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Anger as Shell fails to answer questions about spillage

Shell’s modus operandi – of giving out information only on what appears to be a need-to-know basis – is not good enough. The public needs to know, and has a right to know.

Published Date: 16 August 2011

By Jenny Fyall Environment Correspondent

ENERGY giant Shell is facing mounting criticism over its secrecy about an oil leak in the North Sea, as the spill was revealed to be twice as large as previously thought.
Five days after the leak from the Gannet Alpha rig was spotted about 112 miles east of Aberdeen, Shell finally responded to pressure to reveal the volumes of oil involved.

It confirmed 216 tonnes had spread into the sea – the equivalent of 1,300 barrels of oil. The Scottish Government said at the weekend it involved only about 100 tonnes.

However, a raft of questions today remain unanswered, including how the leak started, why Shell has not yet been able to stop the flow of oil, where exactly the spill is in the North Sea, and whether any seabirds or other wildlife are caught up in it.

Politicians and environment groups have increased their calls for Shell to be more open about the leak. Government figures show it is four times the entire quantity of oil discharged into the North Sea in 2009, and by far the largest spill in UK waters for more than a decade.

The Scotsman’s attempts to get Shell to give specific details about the leak were yesterday met by silence. And the firm refused to take part in BBC Scotland’s flagship news programme Good Morning Scotland.

Environment secretary Richard Lochhead urged the company to “make information available on an open, transparent and regular basis” and said the Scottish Government was taking the spill “very seriously”.

Shell, headed by chief execuive Peter Voser, insisted the leak on the flow line system that serves the Gannet Alpha platform remained “under control”, and industry insiders insisted the firm would be doing everything it could to tackle the leak.

However, critics said the company’s response had been a disaster. Jack Irvine, executive chairman of public relations firm Media House International, criticised Shell’s handling of the situation. “This is not a big spill in global terms, but by delaying their announcement, Shell are made to look very guilty and the public may suspect it’s worse than it really is,” he said.

“When handling a major crisis, the accepted wisdom is that you have got to get the first blows in before your detractors get a chance. And if you know the truth of the matter, you should tell the truth. Shell should have known that organisations like RSPB and Greenpeace are never slow to turn a crisis into a catastrophe, and they appear to have done just that.

“One had hoped that oil companies had learned from the BP Deepwater Horizon mess, but it appears that history has taught them little.”

Scottish Lib Dem environment spokesman Jim Hume said: “Shell’s lack of clarity has been a worry over this incident. It has taken days for information to start to come forward.”

Juliet Swann, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “We are deeply worried that we still, even five days after the leak was detected, know far too little about the environmental impact of the spill, how it could impact wildlife, and the scale of the threat to Scotland’s coastal communities and the marine environment that they rely on for their income.”

She added: “It is Shell’s responsibility to keep the public and stakeholders informed, especially in a crisis such as this.”

RSPB Scotland said even a small amount of oil could have a devastating impact on seabirds. In January 2007, when the MSC Napoli ran aground on the Devonshire coast, less than 100 tonnes of oil was spilled, but 2,200 birds were oiled.

Green MSP Patrick Harvie said: “Like the oil industry the world over, they appear willing to put the marine environment at risk without any real accountability or transparency. In the immediate term, the company must give a clear guarantee about a quick solution, or they urgently need to call in outside help.”

Vicky Wyatt, from Greenpeace’s oil campaign, said: “There is a worrying lack of transparency from Shell in relation to this oil spill. It took them two days after the spill began before they admitted that there had been a leak.

“Given this total lack of transparency, you have to ask if Shell are the right type of company to be allowed to expand their oil operations to the environmentally fragile Arctic.”

As Shell broke its silence about the volumes of oil involved yesterday, Glen Cayley, technical director of the firm’s exploration and production activities in Europe, said: “It is not easy to quantify the total volume spilled, but we estimate so far that it is around 216 tonnes.”

The firm said the volume of oil on the surface varied from day to day and was yesterday about one tonne, or six barrels, and it was leaking at a rate of less than five barrels a day.

Whereas on Sunday it was estimated to cover an area of about 19 miles by three miles, yesterday Shell said the sheen was less than half a square mile in size.

Mr Cayley, speaking from Aberdeen, said: “The high winds and waves over the weekend have led to a substantial reduction in the size of the oil sheen, as can be seen from the current levels on the water.

“We continue to expect that the oil sheen will disperse due to wave action and that it will not reach the shore.”

He added: “This is a significant spill in the context of annual amounts of oil spilled in the North Sea. We care about the environment and we regret that the spill happened. We have taken it very seriously and responded promptly to it.”

Figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) show it is the biggest oil leak in UK waters for more than a decade and four times the total amount of oil discharged into the North Sea in 2009 – which was 50.93 tonnes.

Mr Lochhead said: “We take any oil leak extremely seriously, as the First Minister has made clear, and we are continuing to monitor this situation very closely. As is standard practice in incidents such as this, the UK government, which has responsibility for the pipeline system, will be taking forward an investigation and I will be pressing for the Scottish Government to have a full and formal role, given our responsibilities for the marine environment.

“While there are inevitable difficulties verifying the extent and size of the leak, it’s vital that Shell and DECC make information available on an open, transparent and regular basis.”

A DECC spokesman said: “Although small in comparison to the Gulf of Mexico incident, in the context of the UK Continental Shelf, the spill is substantial – but it is not anticipated that oil will reach the shore and indeed it is expected that it will be dispersed naturally.

“The UK Continental Shelf oil spill record is strong, which is why it is disappointing that this spill has happened. We take any spill very seriously and we will be investigating the causes of the spill and learning any lessons from the response to it.”

An emergency response team, working with the UK and Scottish governments and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), is meeting daily.

Mick Borwell, from industry body Oil and Gas UK, said he was convinced Shell was doing all it could to tackle the problem. “Any oil company operating in the UK takes oil spill, any volume of oil spill, very seriously,” he said.

“It’s one of the reasons we have one of the most robust response mechanisms to oil spills.

“I’m absolutely convinced that Shell are doing what they need to do to deal with it.”

An MCA spokeswoman said a spotter plane had examined the spill at 6am yesterday and that it was not extensive.

Shell’s modus operandi – of giving out information only on what appears to be a need-to-know basis – is not good enough. The public needs to know, and has a right to know.

RELATED ARTICLE: So many questions, so few answers from Shell

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