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Fury at new North Sea oil and gas exploration in areas of protected marine life

Fury at new North Sea oil and gas exploration in areas of protected marine life


ExclusiveMinisters have prioritised the new North Sea oil and gas projects to boost UK energy security but environmentalists say the dash to open new fossil fuel fields risks inflicting irreparable damage on Britain’s marine ecology

The Government has been accused of putting its quest for new North Sea oil and gas ahead of safeguarding Britain’s wildlife after one in four newly-granted exploration licences were found to overlap with protected marine nature zones.

An analysis of the 64 “blocks” in the North Sea where companies were last month given the go-ahead to start exploring for new oil and gas resources shows that more than a quarter of the total overlap either wholly or partially with Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

The official definition of MPAs describes them as sections of ocean and seabed designated to “protect rare, threatened and important habitats and species from damage caused by human activities”.

Ministers have prioritised the opening of new UK oil and gas projects, arguing that the enduring need for fossil fuels during the transition to green power sources justifies maximising domestic production to control costs and provide energy security. Rishi Sunak’s goal to “max out” production moved a step closer three weeks ago when the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), the arms-length regulator for the sector, unveiled oil and gas licences for new fields with “the potential to go into production more quickly than others”, suggesting fossil fuels could start flowing within five years.

But environmental groups argue the opening of these new fields is “morally obscene” and risks inflicting irreparable damage on Britain’s marine ecology.

Data produced by Unearthed, the investigative journalism arm of Greenpeace, found that licences for 17 oil and gas “blocks” or zones granted last month to companies including Anglo-Dutch giant Shell encroach on a MPA – representing 27 per cent of the total.

Of those 17, 11 overlap with a nature zone between the Shetland and Faroe islands which the Government’s own conservation advisory body has stated is believed to be used as a migration route for marine mammals, including sperm and fin whales.

Conservationists said wildlife within the North Sea MPAs, ranging from cetaceans such as whales and porpoises to coral beds and fish spawning grounds, would be threatened by activity to explore for exploitable fossil fuel deposits and then any eventual move to production via wells and rigs.

Philip Evans, climate campaigner for Greenpeace UK, told i: “The oil and gas licensing decision shows how little the Government’s paper promises of environmental protection are worth when they come into conflict with oil company profits.”

Campaigners said particular threats are posed to wildlife by seismic exploration activity, which they insist can disrupt the feeding patterns of marine mammals and even result in death, and “oil releases” from production fields already situated within MPAs. Greenpeace revealed earlier this year that 273 tonnes of oil had been released in this manner in MPAs over the last decade.

Hugo Tagholm, director of Oceana UK, a conservation group, said: “Granting new oil and gas licences in our marine protected areas makes a mockery of our climate pledges, decimates our already suffering ocean life and threatens coastal communities. These new licences will not improve UK energy security or lower our energy bills. They will, however, trash our ocean and endanger our future.”

The Unearthed analysis found that eight of the new exploration blocks sit wholly within a conservation area, with a further nine partially overlapping a MPA.

The MPA with the highest number of new licences, known as the North-east Faroe-Shetland Channel, is one of the largest of its kind in Britain and plays an important role in funnelling nutrient-bearing currents to the North Sea. According to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, a public body which advises the Government, the channel is “believed to be a corridor for migrating marine mammals, including the fin whale and sperm whale”. It is also an ideal habitat for deep sea sponges.

Oil industry insiders emphasised that North Sea production is highly regulated and gas and oil have long been successfully extracted from fields within protected areas, in some cases for decades.

In most cases an exploration licence is granted NSTA only after an assessment by a separate watchdog, the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning (OPRED). Further licences and permissions must then be obtained for specific activities, including seismic surveys and drilling.

A NSTA spokesperson said: “Vulnerable and protected habitats and species are considered throughout the licensing and permitting process and licences are only awarded when the NSTA has received permission from OPRED that their environmental assessment requirements are met.”

Shell, which has eight newly-awarded blocks within the Faroe-Shetland Channel, emphasised that any seismic surveys which it carries out are stringently controlled and timed to avoid environmentally-sensitive periods such as migration or breeding times. The oil giant said its surveys were also monitored by independent experts whose role includes ensuring a 500-metre exclusion zone for marine mammals.

A Shell spokesperson said: “Many oil and gas platforms already producing in the North Sea are in Marine Protected Areas. The regulator requires careful environmental assessment before consent is given and, where necessary, measures put in place to protect wildlife.”

Earlier this month, the Government confirmed plans to grant new North Sea oil and gas licences every year. It has angered green campaigners who say it undermines efforts to reach net zero.

The move could put Labour in a bind as Sir Keir Starmer has committed to not allowing any new exploration licences but has said existing fields will not be shut down.

The Government said its plans for North Sea gas production would generate a quarter of the emissions of liquified natural gas (LNG) import, while also supporting new jobs and raising tax revenues.

A spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said: “We have a comprehensive legal framework of stringent environmental protection measures for all offshore oil and gas activities, and this will continue to apply to new licences.”

Read the latest issue of the OGV Energy magazine HERE

Published: 20-11-2023

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