Leader: Onus is on Shell to come clean on North Sea oil spill

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YESTERDAY this newspaper posed a series of simple but pertinent questions to Shell UK about the troubling oil leak in a flow line serving the Gannet Alpha platform in the North Sea some 112 miles off Aberdeen, the worst spillage off our coastline for a decade.

On behalf of our readers we wanted to know things like, what steps were being taken to stop the leak? What caused it? What measures are being taken to protect the environment? Where was the spill, and were any seabirds or any other wildlife caught up in the spill?

Whilst the company appeared to be more cooperative yesterday than it had been in the first five days since the leak was revealed, its replies left a lot to be desired in terms of giving us - and you - the kind of information we need to make a judgment on the seriousness of the situation.

It is true that this spill is not on the massive scale of the disaster that befell the Gulf of Mexico after the explosion on BP's Deep Water horizon rig, which resulted in some 700,000 tonnes of oil devastating an ocean which had been rich in marine life. But any leak of oil into the North Sea is serious, and the fact Shell has replied to our questions with general answers assuring us the problem is under control, rather than giving us the information in detail, is of great concern.

We understand, of course, that there may be some doubt over facts like the precise amount of oil which is escaping, but the company seemed to think for several days that it should not admit to a lack of knowledge as that would spread more doubt and confusion. In that, it was wrong.

But by not issuing more detailed statements earlier and continuing to fail to provide more detail, Shell has allowed environmental campaigners with an agenda against the oil industry as a whole - which we do not share - to spread fear and alarm when that might not be appropriate.

Yesterday afternoon it did admit it was hard to quantify the total volume spilled, which it put at around 216 tonnes (1,300 barrels), and said the leak was about the equivalent of five barrels a day. The company should be given some credit for admitting this is what it calls "a significant spill in the context of annual amounts of oil spilled in the North Sea".

Furthermore, we do not doubt its claim to care about the environment nor its profession of regret that the spill happened, but the public which has witnessed the catastrophe of the Gulf of Mexico leak will rightly want more than expressions of regret and a professed commitment to high environmental standards.

Shell's modus operandi - of giving out information only on what appears to be a need-to-know basis - is not good enough. The public needs to know, and has a right to know, as much as the company knows itself.