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Sanctioned oil spills

22,000 tonnes of oil spilled in UK waters since 2017 – and over half was government sanctioned
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
A gloved hand of unidentifiable/unnamed emergency worker scooping oil from pristine beach sand.

Over 22,000 tonnes of oil have been released into UK waters by the oil and gas industry in the last five years, according to new FOI data obtained by Oceana and Uplift.

The revelation coincides with the launch of In Deep Water, the first-ever comprehensive review of how the oil and gas industry is damaging UK seas.

Oil discharge permits

Over half (58%) of the 22,000 tonnes of oil released was done so legally through government-issued permits.

Oil discharge permits allow produced water (oil-laced water), created as a by-product of drilling, to be released into the ocean through small, everyday oil slicks, also known as ‘chronic oiling’.

Despite the UK offshore regulator, OPRED, handing out more than 1,900 permits every year for the past five years, oil (9,000 tonnes of it) was also deliberately released in breach of these permits and other regulations.

Analysis of the data reveals one or more breaches across 1,056 days in the 2,093 days between 2017 and 2022 – one every other day.

Harming marine life

UK waters are well known for their abundance of large whales, dolphins and seabirds, some of our most endangered species.

The In Deep Water report and FOI data reveal that these species are subject to a constant flow of small oil spills, which has the potential to kill sea life and to significantly impact the life chances and reproductive success of others.

As well as routine oil spills, the report shows how oil and gas production harms marine life through toxic chemicals, microplastics and extreme noise pollution through seismic blasting. 

‘For more than 50 years, the government has allowed big oil to routinely pollute our waters. From oil spills to toxic chemicals, we can now see as clear as day the devastating path of destruction caused to our marine environment. Our wild isles should not be held hostage by fossil fuel giants any longer.
‘The government says it’s a ‘global leader’ in marine protection. Yet, allowing this oil to consistently contaminate our seas, including so-called Marine Protected Areas, says otherwise. Frankly, it makes a mockery of their position as leader of the Global Ocean Alliance and their commitment to 30×30.’

Executive director and vice president of Oceana in the UK

Oil and gas companies

The FOI data show that UK waters are routinely polluted by various international oil and gas companies.

The worst offenders are state-owned Dana (Korea) and Repsol Sinopec (China) who released 6,000 and 2,400 tonnes of oil into UK waters and breached their permits and regulations 271 and 216 times respectively.

UK-headquartered Shell was the fourth-worst polluter over the five-year period, releasing over 3,200 tonnes of oil and reporting 169 breaches.

BP also released over 1,000 tonnes and reported 133 breaches.

Ithaca Energy, which has a stake in two controversial proposed oil fields, Cambo and Rosebank, released more than 900 tonnes over the five-year period and breached its permits and regulations 48 times.

Modelling featured in the In Deep Water report shows that a major oil spill from Rosebank could risk serious impact to at least 16 UK Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

‘Rishi Sunak told MPs that halting new exploration of fossil fuels in the North Sea is ‘completely absurd’. What’s absurd is contaminating our oceans with oil in the midst of a biodiversity emergency.

‘Last month, around 200 barrels of oily water leaked into the sea at Poole Harbour, sparking a major incident. Uplift’s new data finds that the amount spilled over the last five years is the equivalent of an unbelievable 164,780 barrels of oil.
‘People are appalled with how companies are treating our natural world. The government must step up and urgently protect our greatest natural asset when it comes to tackling the climate crisis – our ocean.’

Executive director and founder, Uplift

Oil spill images from space

In Deep Water, produced by marine conservation organisation Oceana and climate campaign group Uplift, also features groundbreaking new satellite imagery which reveals for the first time the chronic oiling of UK waters from space. 
Environmental watchdog SkyTruth used a deep-learning artificial intelligence (AI) model to scour thousands of daily satellite images to chart multiple oil slicks across the North Sea.

The Ninian oil platform, based off the Shetland coast and owned by Canadian Natural Resources, has been responsible for individual slicks over 10 km long. The SkyTruth imagery suggests that Ninian has released more oil into the North Sea (448 tonnes) than any other development. 

The UK and ocean conservation

The UK was instrumental in securing the UN High Seas Treaty in February, as part of the High Ambition Coalition, and leads the Global Ocean Alliance, championing the target to protect 30% of the world’s seas by 2030.

The government also recently pledged to invest £75 million in ocean protection schemes. Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said the importance of protecting the world’s oceans is ‘impossible to overstate’. 
Yet in the latest offshore oil and gas licensing round, 900 locations are being offered for development, with well over a third (352) overlapping with areas designated to protect the UK seas. 166 of the locations fall fully within a protected zone.

The overlap between MPAs and oil and gas drilling in the North Sea is mapped in In Deep Water. The government licences were offered despite new YouGov polling data for Uplift which demonstrates that 75% of Britons do not agree with the policy of allowing new oil and gas drilling in areas protected for marine life.

‘UK waters are brimming with beautiful and internationally important marine life, from delicate deep-sea coral gardens to families of orcas. But this life is under threat by the offshore oil and gas industry. Chronic chemical pollution, relentless underwater noise, loss of ancient and irreplaceable habitats, and the impacts of climate change are all incompatible with international commitments to biodiversity protection and ecosystem restoration and must stop now.’

Marine conservationist and author of In Deep Water

Oceana and Uplift consider new licensing and approval of oil and gas to be in direct conflict with the UK’s commitments to ocean conservation and reaching the net zero target.

The organisations are calling for an end to new exploration licences or production approvals for offshore oil and gas developments.

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