Oil companies yesterday defended their plans for how they would respond to a oil spill in the Arctic in the face of accusations they were just “guesswork”.
Representatives from Shell and Edinburgh-based Cairn Energy appeared before the Commons’ environmental audit committee to give evidence on drilling for oil in areas such as Greenland or Alaska.
They said the companies had robust plans to deal with a spill in the Arctic — which marine-pollution experts have described as a “nightmare” scenario — but they were unable to say how much a clean-up operation might cost.
Shell International’s upstream global emergency response manager, Peter Velez, also admitted to MPs that the capping and containment system the company plans to use in Alaska in case of an oil leak was not being tested in icy conditions.
Last year, Greenpeace raised concerns that the oil spill response plan drawn up by Cairn Energy for Greenland — which included measures such as cutting out blocks of polluted ice which could be thawed in a heated warehouse to separate out the oil — was inadequate for the treacherous conditions of the Arctic.
Yesterday, Tory MP Zac Goldsmith said all the mechanisms proposed by the oil companies, ranging from cutting out the oiled ice to in-situ burning of oil or drilling a relief well from an affected rig were “very unsure science”.
“It doesn’t seem to me that there’s anything the industry has said in its submissions or today to reassure people, including shareholders who stand to lose financially, that they are in any position to handle an emergency. It’s all guesswork.”
BP has already paid out £4.7billion in clean-up costs and compensation after the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, killing 11 workers and letting up to 5million barrels of crude oil leak into the Gulf, but is being sued for billions of pounds more by the US government.
Richard Heaton, exploration director at Cairn Energy, said his company had been working to a “degree of rigour” which was much further ahead than the Gulf of Mexico even before the BP disaster.
Of Cairn’s oil spill response plan for Greenland, he said: “We have to have a whole array of methods at our disposal, which are set out in the oil response plans, to deal with a range of sizes of spills.”
He said every method in the plan could be of use depending on the circumstances, such as the nature of the fluid which had been spilled and the sea ice conditions.
The “robust” plans, he added, had been scrutinised by experts.
Questioned by Green MP Caroline Lucas on the possible costs of an oil spill in the Arctic, Robert Blaauw, from Shell, said the focus was on having robust preventative and response measures.
But Greenpeace spokes-woman Vicky Wyatt said: “Shell has said nothing that challenges the growing consensus that they cannot deal with an oil spill in the Arctic, and alarmingly for shareholders, they have made no estimate of how much it would cost to clean up, even though BP’s bill for the Gulf of Mexico nearly brought the company to its knees.
She added: “Today confirms what we already knew. If a Gulf of Mexico-style spill were to happen in the Arctic the oil industry has no credible plan for cleaning it up.”