Environmental organizations are criticizing the UK’s oil and gas regulatory body for hiring lawyers in an attempt to block the release of five crucial documents regarding the environmental consequences of Shell’s operations in the North Sea.
During a hearing in December, an attorney representing the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) will likely argue against the release of documents containing information on the potential pollution risks from decommissioning the Brent oilfield, previously operated by Shell for over four decades. The NSTA states that it objects to publication based on procedural grounds.
Shell has requested an exception to the standard international regulations that mandate the removal of all infrastructure from the field. The UK government is currently deliberating on whether to grant permission for the oil company to leave the 170-meter-tall legs of their oil platform in place for the three platforms, specifically named Bravo, Charlie, and Delta.
The leg structures contain 64 concrete storage cells, with 42 being previously utilized for storing and separating oil.
The majority of the cells are equivalent in size to seven Olympic swimming pools. Despite this, they still hold approximately 72,000 tonnes of polluted sediment and 638,000 cubic metres of oily water.
Environmental organizations think that the records in possession of the NSTA may contain fresh details about potential environmental hazards in the long run. This information could be significant for other oil projects in the North Sea, such as Equinor’s proposed development of Rosebank, which is currently the UK’s biggest unexploited oil field.
The five papers pertaining to the hearing consist of revised editions of the field decommissioning plan and the environmental assessment for the field, along with technical documents regarding radioactive sediment and hazardous drill cuttings.
Previous editions of the five documents were released during the consultation period in 2016 and 2017. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced that the most recent versions have been revised to incorporate additional input from consultations.
The papers contain plans for shutting down the facilities, information about the substances in the cells, and studies on the potential environmental effects of these substances in the near and distant future.
Lang Banks, the director of WWF Scotland, a conservation organization, expressed his frustration at the regulator’s use of public funds for legal expenses in an attempt to withhold documents that should have been released to the public much earlier.
“If they are willing to utilize these documents during the planning and licensing procedures, they should also be willing to disclose them to the public.”
Tessa Khan is a lawyer specializing in international climate crisis and human rights. She is also the executive director of the advocacy organization Uplift. She contends that the regulator’s actions to withhold the documents from the public are ultimately in favor of the oil and gas industry, but at the detriment of the environment and society as a whole.
“The NSTA’s role is to serve as an impartial governing body, but it has consistently shown favor towards oil and gas companies. This includes working together with the industry to strategize the most effective methods of promoting new drilling to the public,” she stated in an interview with Sky News.
“Considering the presence of former oil and gas executives on the NSTA’s board, along with some members who still own stocks in the industry, this may not come as a shock.”
In July 2022, the investigative journalism organization Point Source requested for the regulator to publish documents under the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations.
The NSTA announced in September of that year that they had reached out to Shell for consultation. Afterward, they determined that they did not have the power to share the documents because they were being held on behalf of a third party who had not given consent for their release.
In May of 2023, the ICO made a ruling stating that the NSTA’s lack of timely response to the request was deemed “unacceptable” and had breached the Environmental Information Regulations.
The ICO instructed the regulator to release the documents or provide a legitimate legal explanation for not doing so within 35 days. The NSTA has not made the documents public and will present its argument to a judge during a December hearing.
Certain advocacy organizations have expressed their belief that the recent legal appeal initiated by the NSTA is a strategic move aimed at obstructing the disclosure of environmental data during a critical period for the government.
The General Regulatory Chamber, tasked with reviewing appeals against decisions made by government regulatory bodies, will preside over the case.
The decision by the NSTA to approve the development of the Rosebank oil and gas field, located near Shetland, caused anger among environmental activists.
The government has recently initiated a fresh licensing round permitting oil and gas corporations to search for fossil fuels in the North Sea.
According to Robin Wells, the leader of Fossil Free London, it is imperative for the regulator to disclose any new data regarding the environmental consequences of current oil fields. This will allow for informed choices to be made regarding the development of additional fields.
The previously released environmental reports indicated that there was a considerable level of uncertainty regarding the potential environmental consequences of Shell’s decision to leave the remnants of the Brent platforms in the North Sea.
One concern mentioned was how to handle the radioactive materials in the cells, as their levels of radioactivity are currently unknown.
The records stated that only a small number of samples were collected from the polluted sediments.
Samples were taken from just the top 50cm of sediment in three of the 64 cells and only 6kg of sediment and 10 litres of water were tested from the estimated tens of millions of kilograms of sediment and hundreds of millions of litres of oily water.
According to the previously released reports, 261kg of mercury has the potential to be discharged and cause chemical effects on the seabed over an area of 1.7 square kilometers as pollutants from decomposing concrete cells begin to leak.
According to the documents, a considerable amount of oil was projected to enter the ocean’s surface along with cellular water, potentially posing a threat to seabirds.
In 2019, Germany and other European Union countries heavily criticized the publicly available environmental assessment documents of Shell. They believed that Shell’s assessment of the potential harm to the environment was too cautious and that the remaining oil and pollutants posed a significant threat.
A study requested by the German government revealed that Shell’s approach to conducting environmental impact assessments, which are available to the public, was “deeply flawed” and included a “significant level of mathematical prejudice”.
A representative for the NSTA stated that they are not responsible for deciding on decommissioning and conducting environmental assessments. These tasks fall under the jurisdiction of the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning (Opred). The NSTA is challenging the decision made by the ICO to release specific information based on procedural grounds.
Shell stated that their suggestions were based on a decade of research, which included over 300 scientific and technical studies. They also formed an impartial team of scientific specialists to assess the results and exhaustively examine all possible decommissioning choices.
Shell provides documents as a part of a regulated process, fully aware that they will eventually be made public. The specific details and timing of this release are determined by the regulator.