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Menace of deep water Shetland oil project

Environmental organisations have joined forces to plead with environment secretary Chris Huhne not to give BP the chance to repeat the oil giant’s disastrous mistakes, by allowing expansion in deep water west of Shetland, in the sea area known as North Uist.

The oil-leaking corporate giant BP has just got permission from the UK for a £4.5bn expansion of drilling in the Clair field west of Shetland. But the North Uist project is in far deeper water.

And we know all about BP and risky drilling. The US government has just served them, and their partners, formal notice of 15 safety violations leading up to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year that could mean fines of up to £45m. You win some, you lose some – that's the oil business.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Greenpeace, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Friends of the Earth have warned that a spill in North Uist would ruin one of the UK's most environmentally sensitive areas.

The Deepwater Horizon well was 1,500 feet down – the North Uist wells could be 4,000 feet. The company's “safety plan” for North Uist admits any leak could be the biggest ever, pouring 75,000 barrels into the North Sea for 140 days. That is more than double the rate during Deepwater Horizon disaster.

But BP says we should not worry because whilst legally they must model the worst-case scenario “the reality is the chances of a spill are very unlikely”. That surely has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

"It would be utterly reckless for Chris Huhne to approve this plan as if the Deepwater Horizon disaster never happened," said John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK.

"Instead of chasing the last drops of oil from one of our country's most sensitive and important natural environments, ministers should be developing a comprehensive plan to get us off the oil hook."

But that is not going to happen. Prime Minister David Cameron was cock-a-hoop about the Clair development, because, he claims, it will provide a “massive boost for jobs and growth”. Growth at any price is the Coalition's holy grail, as the economy stagnates and unemployment soars.

Development west of Shetland will bring almost £10 billion of new project investment by BP and its partners into the UK continental shelf over the next five years – and of course massive profits. The claim is that there will be 3,000 new jobs building platforms and 3,000 operational jobs from Clair alone.

By permitting high-risk projects like North Uist, the “free money” pumped into the UK economy since the oil started flowing in the 1980s, can be dragged out a bit longer.

The fact is that capitalist governments will permit any kind of growth, because the plans and projects of the corporations are the only economic plans they have. The Coalition has a destructive deficit reduction plan for the public sector, but absolutely no positive plans for the future of the economy.

Even in the face of a crisis in the biosphere that threatens the chain of life (including human beings) energy planning, if you can dignify it with that term, will be left in the hands of corporate cowboys.

The only way to protect the environment is to remove this unelected power from determining the future of energy production and instead take all energy resources into common ownership, to use them carefully, safely and with an entirely different set of priorities than raw profit.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
13 October 2011

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