North Sea suffers 4,123 oil spills since 2000; only seven resulted in government fine

By Leo Hickman / The Guardian

Oil companies operating in the North Sea have been fined for oil spills on just seven occasions since 2000, even though 4,123 separate spills were recorded over the same period, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) has confirmed.

The disclosure came as Decc said on Thursday that the government had offered a “record-breaking” 167 new licences to oil and gas companies seeking to drill in the North Sea. A further 61 “blocks”, or licences, are under environmental assessment.

Total fines resulting from prosecutions between 2000 and 2011 came to just £74,000 and no single oil company had to pay more than £20,000.

Two companies received fines of £20,000: BP, for causing 28 tonnes of diesel to spill into the sea in 2002 from the Forties Alpha platform, and, a year later, Total E&P, for causing six tonnes of diesel to enter the sea during a transfer between fuel tanks on the Alwyn North platform.

Information about the fines was released by Decc after a freedom of information request and further inquiries by the Guardian.

The smallest fines over this period were those imposed on two companies, Venture North Sea Oil and Knutsen OAS Shipping, of £2,000 each, after 20 tonnes of crude oil was spilt during a tanker transfer on the Kittiwake platform.

In total, 1,226 tonnes of oil were spilt into the North Sea between 2000 and 2011, according to Decc’s archives. Decc said there is no “volume threshold” determining whether a company will be prosecuted over a spill at sea, although a spill of less than five tonnes is unlikely to go to court.

A tonne of crude oil is broadly equivalent to seven barrels, or, more precisely, 1,136 litres.

Decc said its inspectors, all of whom have enforcement powers, judge each case separately to assess the circumstances and the seriousness of the alleged offence.

Slightly different arrangements exist in Scotland from those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, for pursuing a prosecution.

A Decc spokesman said: “The UK has one of the toughest and most successful oil and gas regimes in the world and we work closely with industry to ensure the highest standards of environmental protection are in place and enforced.

“There are a number of enforcement options available to Decc, with court action reserved for serious offences. On the rare occasions legal proceedings have been deemed necessary, it is for the court to decide the level of fines to hand down.”

Environmental campaigners said it was worrying that Decc viewed itself as operating the global gold standard of offshore regulation, especially as oil companies were now pressing for permission to drill in extreme and vulnerable environments such as the Arctic.

Vicky Wyatt, a Greenpeace campaigner, said: “Ministers and oil companies can spout all the carefully crafted quotes they like to tell us how safe drilling at sea is. But while they’re spouting these words, their rigs are all too often spouting oil into our oceans. The government should hit these companies who pollute the oceans in this way with meaningful fines.

“A few grand is not even a slap on the wrist for companies who pocket millions of pounds every hour.

“It’s both staggering and wrong that some of these companies are now also drilling in the fragile and pristine Arctic, where a similar oil leak would be catastrophic.”

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