UK facing EU outrage over ‘timebomb’ of North Sea oil rigs


The British government is facing growing outrage from the European commission and five EU member states over its plans to leave some decommissioned oil rigs in the North Sea, with one senior German official describing the UK’s proposal as a “grotesque idea” that amounts to a “ticking timebomb”.

Several hundred oil drilling platforms in the North Sea are due to be decommissioned over the next three decades as they approach the end of their operational lifetime.

Disassembling the enormous pieces of infrastructure, each of which can be as tall as the Eiffel Tower, is a costly undertaking, and this year the UK government is intending to endorse plans by Shell to leave behind one steel jacket and the concrete bases beneath three of the platforms of its Brent oilfield installation.

The plans have raised alarm in Germany over the estimated 11,000 tonnes of raw oil and toxins remaining in the base of the three Brent installations, Bravo, Charlie and Delta, all erected in the East Shetland basin in the 1970s.

Germany issued a formal complaint, now backed by Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. On 18 August the European commission wrote to Theresa Villiers, expressing serious concerns and reminding the UK environment secretary that the content of the rigs’ storage cells qualifies as hazardous waste, according to EU law.

Of the five European countries extracting oil from the North Sea – Britain, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway – only Norway has come out in support of relaxing the rules for Shell’s Brent structures.

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“I’m genuinely taken aback by this,” said Jochen Flasbarth, a state secretary at the German environment ministry. “We usually collaborate very closely with the United Kingdom on environmental issues.

“Both countries are gravely concerned about the state of our oceans … And then you just leave thousands of tonnes of contaminated water in the North Sea? I don’t get it. That isn’t consistent with an environmental policy that has advanced Britain’s reputation.”

The disagreement over the future of the rigs will come to a head at a special meeting on 18 October in London of members of Ospar, the mechanism by which 15 governments and the EU cooperate to protect the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic.

Since the oil rigs are in British territory and Ospar does not have legal mechanisms to issue fines, the UK government could in theory risk ignoring the objections of the other states.

With a looming Brexit deadline in October and growing European distrust of Britain’s inclination to meet outstanding obligations, the standoff may resemble the dynamics of the UK’s negotiations to leave the EU.

Disagreements over the handling of decommissioned oil infrastructure date back to 1995, when Shell proposed sinking the Brent Spar oil storage buoy. After protests by Greenpeace and petrol boycotts in Germany, Shell announced it would seek a more environmentally friendly solution.

In the wake of the debacle, the Ospar treaty was amended to ban the dumping of old installations or leaving them wholly or partly in place.

But in recent years British politicians and environmentalists have argued that the legal framework is out of date, and that removing old oil infrastructure could be more harmful than beneficial to the environment. A 2017 study by the Scottish Wildlife Trust made the case that rigs could become artificial reefs, providing valuable habitat for marine life.

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In June, Shell removed the 25,000-tonne topside part of the Brent oil rigs. Removing the contentious contaminated sediment inside storage cells would “on balance” be too costly and risky, it argues.

Germany and the other EU member states say the remaining oil and pollutants are a “ticking timebomb” that will eventually seep into the sea unless Shell removes them. “Pumping out all the oil and pollutants won’t be a trivial undertaking, and it won’t be cheap,” said Flasbarth. “But experts say it is possible.”

A report commissioned by the German government says Shell’s methodology is “fundamentally flawed” and contains a “high level of mathematical bias” because it follows guidelines set by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Shell rejects these allegations. A spokeswoman said: “Our recommendations are the result of 10 years of research, involving more than 300 scientific and technical studies. We established an independent group of scientific experts to review the findings and ensure all feasible decommissioning options were investigated thoroughly.

“We submitted our recommendations following extensive stakeholder engagement and only when we were confident that they were safe, technically achievable, and environmentally and socially sound.”

A BEIS spokesperson said: “Decommissioning is undertaken in accordance with UK and international obligations, in a safe and cost-effective manner while minimising risk to the environment.”

Environmental groups such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust, which has pioneered the rigs-to-reefs idea, have also questioned Shell’s calculations.

The trust said in a letter to Shell: “Considering the oil and gas industry has built up decades of expertise in drilling and extracting oil and gas from deep beneath the seafloor, it seems the task of removing all the pollutants from the GBS [gravity-based structure] cells would be fairly straightforward.”

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Flasbarth said: “If you look at the tax arrangement that the British government entered with Shell, it is obvious that the UK is now seeking the cheapest solution rather than the most environmentally friendly.”



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