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Oil spill investigation begins as Shell plugs North Sea leak

Successful plugging of two Gannet Alpha leaks come as a Scottish newspaper reveals Shell’s poor safety record in the region

The oil sheen on the surface of the North Sea that followed the UK’s worst oil spill for a decade has finally disappeared, according to Shell, after the company managed to plug its leaking pipeline on Friday.

Government officials are now launching an investigation into the leak as part of an effort to discover how the spill came about and how to prevent such damage recurring.

However, the successful plugging of both the primary and secondary leaks at the Gannet Alpha platform, 112 miles east of Aberdeen, came as a Scottish newspaper revealed Shell’s poor safety record in the region.

An investigation by the Sunday Herald found that Shell had been officially censured 25 times in the past six years for breaking safety rules, giving it one of the worst safety records of any major oil company in the UK. Infringements by Shell include repeatedly failing to maintain pipelines – similar to the one that gave rise to the Gannet leak – as well as for failing to report a dangerous incident, and failing to protect workers from hazardous chemicals. The revelations cited come from records held by the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and include incidents in which Shell was fined or received an official reprimand.

Since 2005, Shell has been prosecuted four times: for an explosion at Bacton gas terminal near Norwich; an accident at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire; a collision at the Mossmorran gas plant in Fife; and a fatality on the Clipper rig in the North Sea. The company has been forced to pay out nearly £1m in fines and legal costs. No other major oil company has faced as many prosecutions in the last six years, according to the HSE. Talisman was prosecuted twice in the period, while BP, Total, Amec and Nexen were each prosecuted once, the Sunday Herald reported.

Shell’s safety record is likely to come under scrutiny as the government’s investigation into the leak is launched this week. First, Scotland’s procurator fiscal will meet experts from the HSE and officials from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) in order to set the initial scope for the investigation. When Decc has completed the investigation, which will involve talking to divers, marine experts and Shell executives, the results will be taken back to the procurator fiscal who will have to decide whether to proceed with a criminal prosecution.

One of the key questions is whether Shell will have to pay for the government’s costs in containing the leak, including the cost of surveillance flights by Marine Scotland.

Shell said that after its divers closed a faulty relief valve on Friday, no further oil had been released. However, the pipeline – which has been secured to the seabed with 26 concrete “mattresses” – could still contain as much as 660 tonnes of oil, three times more than the nearly 220 tonnes that has already leaked. The company is looking at how to make that safe, as well as monitoring the area to ensure that no further oil is seeping out.

Decc has said a containment structure might need to be built in order to ensure that no further oil reaches the sea as the pipeline is dealt with.

Green campaigners criticised Shell for not being sufficiently open about the incident, which was discovered on Wednesday 10 August but not disclosed to the public for two days, and they said the incident raised questions over the safety of oil companies’ plans to drill in deep water in the Arctic, as the North Sea is generally supposed to be the safest in the world in terms of spills.

However, a Guardian investigation this summer found that there is an oil leak in the North Sea about once a week on average, though most of them are minor.

Shell’s poor safety record

Oil company / prosecutions since 2005 / enforcement notices since 2005

Shell / 4 / 21

Maersk / 0 / 33

BP / 1 / 20

Talisman / 2 / 12

Petrofac / 0 / 15

Total / 1 / 7

Chevron / 0 / 9

Nexen / 1 / 5

Rowan / 0 / 8

Amec / 1 / 4

Amoco / 0 / 7

Esso / 0 / 6

Conoco / 0 / 5

Marathon / 0 / 5

Shell’s 25 safety lapses

Date / plant / situation

June 2010 / Nelson, North Sea / prohibition notice after failure to maintain pipeline in good repair

January 2010 / Clipper, North Sea / improvement notice after drinking water contaminated

October 2009 / Brent Charlie, North Sea / prohibition notice after risk of serious personal injury from toxic and flammable gas

June 2009 / Ellesmere Port, Cheshire / improvement notice because of blocked pipes and drains

June 2009 / Ellesmere Port, Cheshire / improvement notice over blockages

March 2009 / Stanlow terminal, Ellesmere Port / improvement notice after failure to provide information

December 2008, Mossmoran gas plant, Fife / improvement notice because of access problem for emergency services

December 2008 / Mossmoran gas plant, Fife / improvement notice on access for emergency services

August 2008 / Brent Bravo, North Sea / improvement notice after failure to maintain pipeline

April 2008 / Mossmoran gas plant, Fife / improvement notice to reduce risk of traffic accident

February 2008 / Bacton gas terminal, Norwich / prosecuted after explosion, fined £440,000

February 2008 / Mossmoran gas plant, Fife / improvement notice to remedy deficiencies in emergency response

November 2007 / Leman Charlie, North Sea / prohibition notice because of dangers from asbestos

June 2007 / Dunlin Alpha, North Sea / improvement notice after failure to control exposure to hazardous chemicals

June 2007 / St Fergus gas plant, Peterhead / improvement notice after breach of safety regulation

May 2007 / Anasuria production vessel, North Sea / improvement notice after failure to ensure watertight integrity

April 2007 / Dunlin Alpha, North Sea / improvement notice after failure to report a dangerous occurrence

February 2007 / Ellesmere Port, Cheshire / prosecuted after accident, fined £116,666

February 2007 / Clipper, North Sea / improvement notice after failure to maintain vital equipment

December 2006 / Mossmorran gas plant, Fife / prosecuted after accident, fined £12,000

December 2006 / Ellesmere Port, Cheshire / improvement notice because of poor maintenance

November 2006 / Clipper, North Sea / improvement notice after failure to maintain vital equipment

November 2005 / Clipper, North Sea / prosecuted after fatality, fined £150,000

September 2006 / Cormorant Alpha, North Sea / prohibition notice for inadequately guarded winch

September 2006 / Leman Alpha, North Sea / improvement notice for inadequate maintenance and control

(Source: Herald Scotland and the Health and Safety Executive)

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