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Shell battles its North Sea oil spill from pipeline below the Gannet Alpha platform


By Rob Davies: Last updated at 10:59 PM on 16th August 2011

Shell is facing a burgeoning image crisis as its North Sea oil spill – the biggest in British waters for a decade – stretched into its seventh day.

The Anglo-Dutch giant has been using teams of divers and Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to battle the leak, which is estimated to have slowed from five barrels a day to two.

But initial work on the sub-sea pipeline below the Gannet Alpha platform succeeded only in plugging one part of the damaged pipe, forcing oil out elsewhere.

The company estimates that some 1,300 barrels of oil have been spilt so far.

In the context of BP’s oil spill in Gulf of Mexico last year – which saw an estimated 4.9m barrels of oil gush into US waters – Shell’s leak is relatively small.

But one industry insider acknowledged that it was significant in UK terms.

‘In the context of the North Sea, this is a pretty big spill,’ he said.

Shares in the oil giant declined just 10p to 2005.5p yesterday and have actually risen since the leak was first discovered last week.

But chief executive Peter Voser was unabashed in his criticism of BP’s safety record late last year and the North Sea leak will prove something of an embarrassment.

The timing is especially poor, coming just weeks after Shell admitted liability for a gargantuan oil spillage in Ogoniland, Nigeria.

The UN said the region may need the largest ever oil clean-up operation, while the company faces legal claims potentially running into hundreds of millions of dollars.Shell says the vast majority of spills in the Niger Delta are caused by sabotage, but it is difficult to imagine the company getting off so lightly had it left a giant toxic mess in a country such as the US or UK.

The mishap in the North Sea will also give encouragement to environmental groups  who warn that Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Circle could have disastrous consequences.

Cleaning up an oil spill in the frozen wastes of the Arctic is considered highly difficult and dangerous and no company has ever had to deal with such a disaster.

Gannet Alpha is very far from being Shell’s Deepwater Horizon.

But the company has been reminded that the black marks the oil industry leaves on the planet are not confined to its great rival BP.

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