ENERGY giant Shell was last night accused of attempting to play down the significance of its North Sea oil spill after it emerged that the amount of oil which leaked into the water was more than 10 times larger than originally admitted.
The company revealed yesterday that about 1,300 barrels had been spilled in last week’s incident at the Gannet Alpha platform – a huge jump on Sunday’s estimate of up to 120 barrels.
Shell is now planning to use remotely-operated vehicles and divers to fix the leak – the largest in UK waters since 2000.
The spill is still dwarfed by the US disaster at the Macondo well in April last year, in which 11 people were killed and an estimated 4.9million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Jake Molloy, of the RMT union in Aberdeen, said of the Gannet incident: “You would expect Shell to try and play this down as much as it can, particularly with Macondo still fresh in everyone’s mind.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Jim Hume MSP said the massive overnight increase in the scale of the leak meant that the company was either unaware of the scale of the problem or was misleading stakeholders.
Shadow Scottish secretary Ann McKechin MP said Shell needed to make sure that any information it was giving on the spill was accurate so that the authorities and environmental groups had a clear picture of what they were dealing with.
An RSPB Scotland spokeswoman said: “It has been suggested that the current situation poses a low risk to wildlife.
“It is worth noting that any amount of oil, in the wrong place at the wrong time, poses a serious risk to seabirds.”
Juliet Swann, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, added: “We are deeply worried that we still – even five days after the leak was detected – know far too little about the environmental impact of the spill, how it could impact wildlife, and the scale of the threat to Scotland’s coastal communities and the marine environment that they rely on for their income.”
Vicy Wyatt, of Greenpeace, felt there was a worrying lack of transparency from Shell in relation to the spill.
Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland, said he was left with the impression that Shell would rather not be saying anything at all in public about the incident.
But a company spokes-woman denied it was trying to play down the spill or mislead stakeholders. She added: “We have put out information each day – we want to be transparent and provide people with the information they are looking for.”
The spokeswoman claimed that the initial 120-barrel figure given by Shell only related to how much oil was still floating on the sea surface on Sunday, not the total which had actually escaped into the water.
The company said yesterday that the leak 112 miles east of Aberdeen remained under control, with the well still shut in.
Glen Cayley, technical director of Shell’s exploration and production activities in Europe, said: “It is not easy to quantify the total volume spilled, but we estimate so far that it is around 216 tonnes (1,300 barrels). This is a significant spill in the context of annual amounts of oil spilled in the North Sea. We care about the environment and regret that the spill happened. We have taken it very seriously and responded promptly to it.”
The company said the amount of oil on the surface had reduced to around six barrels by yesterday, mainly due to evaporation. Shell estimated the current leak rate from the pipeline was less than five barrels a day.
Mr Cayley added: “The high winds and waves over the weekend have led to a substantial reduction in the size of the oil sheen, as can be seen from the current levels on the water.
“We continue to expect that the oil sheen will disperse due to wave action and that it will not reach the shore.”
Mick Borwell, of offshore industry body Oil and Gas UK, said he was convinced the energy firm was doing all it could to tackle the problem.