The number of inspections of North Sea drilling rigs is to be doubled following the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, which has cost BP more than £1billion.
Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said an urgent review of the oil and gas industry had been carried out since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the ocean.
He said that while the UK’s regulatory regime was “fit for purpose”, the new coalition government could not be complacent and must strengthen it further.
The Liberal Democrat minister has told the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) to recruit three new inspectors in Aberdeen and double the number of annual environmental inspections from eight to 16.
US President Barack Obama said the coastline of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are facing an environmental disaster.
An American campaign group claimed yesterday that a similar incident at one of BP’s deepwater oil fields in UK and Norwegian waters could contaminate the whole of the North Sea.
But Mr Huhne said it was his responsibility to make sure the “devastating” scenes in America were not repeated off the coast of the UK.
“It’s clear that our safety and environmental regulatory regime is fit for purpose. It is already among the most robust in the world and the industry’s record in the North Sea is strong,” he said.
“But the Deepwater Horizon gives us pause for thought and, given the beginning of exploration in deeper waters west of Shetland, there is every reason to increase our vigilance.
“Initial steps are already under way, including plans to double the number of annual environmental inspections by Decc to drilling rigs and the launch of a new industry group to look at the UK’s ability to prevent and respond to oil spills.
“In addition, I will review our new and existing procedures as soon as the detailed analysis of the factors which caused the incident in the Gulf of Mexico are available.”
The industry’s new Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group (OSPRAG) met last week for the first time.
It will assess the UK’s readiness to respond.
Jake Molloy, regional spokesman for the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), said last night: “We welcome Mr Huhne’s announcement that inspections are to double.
“That in itself would imply that this government intends to provide continued resources for health, safety and environmental inspections.
“I say that because there were concerns that a Tory government might look to do the opposite.”
Malcolm Webb, chief executive of industry body Oil and Gas UK, backed the plans and welcomed the additional resources being made available to Decc to carry out offshore inspections.
He said: “The industry actively seeks sound and appropriate regulation, delivered by strong and pro-fessional regulators.
“In light of the Gulf of Mexico incident, the industry in the UK has already embarked on a thorough review of its existing practices and procedures. It is working alongside the regulators and trade union representatives through the newly-created OSPRAG to ensure that its arrangements for pollution prevention and response, and the financial provisions for that response, are and continue to be fit for purpose.
“The secretary of state and his team will of course be kept fully informed of the group’s progress.”
A Scottish Government spokesman added: “This is a welcome announcement by the energy secretary. Safety must always be the number one priority, as we have seen from the tragic incident in the Gulf of Mexico, given the cost in human lives and enormous environmental damage.”
The Health and Safety Executive has recently uncovered problems in the North Sea.
In April, the HSE ordered all North Sea operators to check the pipeline emergency shut-down valves (ESDV) that were made mandatory after Lord Cullen’s investigation into the Piper Alpha platform fire which claimed the lives of 167 offshore workers.
The HSE says checks were necessary after the failure of an emergency shut-down valve and that “other ESDVs have been found to be at risk of failing in this manner”.