systems for capping or containing a spill should be designed with the harsh and challenging environment West of Shetland in mind.

The Committee is urging the Health and Safety Executive to consider prescribing the use of two Blind Shear Rams – the crucial fail safe device that failed to operate on the Deepwater Horizon, because its battery was flat – on all UK deepwater rigs. It must also ensure that the UK offshore inspection regime cannot allow simple failures go unchecked.

Tim Yeo MP added:

"Requiring oil rigs to fit an extra fail safe device, to cut and seal the pipes if a blow-out occurs, is an option that must now be considered.

A moratorium on deepwater drilling off the west coast of Shetland would undermine the UK’s energy security and isn’t necessary." 

Call for more clarity

The report also calls for more clarity on the identity of liable parties to ensure that taxpayers are not required to pick up the tab for clearing up and compensation after a potential offshore incident.

Given the high costs of the incident in the Gulf of Mexico, the Committee believes that the £158 million liability limit in the voluntary Offshore Pollution Liability Association (OPOL) scheme is insufficient. Compulsory third party insurance should be considered for small exploration and production companies.

Tim Yeo MP also said:

"There are serious gaps in the UK’s liability regime on offshore pollution which could leave the taxpayer picking up the tab for a major oil spill, if one were to occur."

The Committee is concerned that due to the enormous commercial pressures to keep a drilling rig operating, employees who try to draw attention to safety problems may be – or feel – intimidated by their managers.

The report notes some contradictions in reports from the Health and Safety Executive about bullying and harassment on rigs and assurances from the industry that whistleblowers will be heard and protected.

Energy and Climate Change Committee

Report: UK Deepwater Drilling - Implications of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill