Royal Dutch Shell Plc  .com Rotating Header Image

Oil leak is threat to Shell hope in Arctic

It’s only 0.02pc as big as BP’s giant Gulf of Mexico oil leak at the moment.

The Royal Dutch Shell platform Gannett Alpha has leaked 216 tons of oil in to the North Sea, the highest in a decade (REUTERS)

Rowena Mason

By 9:50PM BST 16 Aug 2011

But Royal Dutch Shell’s spillage of 1,300 barrels of crude into the North Sea from the Gannet field is still a big headache for the company as it tries to convince regulators it should be allowed to carry out drilling in the Arctic.

In the wake of BP’s disaster last year, Shell has tried to position itself as the solid and dependable one among the oil majors.

However, that image has been increasingly undermined by a series of issues in the North Sea that Glen Caley, Shell’s technical director in Europe, admits have made this a “challenging year”.

Since January, the company has seen the death of a maintenance worker, a series of dangerous gas leaks, equipment collapsing off a platform into the sea and a 15,000-hour backlog of repairs.

These other issues have occurred at Shell’s Brent field, which is one of the North Sea’s biggest, producing 14m cubic metres of gas and 28,000 barrels of oil a day.

All four of the field’s platforms – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta – stopped producing oil and gas in January after a chunk of protective railing plunged into the ocean as a result of “metal fatigue”.

About 100 workers were evacuated from Bravo – the site of an accident killing two workers in 2003, which an inquiry later ruled could have been avoided if Shell had properly repaired a hole in a corroding pipeline.

Production at Bravo and Alpha only restarted last week, with Delta shortly to follow.

However, all is still not well at the Charlie platform, which was issued with a rare prohibition notice by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) ordering a closure on July 1.

The Daily Telegraph has learned the incident behind this shutdown was an “uncontrolled release of flammable substances” – the latest in a long line of gas “kicks” causing concern for safety regulators.

In documents leaked to oil publication Upstream, the HSE described ignition of gas at the platform as “almost inevitable” with the potential for a catastrophe.

Engineers believe gas has been periodically shooting up one of the platform’s legs, in a process called a “glug”. The field will now be shut until next year, while Shell carries out a plan that will involve introducing the controversial practice of “flaring” to get rid of the excess gas.

Just two weeks earlier, the same Brent Charlie platform was the site of the first death on a North Sea installation for five years.

A maintenance worker, Lee Bertram, employed by oil services company BIS Salamis, was killed in June, after a rope he was suspended from gave way.

Police are still investigating how this happened. Since this accident and a near-miss rope accident on another company’s rig, oil producers have imposed new restrictions and, in some cases, temporary bans on abseiling in the North Sea.

Experts warn that incidents such as the oil leak and equipment failures are likely to occur more often as such platforms, many built in the 1970s, get older, having corroded and being less cared for by oil majors with more profitable projects in other parts of the world.

Last year, the HSE warned that only one in 30 of Britain’s North Sea oil platforms is in good physical condition and expressed concern that companies are neglecting workers’ day-to-day safety.

More than 96pc of installations in the North Sea were found to need improvements during inspections over the past three years, with 20pc showing “major failings”.

Mr Caley points out that Shell has already spent $1.6bn (£0.97bn) on “rejuvenating” its UK operations. But maintenance costs are increasing and problems multiplying.

Regulators elsewhere in the world will no doubt be keeping an eye on Shell’s ability to look after its assets, especially since green groups and ethical investors have already seized on the Gannet leak as evidence of an environmental lapse.

US authorities last week gave Shell a crucial permit to proceed with Arctic drilling in July 2012. However, it needs further permissions before work can begin and the latest spill has emphasised the difficulty of cleaning up environmental damage in hostile weather conditions.

Louisa Rouse, campaign director of FairPensions, which promotes responsible investment, has already urged fund managers to take Shell’s UK spill into account, saying “a spill in the comparatively safe and highly regulated North Sea [should be regarded] as a litmus test for operating in highly sensitive areas such as the Arctic”.

It seems that although Shell is now dealing with a trickle of one barrel per day, its fight to convince its critics about its safety and environmental record may be only just be starting up again.


This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.