Shetland and oil - risks and rewards

by Tom Morton -

The ripples of concern that spread throughout the Shetland community when news broke of the Clair oil ‘leak’, ‘spill’ or ‘release’ was completely understandable. This is a place which has had an intimate relationship over the decades with the oil industry, has regarded it with a suspicious and sometimes jaundiced eye, but has reaped immeasurable benefits.

The biggest oil terminal in Europe, Sullom Voe, has provided a flow of cash which has in many ways protected Shetland from the economic woes suffered elsewhere in the UK. And the much-feared environmental disasters have by and large been prevented by a safety and anti-pollution regime reckoned to be among the best in the world.

There have, however, been two events that caused considerable damage to Shetland’s wildlife and coastline. One, early in the isles’ relationship with Big Oil, was the Esso Bernicia spill of 1978 and led directly to the imposition of stricter rules and better response measures.

A safety and anti-pollution regime reckoned to be among the best in the world

The tanker Esso Bernicia collided with a mooring jetty at Sullom Voe during loading, and ruptured not one of the crude tanks, but a tank of heavy fuel oil used to power the ship. Only 1200 tonnes of thick black oil went into the sea, but had devastating effects over a wide area, particularly on rare breeding birds such as Great Northern Divers. Oil had only just begun to flow into Sullom Voe from the North Sea fields, and lessons were learned. Sullom Voe Harbour now has one of the best safety and spillage records of any comparable site anywhere in the world.

Oil had only just begun to flow

The 1993 wreck of the tanker Braer on Garths Ness in Shetland’s South Mainland was of a different order of magnitude. 85,000 tonnes of Norwegian Gulfaks crude went into the sea, along with heavy fuel for the Braer’s engines, causing damage to birds, wildlife and the environment over a wide area. But in a very real sense, the weather, which had caused the Braer’s fuel to become contaminated with seawater and its engines to fail, became the islands’s salvation. In some of the worst winter storms ever experienced, much of the oil was dispersed naturally. And the fact that Gulfaks crude is one of the lightest oils extracted was a major help.

Nevertheless, those who were there - and I remember being overwhelmed by grief as I walked along a blackened beach at Sumburgh, each wave bringing its cargo of dead birds and fish - were understandably sensitised to the possibility that such a thing might happen again.

I remember being overwhelmed by grief

So when, on 2 October this year, around 95 tonnes of oil leaked from the Clair platform 75 miles west of Shetland during offshore processing, there was a degree of consternation, especially as at first BP, the operators, did not say how much oil had actually gone into the sea.

As it happens, the weather conditions were such that the oil quickly headed away from Shetland and dispersed. But locally, people were concerned not so much about the incident itself, as what it said about future plans for offshore loading of oil directly to tankers for onward transport. There is a pipeline from Clair to Sullom Voe, but more remote, even more weather-challenged developments, especially with lower oil prices, are challenging and have challenged the viability of fixed pipelines to the safe harbour of Sullom Voe.

More remote developments will challenge the viability of fixed pipelines

The relationship of Shetland, Shetlanders and Shetland residents to the oil industry has been, on the whole, a good one, and Shetland has managed to combine a vibrant hydrocarbons sector with the maintenance of its reputation for wildlife, clean seas, unpolluted seafood and a wholesome environment. It is the watchfulness and protectiveness of local people, and their willingness to take on the oil companies and ensure they adhere to the strictest possible safety and environmental guidelines, that will continue to keep Shetland as the gloriously, inspiringly pristine place it is.

Gloriously, inspiringly pristine

Posted in: Oil and Gas