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Shell defends reporting of North Sea oil spill

The government also announced that an independent investigation is underway into the causes of the spill and Shell’s response.

By James Murray: 24 August 2011

Shell has defended its much-criticised reporting of this month’s North Sea oil spill, but has stopped short of providing a full picture of how the decision to announce the spill was made.

The company has recently been under fire from green groups. These have accused the oil giant of failing to provide transparent information on the largest UK oil spill in the past decade, after it emerged that the spill was first detected on Wednesday 10th August, but was not publicly confirmed until two days later.

Dr Richard Dixon of WWF Scotland accused the company of only “grudgingly” releasing information to the public, while Per Fischer, communications officer at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said Shell was guilty of providing “drip-fed information” to the press and public.

Green NGOs also accused Shell of only issuing a public statement on the leak after industry magazine Upstream approached the company on Friday 12 August, seeking confirmation on reports that there was a major spill in the North Sea. The incident has further fuelled allegations that oil companies frequently fail to provide public updates on oil leaks, ensuring that many smaller spills go largely unnoticed.

But a Shell spokesman defended the company’s reporting of the spill. He told BusinessGreen that the delay in announcing the spill was simply the result of the company’s efforts to ascertain the nature and scale of the leak.

“We informed the relevant authorities (MCA, DECC, HSE) of the leak immediately, in line with standard procedures,” he said in an emailed statement. “However, we recognise that we were slow to tell the general public, but wanted to be able to give a clear picture of what was happening and how we would respond before engaging more widely.

“It took some time to understand exactly what we were dealing with, principally because the leak location was amongst some very complex subsea infrastructure, which was covered in grating. Only once we were confident in the information that we had did we want to share it.”

However, he declined to respond to questions on whether the public announcement was triggered by Upstream breaking the story, and also failed to provide further details on the precise nature of Shell’s policy for publicly reporting oil spills.

Dixon today again accused Shell of badly mishandling the reporting of the spill.

“Shell clearly made a big mistake in not making a public statement as soon as they discover the leak,”  he told BusinessGreen. “They say they were trying to gather the full facts but it looks more like they were trying to get away with waiting until they could say they had stopped the leak.

“If this is the mess Shell make in their own home waters, they clearly can’t be trusted to work in the much more difficult and remote waters of the Arctic.”

His comments were echoed by Stan Blackley, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, who said the NGO was “sceptical” of Shell’s claims over why it delayed publicly reporting on the oil spill.

“We continue to suspect that the delay in their releasing information regarding their most recent oil spill was based around their hope that the spill might go unnoticed by others and the weather might make it disappear,” he said. “According to the Health and Safety Executive, serious spills of oil and gas from North Sea platforms are occurring at the rate of one a week and Shell has emerged as one of the top offenders in this regard.”

The incident has led to renewed calls from environmental groups for the government to impose a moratorium on drilling licenses for deep-water areas in the North Atlantic and Arctic seas. There are fears that any spills near delicate Arctic habitats would be extremely difficult to clean up.

Blackley said Shell should now abandon plans to drill in “ever more dangerous and fragile environments for increasingly hard to extract oil, and channel its considerable wealth and expertise into developing clean and safe ways of powering our country”.

The Shell spokesman insisted that the company was fully committed to tackling the risks presented by drilling in the Arctic.

“We recognise oil spill prevention and response capability as a critical part of all plans to develop oil and gas resources in the Arctic,” he said. “There are strict regulations in place to report any incident, however small, to the authorities and these are made public. Independent regulators are also on our rigs to ensure we are in compliance.”

The company confirmed late last week that the leak has been successfully plugged. Engineers are currently working on plans to recover the estimated 660 tonnes of oil trapped in the stricken pipeline.

The government also announced that an independent investigation is underway into the causes of the spill and Shell’s response.

Dixon said that the inquiry should investigate the delay in publicly reporting the leak. “The inquiry will tell us if Shell’s technical response was adequate but it can’t fail to criticise their woeful communications with the public and the media,” he predicted.

In other oil industry news, the official tasked with distributing the $20bn fund set up in the wake of last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday announced that BP has paid out more than $5bn to 204,434 victims of the spill.

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