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Shell Is Hoping Its North Sea Spill Will Just Disappear

With its handling of an ongoing spill in the North Sea, it would seem oil multinational Shell has not absorbed the lesson of BP’s 2010 catastrophe. Small compared to last year’s Gulf of Mexico spill, the Shell leak is nevertheless the worst for the North

Shell, one of the world's largest oil companies
Shell, one of the world's largest oil companies
Tina Kaiser and Daniel Wetzel

On July 29, 2010, Peter Voser, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, addressed the press. He said that the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe was a tragedy. One journalist asked him if it would impact Shell's deepwater drilling? "No," said Voser. Deepwater drilling played an important role on the global oil market, he explained. "We see large growth potential."

A year later, Shell is looking at its own oil spill. Since a week ago Wednesday, there has been leakage near Shell's Gannet Alpha platform, 180 kilometers east of the Scottish city of Aberdeen. According to the company, 217 tons of oil have leaked into the North Sea during the past seven days – that's five barrels of oil (0.68 tons) per day. Compared to the BP disaster last year it's a small amount: in BP's case, 53,000 barrels leaked daily into the Gulf. Nevertheless, the Shell spill is the worst the North Sea has seen in over a decade.

Voser would have done better to invest in tighter security standards for the platform, but he wasn't around to comment; he has, a week after the spill began, yet to make a statement.

Is he perhaps afraid of coming across as ineptly as BP boss Tony Hayward so famously did? Not very professional – Shell is, after all, Europe's biggest oil producer, raking in an 18.6 billion-dollar profit last year. The least one could expect is decent crisis management.

Instead, Shell appears to have learned nothing from BP's Gulf of Mexico experience. The firm discovered the leak on Wednesday, but waited 48 hours before informing the media. It was another three days before Shell announced on Monday a first estimate of how big the spill was.

Contacts with the Shell press office in The Hague did not prove enlightening, and the company's spokespersons would not divulge information about Voser's whereabouts. He has delegated the task of dealing with the issue to Glen Cayley, technical director of Shell's European production division. Cayley was apparently working out of the Aberdeen headquarters, since when the press department also didn't know. On Tuesday morning, Cayley gave the BBC's Radio 4 a three-minute interview. No general statement was forthcoming until Friday because the company first had to gauge the extent of the problem.

Two whole days. "When we learned of the leak on Wednesday, we immediately informed the British Department for Environment, the Minister of Health, the Coast Guard, and Marine Scotland," Cayley said. It took time to investigate, because "the spill is in a very complex deep sea environment."

At this location, the North Sea is 100 meters deep. A remote-controlled robot was used to find out more, and it proved difficult to locate the actual leak. Shell was able to stop most of the leakage on Wednesday, and since then there has only been leakage from a safety vent. How much oil there still is in the leaking pipeline Shell was also unable to say.

By the week-end, the North Sea spill covered 37 square kilometers. Rough seas however dispersed the slick so that by Tuesday it only covered half a square kilometer. Shell released a written statement saying they were assuming that the oil was dispersing naturally in the water and would not reach shore.

Asked what that meant precisely by "Welt Online," Shell stated that it was not using chemicals or other means to get rid of the oil and was operating under the assumption the problem would take care of itself. The comments have enraged environmentalists in both the UK and Germany. Marine life and thousands of young birds are endangered by the spill, they say, even if the oil doesn't reach the shore.

As there was no information about the extent of the spill for several days from Shell or independent sources, Greenpeace took matters into its own hands on Monday. Jörg Feddern, an oil expert who works with the environmental protection organization in Germany, chartered a small propeller plane in Hamburg and flew over the area.

Feddern has made a number of such flights before, and he says that what he saw was fresh oil, or at least not oil that was already four or five days old. At the location of the leak, two kilometers from Gannet Alpha, there were two vessels marked "repair ship." To his surprise, however, no oil barriers had been set up. Feddern didn't wish to take a stab at estimating, based on the size of the slick, how much oil has already leaked except to venture that this was an accident but not a catastrophe comparable to Deepwater Horizon a year ago.

However "every ton of oil that flows into the ocean is a ton too many," he says. And from Shell's communication strategy (or lack thereof) it would appear that the oil industry hasn't absorbed the lessons of the BP disaster. The fact that Shell discovered the leak on Wednesday but only informed the public on Saturday was proof of this, and with fresh oil visible, the company's claim to have everything under control could not be true.

Shell has repeatedly stated that it subscribes to the highest safety standards – so the fact that they are obviously not good enough will negatively impact the company's image if not the bottom line. North Sea oil accounts for only a tiny portion of turnover, and the Gannet Alpha platform – after the large leak was stopped last Wednesday – became operative again immediately. Experts estimate it is producing around 13,500 barrels a day, part of which go to Exxon Mobil with which Shell shares the platform. Worldwide, Shell‘s daily total production is just over 3 million barrels.

However, the North Sea incident is still troublesome for Shell, not least because since the BP disaster government regulators have little patience with inadequate safety strategies so this could impact negatively on the company's being granted licenses for future lucrative deepsea drilling ventures.

The North Sea incident is not the only example of the company putting its own profit maximization ahead of environmental concerns. In a recent report, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stated that Shell – the biggest oil company active in the Niger Delta – bore substantial responsibility for massive damage both to the environment and human health in the region.

Read the original article in German

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