BP has shut one of its platforms near the Shetland Islands following an oil spill that will attract more unwelcome attention to the UK group’s environmental record.
A “technical issue” was blamed for the spill of an estimated 95 tonnes, about 665 barrels, of oil at BP’s Clair platform on Sunday. While the leak was limited in scale — it was halted within an hour of the problem being spotted — the timing could hardly have been worse for BP.
The release last week of Deepwater Horizon, a big-budget Hollywood dramatisation of BP’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has thrust the risks of offshore exploration and production back into the public spotlight.
Sunday’s spill was nowhere near the 3m barrels released after the deadly blast on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. However, WWF, the environmental group, said it highlighted “the dangers posed on a daily basis by oil and gas operations off the coast of Scotland”.
BP said the oil “was released to the sea from the Clair platform as a result of a technical issue with the system designed to separate the mixed production fluids of water, oil and gas”.
It added: “We are investigating the cause of the technical issue and the field will remain offline for the time being.”
“At present, we believe the most appropriate response is to allow the oil to disperse naturally at sea, but contingencies for other action are being prepared.
“Oil has been observed on the sea surface and we are monitoring its movement. Both direct observation and oil spill modelling indicate the oil to be moving in a northerly direction away from land.”
The Clair platform, 75km west of the Shetlands, is on the frontier between the Atlantic and the North Sea. The area has some of the UK’s biggest remaining reserves of oil and gas but deeper water and hostile weather make it more difficult and expensive to extract compared with shallower parts of the North Sea.
Simon Boxall, an oceanographer at the University of Southampton, said the “lumpy” seas off the Shetlands meant the oil should disperse fairly quickly.
BP was “no better, no worse” than other companies in its safety and overall industry standards were improving, he added.
“Technology has improved, companies are more aware of the risks, and the repercussions of spills have become more severe in terms of fines and prosecutions and also in terms of public image,” Mr Boxall said.
Lang Banks, director of WWF Scotland, urged BP not to restart operations at Clair until it was fully understood how much oil had been released and what caused the leak.
BP said it was working with Oil Spill Response Limited, an industry-funded co-operative which responds to oil spills around the world, and the UK government to assess the environmental impact and agree the best way to respond.
Royal Dutch Shell, the other UK oil major, was fined £22,500 last year by a Scottish court for the leak of about 1,300 barrels of oil from its Gannet Alpha platform in 2011. This was on top of £45m of clean-up costs incurred by Shell and a further £100m spent replacing the ruptured pipeline.