ENVIRONMENTALISTS will today mark the 20th anniversary of Scotland’s worst-ever oil spill with a warning that another marine disaster is “never far away” due to the combined risk of safety cutbacks and record levels of North Sea drilling.
Some 85,000 tonnes of crude oil leaked into the sea when the Liberian-registered tanker MV Braer ran aground off Shetland on 5 January, 1993.
Specialist emergency towing vessels were introduced the following year to help prevent similar disasters on the advice of Lord Donaldson, who led an inquiry into the incident.
But two decades on, only one of the two tugs stationed in Scottish waters remains in service after UK ministers cut funding for the service, which is a reserved matter.
Both the Scottish and UK Governments are also supporting unprecedented exploration of oil reserves, raising further fears of an environmental tragedy like the BP Deepwater oil rig explosion in 2010, which killed 11 workers and caused the biggest offshore spill in US history.
In 2011, a leaking pipeline at rival oil giant Shell’s Gannett Alpha platform, around 100 miles east of Aberdeen, caused the UK’s worst oil spill for a decade.
WWF Scotland spokesman Lang Banks said: “The Braer disaster was most definitely an extremely close shave in environmental terms.
“Thousands of birds are still estimated to have perished and marine wildlife, such as shellfish, finfish and marine mammals were badly affected [with] thousands of pounds lost by fisheries and salmon farms. Despite the passage of some 20 years, the sad fact is that much of Scotland’s marine environment remains just as much at risk from oil and other pollution. We urgently need to see a more permanent solution regarding emergency towing vessel cover around Scotland’s coastline.
“Every year, the oil and gas industry is responsible for almost a thousand oil and chemical spills in the North Sea. As the recent accidents on Total’s Elgin and Shell’s Gannet Alpha platforms show, we are never far away from the next major pollution incident.”
Criticising both governments over their support for oil, Mr Banks added: “We’ve ministers hell-bent on squeezing every last drop of oil and gas from beneath the North Sea, which is leading companies to drill in more hazardous deep-water locations.”
Funding for all four UK emergency tugs was cut in 2011, but briefly extended for the two Scottish boats following an outcry.
The vessel for the Western Isles finally stopped operating last March, while UK ministers agreed to keep funding the remaining tug, covering the Northern Isles, until 2015. Lengthy talks with the oil and gas industry have so far failed to see the sector invest in additional emergency cover.
A Friends of the Earth Scotland spokesman said: “It is bad enough that we are down to only one tug stationed many hours steaming time from some of Scotland’s most vulnerable places.
“Even worse, there is no sign that the UK Government’s penny-pinching ruse to get the industry to pay for this tug in the future is going to work. Instead of throwing massive tax subsidies at the oil industry, the government should be making sure that we are protected from another Braer by restoring and guaranteeing cover by two emergency tugs.
“Anything less is gambling with Scotland’s environment and our coastal economies.”
Environment secretary Richard Lochhead said cuts to emergency tugs remained a “major concern” for the Scottish Government and criticised the UK Government for “botching” its handling of the issue and leaving Scottish waters “under- protected”.
He added: “Twenty years ago, Braer was a wake-up that everything was not right when it came to safeguarding our waters. It is vital that the UK government never allows complacency to creep in due to the passage of time because, even today, oil leaks are still happening.
“Thankfully, the Shetland environment has recovered and such major incidents are very rare.
“Safety – both for the marine environment and those who work offshore – must be a priority. Over the past two decades, there have been significant improvements in the safety of the oil and gas industry. The highest standards must be maintained and that’s why Marine Scotland works closely with other agencies and partners to ensure marine protection remains paramount.”
The SNP remains committed to exploiting oil with First Minister Alex Salmond this week describing it as a “sunrise” industry in a New Year address.
The Scotland Office, meanwhile, stressed that talks with the industry over emergency cover continued. A spokesman said: “Having secured funding for a tug [for Scotland], we are continuing to speak to the oil and gas industry about a second tug.”
Industry body Oil and Gas UK said that exploration had caused far less damage than tanker accidents, but added the industry was “not complacent” and worked “constructively” with regulators and environmental groups on safety.