Clair Oil Platform

– in the Scottish Parliament on 4th October 2016.

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Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

2. To ask the Scottish Government what environmental assessment it has made of the leak from the Clair oil platform, west of Shetland. (S5T-00102)

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

Marine Scotland has been working with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the operator, BP, to assess the environmental impact of the leak from the Clair field. It is understood that the oil came from the produced-water system rather than from a leak from the well.

Initial aerial surveillance and modelling show that the oil is moving north-north-east from the platform. That presents a low risk to environmental sensitivities such as seabirds and sea bed features and has informed Marine Scotland’s advice that the most appropriate response is to allow the oil to disperse naturally. BP has been asked to carry out further modelling to allow a full environmental impact assessment to be undertaken. BP is also deploying a vessel to the area, which will take water samples. Marine Scotland will be passed the information for review.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

Does the cabinet secretary accept the inherent risks of oil and gas extraction in the United Kingdom continental shelf, particularly west of Shetland, both to the offshore workforce, which it is important not to forget on these occasions, and to the marine environment? Will she ensure that BP and other operators guard against those risks through robust operational procedures and measures to minimise the impact of spillages at sea? Can she confirm that BP’s Clair field has operated since 2005 without any spill that we are aware of?

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

On the last point, I think that Tavish Scott is correct and that this is the first such incident since the Clair field began operations.

On the more general issue, all industrial activity has to have regard to the safety of its workforce and the environment—all that is taken into account on an on-going basis. In this particular set of circumstances, the environmental risk has been assessed as low. There is always the potential for such incidents to happen. However, we need to remember the importance of the oil and gas industry to the Scottish economy.

I remind members that the regulator for the oil and gas industry is the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The department is investigating and will carry out enforcement action if that is considered necessary.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

Can I take it that BP’s environmental assessment has been shared with the Scottish Government? Does the cabinet secretary understand that it states that there is some risk of seabirds being oiled to the north-north-east? Finally, has the Government been informed as to why the spill occurred, and when does it hope to find out the details, to ensure that this does not happen again?

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

The member asked about three different areas. On when we will find out the details, when the

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy finalises its review, the information should be shared with us.

Impact on the sea bed is not a current concern. The oil might sink to a depth of about 25m, but the sea bed in this area is at 140m, with the nearest marine protected area some 20km away, in water depths of between 300m and 600m. The advice about natural dispersal has been accepted as the best way to proceed at present, on the information that we have.

As I indicated in my first answer, BP has been asked to carry out further modelling. We are looking at the potential for a full environmental impact assessment to be undertaken. BP is deploying a vessel to the area, which is taking further water samples. That information will, of course, be passed to Marine Scotland in due course.

Photo of Maurice Golden Maurice Golden Conservative

There are 571 platforms in the North Sea that, if removed via a single lift, would need to be floated past Scotland to decommissioning yards that are big enough to handle them in England or elsewhere, with the risk of causing environmental harm. What plans does the Scottish Government have to support a large-scale decommissioning port in Shetland or elsewhere to provide jobs and to realise the true value of decommissioning for Scotland as part of our journey to a more circular economy?

The Presiding Officer:

That is fairly broad so the minister might wish to give a short answer.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

That is a little beyond my portfolio responsibilities. However, the Scottish Government is always on the lookout for potential further developments to help the economy of Scotland.

Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Green

Environmental assessments are very important, as are marine protection areas, and I am concerned about a pattern of marine behaviour that places our oceans at risk. The BP spokesman said:

“The release was stopped within an hour”.

The Transocean Winner was carrying 280 tonnes of diesel when it ran aground off Lewis. Cromarty Firth Port Authority plans to transfer 8.4 million tonnes of oil between ships in the open seas of the Moray Firth. The cabinet secretary referred to the Marine Scotland report from February, which states:

“A further area of increased activity by Marine Scotland is the service provided for Ministers on emergency responses to maritime incidents.”

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the Scottish Government needs to be more robust at heading off emergencies, and that it can do that by formally objecting to the ship-to-ship transfer of oil in the open seas and by supporting robust action against reckless and negligent operators? If the Government does that—the cabinet secretary is shaking her head, but it is an important issue—it will protect not only the pod of orcas that swim between Iceland and the Moray Firth coast but wider marine life, our fishermen and our tourism industry.

The Presiding Officer:

Again, that was quite a broad follow-up question.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

With the greatest of respect, Presiding Officer, it also ranged over a number of different areas that are not covered by Tavish Scott’s question. John Finnie’s initial comments related to the rig that ran aground on Lewis rather than to issues that relate directly to the incident off Shetland.

As I have indicated, the regulator of the oil and gas industry is the Westminster Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Marine Scotland is a consultee in that process and the Scottish Government will continue to liaise with key stakeholders such as BP and any others that might be involved in incidents.

I reiterate that the oil and gas industry is extremely important to the Scottish economy. We rely on a mixed energy portfolio and oil and gas is an integral part of that. It is important that we maximise recovery from the North Sea, but we have to do that in a responsible and efficient manner. A successful sector is also important in helping us to transition to a low-carbon economy, in which the skills and capabilities that have been built up over decades will be critical.

There is a constant balance between what is required to ensure that the economic interest continues and what is required to minimise environmental incidents and ensure that they do not become such an issue that we begin to lose the economic benefit. Although the regulator is reserved, Marine Scotland is involved in the matter and we are, as always, involved in the discussions to ensure the best possible outcome.

My major concern is, obviously, the marine environment and I have been assured that this incident has minimal risk for the marine environment. It does not impact the sea bed, which is too far below the surface to be affected. The product of the produced-waters system is crude oil mixed with sea water; it is not a straightforward oil leak. The incident was a single event; it has not been a continuous leak. In terms of what might have happened, the result is at the absolute minimum, so we have been extremely lucky. However, part of the outcome of the investigation will be to inform future action and the decision on whether enforcement is required as a result.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

How long will it take for the oil to disperse naturally, and will there be a risk to fish and sea mammals while that happens?

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

I am not advised of any such risk. I can try to establish whether there is any estimate of the time that it will take for the dispersal to occur. If it is possible to give that kind of estimate, I will ensure that the member receives the information. However, at this point, I do not know whether it is possible to make any prediction about how long it will take for dispersal to take place.