ENERGY giant Shell has made a full apology for its response to the North Sea oil spill and admitted it could take weeks to fix the leak. After days of criticism for keeping details of the spill from its Gannet Alpha platform secret, the oil company conceded it had made mistakes.
In an interview with The Scotsman, Steve Harris, head of external affairs and communications at Shell Upstream International Europe, confirmed a remaining leak was in a spot so difficult to access, 800ft below the waves, that it could take weeks to stop. He also revealed:
• A first seabird had been seen covered in oil. The breed is not known, but it was spotted flying from the spill area with oil on its wings.
• The pipe that sprung a leak is more than 30 years old and was not spotted by surveys testing the integrity of equipment.
• The size of the spill had grown again to cover 16sq miles. This compares to half a square mile on Monday, and 19 miles by three miles on Sunday. He said this could be because the spill had spread into smaller sections in windy conditions at the weekend, but with yesterday's calmer weather had joined back together again.
• Shell failed initially to involve RSPB Scotland in its response to the leak, for which Mr Harris apologised.
Shell has faced fierce criticism from environmentalists and politicians that it was secretive and slow to admit details about the spill from the platform 112 miles east of Aberdeen, which started last Wednesday.
Mr Harris said: "Could we have done better? Obviously. But we have tried really hard to make sure the data we have put out is accurate. The motivation from us was absolutely not one of trying to cover it up. We knew that we had made a bad mistake and we would have to explain what had happened.
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"Mercifully, for most of the guys on this particular operation, it's a first, and it is also a first for us to see what we consider to be us getting our facts right being taken as obfuscation.
"We need to sit down when this is over and say 'How can we do this better'."
He went on: "The fact is something has gone wrong here, so whatever risk assessment we made about the condition of these pipes has proven to be wrong. We are really upset that that is the case and we deeply regret what has happened."
He added he was sorry Shell had not involved RSPB Scotland in the response to the spill. "In the first couple of days, we missed them off and that's a matter of regret and we are sorry about that," he said.
An initial leak from a pipe leading from wells to the platform was stopped on Thursday by depressurising the oil. About 1,300 barrels had gushed out before it was fixed, making it the largest spill in UK waters for a decade. However, it has since been discovered a valve in the pipe is continuing to leak small amounts - about a barrel a day.
Mr Harris said a diver needed to manually turn off the leaking valve 800ft below the surface. Before this happened, a work programme had to be drawn up that ensured the diver's safety, and that could take time because of the conditions.
When asked how long, he said: "We are hoping it will be days rather than weeks." He said "weather conditions and access to the area" could cause a delay. Large amounts of marine growth surrounds the pipes, making access difficult.
He added: "Remote operated vehicles have been going down and examining it, but in the end we need a human being to go down there.
"There's a valve down there which can turn this off."
Two wells that fed the pipes have been shut off, meaning there is a finite amount of oil remaining in them that could leak out into the sea. However, Mr Harris said the company was unable to confirm how much oil this was. "We do still have a pipeline with an amount of oil in it and until we have fully made sure we have purged that pipe, we will be being very cautious about saying we are out of the woods," he said.
Mr Harris refused to speculate on how the fracture happened, saying a full investigation would be carried out, involving the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Health and Safety Executive, but he confirmed the pipes had been installed in the 1980s.
Despite Shell spending about 400 million a year making sure its equipment is up to scratch, this pipe was missed.
Mr Harris said the company first heard about the leak on Wednesday when a helicopter from another firm's oil rig spotted it. Shell informed the UK and Scottish governments at 12:40pm on Wednesday - but it was not made public until Friday evening.
He responded to criticism that there had been a "drip, drip" release of information by saying: "That's because we are releasing information when we are reasonably confident that it's factual and we can stand it up. We made a media statement on Friday and made one every day since."
Environmental organisations and politicians continued to voice concerns yesterday.
Greenpeace said the firm's "cavalier" attitude raised concerns about the plans of Shell and other oil companies to extend exploration into even more vulnerable locations off the north of Shetland and in the Arctic.
Senior oil campaigner Vicky Wyatt said: "The UK government is always saying the North Sea is an ultra-safe environment for drilling and that spills don't happen there. This clearly shows this is not the case.
"It took Shell two days to even admit this was happening. That kind of cavalier attitude doesn't bode well if they are going to go on to the Arctic and behave in the same way."
Per Fischer, communications officer at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: "For decades, oil companies have acted with impunity when it comes to the environment. At a time when we could be using the skills learnt through oil exploitation to advance our renewable energy resources, we should be placing much higher standards of operation on companies like Shell."In response, Mr Harris said: "We do have to have plans both for safety and environment for every installation and that's the same everywhere in the world and we would expect in areas that are more sensitive environmentally these regulations would have to be increasingly strict.
"Whatever they are, we will comply with them."
Fears remain about the potential impact of the spill on wildlife. Tom Brock, chief executive of the Scottish Seabird Centre, said it was a critical time for puffins, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes.
"This is a very important time of year for seabirds, as thousands of young chicks leave their nests and head out to the North Sea.
"We are now very concerned that these birds could be at serious risk if they come into contact with the spillage," he said.
The Scottish Government yesterday sent out an ornithologist on a spotter plane to survey the affected area.
In the coming days, a research vessel, Scotia, will take fish, seawater and sediment samples to monitor the environmental impact of the spill.
Environment secretary Richard Lochhead said: "Our understanding is that output from the North Sea oil leak has been greatly reduced, and that Shell is continuing work to stop the flow completely.
"It is important that Shell are as open and transparent as possible, and provide regular updates on the developing situation."