Environmentalists demand more answers from Shell after Scotland oil spill

Although Shell has apologized for the North Sea spill, which has yet to be contained, the oil company's belated release of information is still drawing criticism from environmentalists.

Royal Dutch Shell/Reuters
The Royal Dutch Shell platform Gannett Alpha is seen in the North Sea in a 2009 file photograph. Royal Dutch Shell's ruptured North Sea pipeline has caused a 'substantial' spill, with oil still leaking into the sea.

Environmental groups are demanding "a full and open" investigation into the cause of Scotland's worst oil spill in a decade as cleanup efforts to stave off an environmental disaster continue.

More than 200 tons of oil have spewed from a Shell-operated pipeline connecting an oil well to the Gannett Alpha platform in the North Sea, 112 miles east of Aberdeen in northeastern Scotland.

The transparency calls came after the Anglo-Dutch company was accused of shrouding the leak in secrecy. It took two days from the time the spill was detected for information about it to be made public. Shell responded with a detailed apology on Wednesday.

Scotland's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Director Stuart Housden, whose group was angered by its exclusion from the initial response to the spill, endorsed Shell's apology but said that a forthcoming inquiry needed to be "open and transparent."

A full investigation into the leak by government health and safety specialists will produce a report to send to the Crown Office, and prosecutors will decide whether to proceed with court action. Any guilty parties must be made to pay, Mr. Housden says.

"We need to know what happened," he says, "Why and if those responsible will be held accountable."

World Wildlife Fund Scotland was similarly unimpressed with the slow release of information. Director Richard Dixon says the public will make up its own mind on the spill, given the "grudging" nature of what Shell made public.

Threat of more leaks looms

The groups' demands for disclosure came as it was revealed that 600 tons of oil remained in the faulty system and the government expressed concern that more oil could be released if work to shut off a leaking valve, planned for today, went awry.

Helicopters armed with detergent and vessels equipped with booms are on standby should more leaks occur. So far, work to place a concrete blanket over a section of depressurized pipeline in order to push it back into the seabed has been successful, Shell said. Pushing it into the seabed would stabilize the pipe, which rose up about four feet in some sections.

Although the spill is regarded as "significant" by government authorities, a government advisory group said the risk to wildlife and the environment has been "minimal." Shell believes the released oil will be dispersed naturally. According to some reports, the remote location will keep the environmental impact low.

However, Shell admitted that at least one seabird had been spotted covered in oil, signaling the possibility that more could have come into contact with the spill and underscoring environmentalists' fears.

'A bad mistake'

Shell's belated explanation on Wednesday in the Scottish national newspaper The Scotsman included some honest assessments of the damage.

Steve Harris, head of external affairs and communications at Shell Upstream International Europe, told the paper: "Could we have done better? Obviously. But we have tried really hard to make sure the data we have put out is accurate. The motivation from us was absolutely not one of trying to cover it up. We knew that we had made a bad mistake and we would have to explain what had happened."

He revealed that the pipeline that was the source of the leak was 30 years old and had somehow been missed by inspectors who were surveying equipment. Mr. Harris admitted that the spill – photographed from the air by Marine Scotland, showing a noticeable sheen – had expanded to 16 square miles.

However, Harris refused to comment on how the leak occurred, saying that the investigation would look into the cause.

About 1,300 barrels spewed out before the leak could be stopped, and Shell admitted that there was a second leak at a valve 800 feet below the surface that is thought to be discharging about a barrel a day. Divers are working to shut it off.

Friends of the Earth Scotland Chief Executive Stan Blackley says that despite assurances from Shell that they are in "total control," the company appears to be struggling to get to the bottom of the spill.

Greenpeace UK expressed concern about Shell's plans to drill in the Arctic beginning next July, which US authorities green-lighted last week.

"What does the ongoing North Sea oil spill say about Shell's plans to open up the Arctic, where an accident would be all but impossible to clean up? Especially now the existence of a suspected second leak at its Gannett Alpha platform has been revealed?" a posting on the group's blog asks.

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