Shell has confirmed that a second leak has been found in the flowline from its Gannet Alpha offshore platform, located 180 km off the coast of Aberdeen. The leak in the flowline taking crude oil to shore is estimated to have released 216 tonnes of crude oil into the North sea. The new leak has been described by Shell as a ‘second pathway’ of leakage from the original spill.
Shell has been trying to portray itself as a safe alternative to BP in the wake of the disastrous Macondo spill in the Gulf of Mexico. However this image has been undermined in recent months by a number of incidents in the North Sea, which has long been considered a comparatively safe area of exploration and production.
The Health and safety executive (HSE) warned last year that one in 30 of Britain’s North sea oil rigs are not up to spec, more than 96% of installations were found to be in need of improvements during inspections in the last three years. A lot of the platforms operating today have been in service since the 1970s and are starting to show their age, as the North Sea is a harsh environment to operate in.
Indeed at Shell’s Brent Field, all four of its producing platforms were shut down in January this year after a chunk of protective railing broke off into the sea as a result of metal fatigue. An earlier accident, for which poor maintenance was found to be the source, resulted in the deaths of two workers on the Bravo platform back in 2003 as well.
Offshore drilling and exploration is a dangerous business at the best of times but there is real concern that as these platforms start to show their age, accidents could become more frequent. Shell has already spent US$ 1.6 billion on updating and repairing its North Sea installations, but the problems will only continue to multiply as the platforms get older.
Going further afield, Shell’s record of dealing with spills in the Niger delta makes for uncomfortable reading and the company recently admitted liability for two huge spills in Bodo and Ogoni regions, and could be forced to pay out US$ 410m in damages.
These accidents are a serious cause for concern for regulators elsewhere as if operations cannot be carried out safely in the North Sea then can they be carried out safely anywhere? As ‘easy’ reserves of oil run dry companies are going to have to drill in increasingly challenging and remote locations to find fresh reserves.
US authorities granted Shell a permit to drill for oil in the Arctic in July 2012, further permission is needed before the drilling can commence and there need to be real safeguards in place to prevent any accidents occurring in such a sensitive environment as cleaning up a spill in the arctic could be nightmarishly difficult.