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Hundreds of ‘Toxic’ North Sea Oil Spills Since 2019

Sam Bright reports on the scale of pollution being pumped into the North Sea

A North Sea oil rig. Photo: Banja-Frans Mulder/Wikimedia Commons

Hundreds of ‘Toxic’ North Sea Oil Spills Since 2019

Sam Bright reports on the scale of pollution being pumped into the North Sea

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There were 721 oil spills from North Sea facilities from 2019 to 2021, Byline Times can reveal.

This figure was revealed by the Government in response to a written parliamentary question by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, further showing that there was a 20% increase in oil leaks from 2020 to 2021.

The number of leaks stood at 274 in 2019, 203 in 2020, and 244 in 2021.

The Government said that the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning “investigates all reported releases and takes enforcement action where appropriate, including issuing financial penalties or referral for prosecution”.

Lucas told Byline Times that “super-wealthy oil and gas companies are acting as climate criminals – polluting our planet, destroying marine life with hundreds of toxic leaks and spills, and leaving the public to deal with the damage while they escape with billions in profit”.

According to the US Government’s National Ocean Service, exposure to oil destroys the insulating ability of fur-bearing mammals and birds, placing them at risk of hypothermia. Moreover, “fish may experience reduced growth, enlarged livers, changes in heart and respiration rates, fin erosion, and reproduction impairment”.

Matt Dawson, marine policy officer at Wildlife and Countryside Link, said “any leak of oil is bad news for nature and climate, so the fact that we’re talking about more than 200 unplanned leaks in the North Sea alone in a single year shows the scale of the damage the industry is causing”.

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The Government is currently facing a legal challenge over its plan to award up to 130 new licenses for North Sea oil and gas exploration. Three campaigning groups are arguing that the renewed licenses are unlawful on the grounds that they incompatible with the UK’s own net zero goals and international climate obligations.

Ministers have argued that further North Sea exploration is necessary to reduce reliance on Russian fossil fuels and to curb domestic energy inflation. However, typically, it takes between five to 10 years from initial exploration until oil and gas is produced from a field.

The Government is acting as the “accomplice” of big polluters, Lucas added, “approving new licences, and gifting them fossil fuel hand-outs. Ministers need to do far more than just mop up the mess made by these climate-wrecking companies – they need to bring an end to these new licences, and lock out fossil fuels for good”.

This was echoed by Dawson. “When you have an oil and gas industry you will have spills and releases… It’s simple really – ministers can’t talk the talk on protecting our ocean while drilling there for oil and gas,” he said. “Granting new licenses for this will just lead us further down a path of climate and nature disaster.”

The Government has introduced a windfall tax on the excess profits of oil and gas companies, yet under the proviso that these firms can reduce their bill significantly if they invest in North Sea oil and gas extraction. In October, it was revealed that Shell Shell has paid zero windfall tax in the UK despite making record global profits of nearly £26 billion during the year up to that point, in part due to heavy spending on drilling more oil in the North Sea.

There were 94 unplanned gas leaks from North Sea facilities in 2020, down from 125 in 2019

In 2018, Health and Safety Executive energy division head Chris Flint ordered North Sea exploration companies to review their operations, warning that some larger leaks had come “perilously close to disaster”.

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