Concern over oil still in pipeline, despite claims leak is under control

North Sea oil leak
North Sea oil leak

A HERCULES aircraft and two ships capable of dealing with a potential major oil spill have been put on standby as Shell continues its battle to plug a North Sea leak.

An estimated 1,300 barrels of oil have flowed into the sea from a leak in a subsea pipeline first seen more than a week ago near the Gannet Alpha platform, 113 miles east of Aberdeen.

Shell described the spill – the worst in the North Sea in more than a decade – as being under control yesterday.

But there are still concerns that more than 3,600 barrels of oil are left in the so-called flowline.

Assessment work has been delayed by complex subsea structures, and the UK Government has said it wants to be sure diving operations will not cause more damage.

Hugh Shaw, government representative for maritime salvage and intervention, said: “Before I approve plans to close the leak I need to assess the risk that other damage could be done releasing the 600 tonnes in the pipeline.

“I’m advised the risk is low, but I would rather live with a quarter of a tonne on the surface than 600 tonnes being released in an uncontrolled manner.”

Glen Cayley, Shell’s technical director, said the situation was under control and that the flow rate was now less than one barrel a day, making the total not much more than the 1,300 barrels announced on Tuesday.

He estimated a maximum of about 3,600 barrels of oil were still in the pipe, but about 40% of this is would be water.

It could be at least another 24 hours before work is carried out, he added.

In the meantime, Shell has been asked to come up with a containment plan.

Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said one oil-soaked bird had been found in the area, but there was no evidence of any significant environmental impact.

He repeated an earlier plea for better communication and stressed the importance of openness and transparency after widespread criticism of Shell’s public relations over the incident.

A Hercules loaded with oil dispersants has been put on standby at East Midlands Airport in England.

A vessel with specialist equipment was sent to the scene last night and a second boat is due to arrive shortly.

Other ships are in the area monitoring the situation and assisting operations as well as aircraft.

Gannet Alpha is entering a planned month-long shutdown during which other flowlines will be inspected. Mr Cayley said: “I cannot stress enough the need to undertake detailed risk assessments and ensure any work considered is undertaken safely.”

He reiterated how much the company regretted the spill and said inspection procedures would be revisited.

“If our inspection procedures were flawless, this would not have occurred,” he added.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change said that it and the Health and Safety Executive would investigate the incident and report to the procurator fiscal, who would decide on any further act-ion.