Science & Environment

UK 'well prepared' for major oil spill

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Media captionDavid Shukman looks at UK training and provisions to cope with an oil spill

Far from the steamy waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a practice session is under way to prepare for what the oil industry must dread most: a repeat of the massive spill on the scale of the BP disaster off Louisiana.

On a vessel off Southampton, a group of oil managers, harbourmasters and port officials is coming face to face with the challenge of coping with a slick - part of a surge in training since the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

Against a shoreline backdrop of vast BP oil storage tanks and the giant Fawley refinery, the class helps deploy a long stretch of heavy plastic boom - an exercise more relevant than ever as the oil companies drill in greater depths of ocean.

The training is run by Oil Spill Response, a not-for-profit company funded with a budget of up to £30m from the oil giants and several dozen others to provide expertise and resources to tackle accidents all over the world.

The Gulf of Mexico leak sent shockwaves through the industry and led to calls for a moratorium on deep drilling.

On Friday, the member states of the OPSPAR Commission - the countries with shorelines along the eastern Atlantic, including Britain - rejected proposals for a ban but agreed to review the rules for drilling in "extreme conditions".

With the Department for Energy and Climate Change considering plans for three deep wells off Shetland - one by BP and two by Chevron - the focus is on how effectively the UK could handle a spill.

Image caption The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and injured 17

In its warehouses in Southampton and elsewhere, Oil Spill Response has about 16km of boom to protect shorelines, much of it packed and loaded on trailers ready for deployment - though in the Gulf of Mexico hundreds of kilometres of boom were used.

About 1,500 tonnes of chemical dispersant is held by Oil Spill Response and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, with several aircraft on standby to disperse it.

Rob James, regional director of Oil Spill Response, says: "We can't be complacent but we've got the basic structure ready.

"We're seeing more guys coming on training and that's going to increase; we're having more enquiries to review contingency plans; we're getting more calls for exercises and we're going to need more people.

"We think the UK can cope. The industry's got to review things - they'd be stupid not to. But we've got the backbone of a good system. We've got equipment here and elsewhere."

Image caption The Gulf of Mexico spill has heightened awareness of the issues

Throughout the industry, reviews are under way not just into what went wrong a mile underwater in the Gulf of Mexico but also into how to improve the chances of avoiding a similar calamity happening again.

The key question raised by critics is that the oil industry was unprepared to cope with the impact of a blowout a mile deep and that future deep wells should not be drilled at least until the failings are better understood.

The campaign group Greenpeace argues that plans for future deep wells in UK waters are courting disaster because current environmental assessments do not take account of the risks.

Image caption Oil Spill Response has about 16km of boom ready to go to an incident

Greenpeace protesters have climbed on to the anchor chain of the drilling ship Stena Carron off Shetland and its lawyers are considering seeking a Judicial Review into the government's handling of the proposals for deep wells.

Greenpeace's Ben Ayliffe says: "It's irrational to rush ahead with deep water wells. Our worry is that there could be another catastrophic blowout and it could be incredibly difficult, nigh on impossible, to stop it.

"Whatever the governments say about the plans being robust, history has shown us time and time again that there always will be things like human error. And when you do that in ultra-deep waters like off the west of Shetland, the problems are magnified."

The Department for Energy and Climate Change told the BBC there was no need for a moratorium because the UK's regulatory system ensured the highest possible standards.