The UK Government last night insisted that deep-water oil drilling can go ahead in UK waters without waiting for lessons to be learned from BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster.
Energy and Climate Change Minister Chris Huhne said that BP remained a strong company committed to halting the spill and paying for the clean-up.
He stressed there were differences between the way British regulators ensure safety in the North Sea and on the Atlantic frontier – where more deep drilling is likely – and the way the Americans operate.
Mr Huhne made his comments as US President Barack Obama set out on a tour of three Gulf-coast states tainted by oil ahead of speaking to the public about what to expect in the weeks ahead.
Before the start of a two-day trip to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, the White House announced that Mr Obama would order BP to establish a major victims’ compensation fund.
BP said in a statement its costs for responding to the spill have risen to $1.6billion (£1.08billion), including new $25million (£17million) grants to Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
Mr Huhne was responding to pressure, not least the Labour leadership contender and former energy secretary Ed Miliband, for the lessons of the Gulf to be learned before more deep drilling takes place in the UK.
His comments provoked demands from north-east politicians on the need to proceed with developments such as Total Oil seeking to exploit gas found in deep waters West of Shetland.
Mr Huhne, who announced an urgent review of standards last week when he doubled the number of rig inspections, weighed in with a statement in the Commons as BP’s shares plunged further – with its board weighing up a possible dividend cut in the wake of criticism from US President Barack Obama.
Mr Huhne told the Commons that BP was “effectively an Anglo-American company”, with 39% of its shares owned in the US, and gave assurances about the likely impact of a dividend cut on pensions.
Shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband voiced “deep concern” about the environmental damage being done by the spill. He said it was “a wake-up call” on the need to move to a cleaner low-carbon energy future.
He insisted: “It is essential we look at any lessons learned before beginning the process of deeper water drilling.”
But Gordon Liberal Democrat MP Malcolm Bruce, with BP’s North Sea HQ in his constituency, said: “We have to ensure that with 25billion barrels of oil and gas still to be got out of the North Sea, they need to be got out.”
Mr Bruce added that this had to be completed “in circumstances where health and the safety of the environment and companies’ technology work together”.
Aberdeen South Labour MP Anne Begg said later: “It is important to the economy of the north-east that the West of Shetland development does happen in order to keep the industry going longer. But we need to make sure in doing this that the lessons of the Gulf are taken on board.”
West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine Liberal Democrat MP Sir Robert Smith said people should remember the human tragedy at the start of the Gulf disaster, adding that while Mr Obama had said he had not wanted to damage BP he may have done so unintentionally.
Aberdeen North Labour MP Frank Doran said what happened in the Gulf had demonstrated that warnings had been ignored. He said this showed it was important that workers on drilling rigs were given the same protection against summary dismissal and being banned from working offshore as platform operators have agreed for their staff.
Mr Doran said no one should be frightened to draw management attention to anything going wrong.