‘Devastating destruction’ to marine life as over 22,000 tonnes of oil spilled into UK waters above safe levels

New data from an FOI request found more than 9,000 tonnes of oil was released in breach of government permits leading to the “destruction” of the marine environment

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More than 22,000 tonnes of oil has routinely been spilled into UK waters over the last five years by the oil and gas industry, new data shows.

Over half of the oil spilled was allowed through 1,900 government permits - but 9,000 tonnes of oil was released in breach of these permits, a Freedom of Information request obtained by Oceana UK and energy campaigning group Uplift reveals.

Figures show there was one breach every other day over a five year period from 2017 to 2022. Uplift said its findings showed oil companies were spilling an equivalent of 164,780 barrels of oil - far more than the government says is safe.

Companies are allowed to release some oil - including in so-called produced water, found within rocks alongside oil and gas - as a by-product of routine production and are given permits that allow discharges.

Mark Wilson, Offshore Energies UK’s HSE and Operations Director, said the industry  “takes all such releases very seriously” and “is focused on driving continuous improvement”.

He explained that the UK’s regulator, OPRED (the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning), imposes a maximum limit of 30 parts of oil per million parts of water.

He said: “This means ‘produced water’ contains a maximum of 0.00003% hydrocarbons. This is three ten thousandths of a percent.

“Even at this level, companies must record and report all releases to OPRED, for potential investigation. Our latest data, covering 2022, published in our environment report shows that oil mass in produced water fell by 10%.”

However, satellite pictures of UK waters from 2020 to 2022, obtained by Uplift who worked with NGO SkyTruth, shows large numbers of oil spills. Some of the slicks detected were 10km long and one cumulative slick extended to an area of 91 sq km.

Oceana and Uplift say regardless of whether the leaks are permitted or not, the pollution damages critical ecosystems that are essential for ocean health and tackling climate change.

More than 22,000 tonnes of oil spilled into UK waters above safe levels. (Image by NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/SkyTruth) More than 22,000 tonnes of oil spilled into UK waters above safe levels. (Image by NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/SkyTruth)
More than 22,000 tonnes of oil spilled into UK waters above safe levels. (Image by NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/SkyTruth)

‘Government must step up’

Tessa Khan, Executive Director and Founder of Uplift, said this is the “first time” the “extent of this cumulative pollution” is being revealed.

She said: “This is what happens when you’ve got spills constantly leaking. You’ve got tar balls and droplets falling to the bottom of the ocean, threatening wildlife.

“Rishi Sunak told MPs that halting new exploration of fossil fuels in the North Sea is ‘completely absurd’. What’s absurd is contaminating our oceans with oil in the midst of a biodiversity emergency.”

She added: “People are appalled with how companies are treating our natural world. The government must step up and urgently protect our greatest natural asset when it comes to tackling the climate crisis - our ocean.”

The five companies that Uplift said had spilled the most oil between 2017 and 2022 were Dana, Repsol Sinopec, CNR, Shell, and Apache.

The worst polluters over the five year period are:

  • Dana (oil and gas company based in Aberdeen, Scotland) - 6,943 tonnes
  • Repsol Sinopec (oil and gas company operating in the North Sea) - 4,220 tonnes
  • Canadian Natural Resources (Canadian oil and natural gas company) - 3805 tonnes
  • Shell (British multinational oil and gas company) - 3243 tonnes
  • Apache (American company engaged in hydrocarbon exploration) - 3108 tonnes
  • Ithaca Energy (British oil and gas company) - 922 tonnes

Dana and Shell referred BBC News to a statement from Offshore Energies UK as their response, and Repsol Sinopec, CNR and Apache did not respond to a request for comment.

A government spokesperson said offshore pollution incidents were monitored closely. They said: "We are clear that companies should not be breaching their permit conditions. If they do, appropriate action will be taken, including the use of fines.”

‘Marine habitats could take decades to recover’

The In Deep Water, produced by Oceana and Uplift, reveals that oil rigs and other infrastructure are leading to habitat loss - some of which could take decades or more to recover, if at all.

The report says oil and gas activity has several negative effects on plankton and the basis of marine food webs through noise and oil pollution, persistent chemicals and contamination by microplastics.

Champa Patel, Executive Director Governments and Policy at Climate Group, said: “The fossil fuel industry needs to clean up its act. But the only way to stop further pollution in our oceans is to rapidly phase out fossil fuels in favour of clean renewable energy”.

The UK has made major international commitments to protect UK and global oceans, including in the UN High Seas Treaty and at an international conference on biodiversity in Montreal in 2022. But, Hugo Tagholm, Executive Director and Vice President of Oceana in the UK, said these findings undermine those pledges by the UK.

He said: “The government says it’s a ‘global leader’ in marine protection. Yet, allowing this oil to consistently contaminate our seas, including so-called Marine Protected Areas, says otherwise.

“Frankly, it makes a mockery of their position as leader of the Global Ocean Alliance and their commitment to 30x30. We can now see as clear as day the devastating path of destruction caused to our marine environment.”

Government licences for oil spills were offered despite new YouGov polling data for Uplift demonstrating that 75% of the UK public do not agree with the policy of allowing new oil and gas drilling in areas protected for marine life.

Oceana and Uplift are calling on to end new exploration licences or production approvals for offshore oil and gas developments.

Fiona Gell, marine conservationist and author of In Deep Water, said UK waters are “brimming with beautiful and internationally important marine life” but it is “under threat” by the offshore oil and gas industry.

She added: “Chronic chemical pollution, loss of ancient and irreplaceable habitats, and the impacts of climate change are all incompatible with international commitments to biodiversity protection and ecosystem restoration and must stop now.”

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