Hugo Tagholm has previously led the ocean campaigning charity Surfers Against Sewage and is the executive director and vice president of Oceana in the UK. In this column, he talks about how biodiversity and climate targets are threatened by new offshore oil and gas.
Oil company executives will always cite environmental standards and the safety measures in place for offshore oil and gas drilling. They will claim the level of risk is negligible and that the ongoing expansion of new fossil fuels doesn’t pose a significant threat to marine life or other industries dependent on a clean and healthy ocean ecosystem. They cosy up to fishing industry representatives, they set up funds to tempt community support and use their colossal financial might to push environmentalists out of the way.
This was the case just before the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Tragically, 11 rig workers lost their lives in that disaster. A disaster that shocked the world. A disaster that spilled an estimated 750 million litres of oil into the Gulf causing a tidal wave of environmental and economic impacts. The blown out well spewed oil out into the ocean for 87 days, forcing the closure of almost 300,000KM2 of productive fishing grounds, and decimating some of the most commercially valuable fish species for months after the spill ended. The horrific sight of oiled birds, turtles and other animals filled TV screens, the famous images that stamp their mark after oil spills worldwide. Around 800,000 birds and 65,000 turtles are thought to have died because of the spill.
The UK is no stranger to oil spills. Recent decades have seen tanker spills devastating wildlife, coastlines and economies in Scotland and Wales. The 1993 Braer tanker spill in Shetland saw 85,000 tonnes of crude oil being lost, killing over 1,500 birds, and impacting over a quarter of the local seal population. The disaster seriously damaged the local fishing industry, with a 400-mile fisheries exclusion zone being established, long-term damage to shell fisheries and serious reputational impacts on the previously highly coveted Shetland seafood. The Sea Empress ran aground off Wales a few years later, spilling 72,000 tonnes of crude oil, coating the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park with pollution.
As the world’s thirst for energy continues to grow, the current UK government is placing our unique marine ecosystems under further risk from the rampant fossil fuel industry. The government opened a licensing round for new offshore oil and gas in 2022 with 900 locations offered for exploration, with 100 new development and drilling licences set to be awarded. Proposed new offshore drilling sites, particularly in the North Sea are located near or even in some of our most important designated Marine Protected Areas. Areas of the ocean that you would rightfully think are fully protected from this type of industrialization and pollution risk. New offshore drilling is at odds with the UK’s ambition to protect 30% of our seas by 2030, as part of the widely heralded 30×30 movement, and sits in direct conflict with our international climate commitments and the Paris climate agreement.
Continuing to licence new oil projects increases the risk of catastrophic oil spills, as exploration is driven into deeper water, which can have devastating and long-term impacts on marine ecosystems, from valuable blue carbon habitats including kelp, seagrass and mudflats, through to the slow-growing and sensitive deep sea ecosystems. As the risk of a catastrophic spill increases, the cumulative long- term impacts of chronic oil, chemical and plastic pollution from oil rigs also grows. Wastewater from oil rigs, laden with oil and chemicals represents large volumes of oil released inside and close to our Marine Protected Areas. Smaller spills are rarely recorded or documented. The industry also significantly contributes to the growing plastic pollution crisis. Toxic micro-plastic smog is released as part of the extraction process, polluting the marine environment.
These impacts further weaken the ocean-climate solutions our seas hold, from storing carbon and building strong and resilient ecosystems to help us curb climate change and adapt to its impacts. We all rely on a functioning and healthy sea. The UK has incredible and productive seas, teeming with life. Our coastal communities depend on healthy fisheries and protected coastlines for tourism, water sports and wildlife watching. It’s time that we stop the monolithic, polluting, and profiteering oil giants who are determined to put their profits ahead of protecting people or planet. The transition to green industries and energy is coming, just as oil once displaced the outdated whaling industry for our heating, fuel, and lighting needs.
Perhaps most shockingly is that the UK taxpayer is currently subsidising the oil and gas giants that are compromising the health of our seas. There is no economic reason to support the further expansion of offshore oil and gas, nor will it lower household energy bills or provide any more energy security. The jobs created should be transitioned to offshore wind and renewable energy. Recent studies have shown that offshore wind is now nine times cheaper than fossil fuels. There is a cleaner, greener, and bluer future ahead, albeit with its own impacts, trade-offs and compromises.
Luckily, there is an established climate movement fighting new oil and gas developments in the North Sea. They have successfully fought the Cambo oilfield and are presenting a robust opposition to the huge Rosebank proposal, the biggest undeveloped oilfield in the North Sea. Offshore drilling for oil and gas threatens marine life, low-impact fishing economies, recreation, tourism, and pollution from burning those fossil fuels is the leading cause of climate change and ocean acidification.
International marine conservation NGO Oceana is working to prevent the expansion of offshore drilling in locations around the world, securing victories in the United States, Belize, and many other countries. In the UK, exploration and development of new offshore oil and gas in the North Sea threatens some of the most important and productive marine ecosystems in Europe. Working with the Uplift climate movement, Oceana is building a new marine front to oppose all new offshore oil and gas in the UK. There is no justification for the UK to pursue the folly of new fossil fuels in our seas.
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