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MPs warn oil firms of deepwater safety fears

MPs warn oil firms of  deepwater safety  fears
The offshore industry is being warned that more needs to be done to prevent a deepwater drilling disaster off Scotland's coast.

The offshore industry is being warned that more needs to be done to prevent a deepwater drilling disaster off Scotland’s coast.

A powerful group of MPs has also raised serious doubts about how oil-spill equipment would cope in the harsh conditions west of Shetland if there was a major incident.

But members of the influential Commons energy and climate change committee said there was not enough evidence of danger to suspend deepwater drilling.

They said that the move could harm the economies of communities across the north and north-east, which depend heavily on the industry.

The committee investigated UK deepwater drilling after the Gulf of Mexico disaster last year when there was a blowout at the Macondo well.

The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and setting off one of the worst oil spills in history.

The MPs concluded that the UK had high offshore regulatory standards.

But committee chairman Tim Yeo said: “The harsh and windy conditions in the North Sea would make an oil spill off the coast of Shetland very difficult to contain or clean up.

“Safety regulations on drilling in the UK are already tougher than they were in the Gulf of Mexico, but oil companies must not use that as an excuse for complacency.

“Companies cannot continue producing ‘cut and paste’ oil-spill response plans, and rig operators must make it easier for staff to raise concerns without fear of intimidation.”

The committee has urged the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to consider prescribing the use of two “blind shear” ram devices on each blowout preventer.

Mr Yeo added: “Requiring oil rigs to fit an extra fail-safe device, to cut and seal the pipes if a blowout occurs, is an option that must now be considered.”

Because of the multibillion-pound cost of the Gulf disaster, the MPs said they believed that the Offshore Pollution Liability Association limit of £160million was insufficient.

Mr Yeo said: “There are serious gaps in the UK’s liability regime on offshore pollution, which could leave the taxpayer picking up the tab for a major oil spill, if one were to occur.”

The committee was also concerned that, due to enormous commercial pressures to keep a drilling rig operating, employees who tried to draw attention to safety problems may be – or feel – intimidated by their managers.

MPs noted some contradictions in reports from the HSE about bullying and harassment on rigs and assurances from the industry that “whistleblowers” would be heard and protected.

The committee said it would “utterly reject” calls for increased regulatory oversight from the European Commission.

It predicted that a halt to offshore drilling in the UK Continental Shelf would cause rigs and expertise to move to other parts of the globe.

The MPs added: “A moratorium on deepwater drilling would decrease the UK’s security of supply and increase the UK’s reliance on imports of oil and gas. A moratorium could also harm the economies of communities in Scotland which rely on the offshore oil and gas industry as well as the wider British economy, to which the industry makes a major contribution.

“There is insufficient evidence of danger to support such a moratorium.”

Malcolm Webb, chief executive of industry body Oil & Gas UK, said: “We welcome the committee’s statement that a moratorium on drilling in the UK is not only unnecessary, but would also undermine UK energy security.”

He added: “We also warmly welcome the committee’s utter rejection of calls for increased regulatory oversight from the European Commission, which we believe could weaken the UK’s strong regulation and safety performance.”

He added that the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group had already made significant progress in addressing a number of concerns raised by the committee, including the design of the new capping system capable of dealing with subsea blowouts.

RMT union regional organiser Jake Molloy said a suspension of drilling was not necessary, but said he wanted a change in regulations to give safety representatives greater powers and more protection similar to the situation in Norway.

Greenpeace executive director John Sauven said: “This report lists all the reasons why a ban on deep-sea drilling makes sense and then ignores its own findings.”

But West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine Lib Dem MP Sir Robert Smith, a member of the committee, defended the finding.

He said: “The primary lesson to be learned from Macondo is that blowout preventers must be guaranteed to work so a similar disaster cannot happen here and there must be long-term improvements to our ability to handle serious leaks.”

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