A SHERIFF has criticised a UK Government department and Scottish prosecutors for lengthy delays that stopped an oil giant from being brought to court over a North Sea spill for four years.

BP admitted illegally discharging oil into the North Sea in 2016. But it took until this week for the matter to come before a court.

BP bosses reported the spill to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) straight away, Sheriff Graeme Napier said when passing sentence at Aberdeen Sheriff Court earlier this week – but it took one year to hand the matter over to Scotland’s Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS).

It took nine months more before the Crown took any further action, and the case was not allocated to a procurator fiscal depute until two years after it was reported.

Napier said the reason for the wait is “not clear”, stating: “The incident occurred almost four years ago on October 2, 2016, and this is the first time the case has come to the attention of the court. This delay is a matter for concern.”

The incident happened in October 2016 as BP tried to begin production from a newly-drilled well on its Clair field off Shetland.

When oil began to flow at around noon on October 1, water samples showed high concentrations of the fossil fuel, something that was “not unexpected” because displacement of drilling chemicals can affect these samples.

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Improvements were noted in a subsequent test, but those carried out afterwards were not passed to the control room and signs of a deterioration were missed – as was the chance to stop or minimise water with a higher oil content being let out to sea.

Oil and smoke were found in a water-only pump at 9.30am the following morning, and within less than an hour the sea around Clair was dark with crude and the platform was shut down. The currents swept that out to the North Atlantic, where it dispersed within a few days.

BEIS told BP to tighten its procedures and an enforcement notice issued by the department was lifted after changes were made in December 2016.

Sheriff Napier said reports showed “no evidence, or no discernible evidence, of environmental harm”.

BP admitted guilt and prosecutors did not fault the company’s “robust, prompt and effective response”, which included contacting relevant authorities and sending out an emergency response team.

Because the case had been “hanging over the company for an extended period of time”, its penalty was set at £7000.

But, turning to the investigation and prosecution, Napier said: “I have been given no information to indicate that the investigation was particularly complex.

“Certainly the circumstances seem relatively straight forward and simple to understand so that it is not clear why that initial investigation took a full year to complete and report.

“Of equal concern, however, is the delay in initiating proceedings once the case had been reported.”

He went on: “These periods of inactivity, or at best limited activity, on the part of the Crown account for a full two years of the delay in instituting proceedings. I am assured by a senior member of what appears to be called the COPFS Health and Safety Investigation Unit, North that systems are now in place to avoid such delays in the future, but those should of course have been in place long ago.”

THE Sunday National asked BEIS to set out its side of the story. However, no response was received. Meanwhile, COPFS said it is “aware of the sheriff’s concerns and acknowledges that this case could have been dealt with at an earlier stage”.

Commenting, WWF Scotland director Lang Banks said delays in the case were a matter of concern. He told this newspaper: “We agree with the sheriff’s concerns over the length of time it’s taken for this pollution case to come before the courts.

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“Any incident of pollution from the oil and gas installation is a serious matter and should be dealt with quickly and firmly. It’s only down to a matter of luck that the environment, and the workforce on the rig, were not put at greater risk.”

Banks went on: “This case highlights just another reason why, for the sake of people and the planet, we need to be moving even more rapidly away from polluting fossil fuels.

‘‘The UK Government’s forthcoming oil and gas sector deal must prioritise an accelerated and organised move away from fossil fuels and a fair transition for workers and communities toward a net zero future.”

BP said it “regrettably fell short” of its high safety standards when the spill occurred.

A spokesman said: “While there was no injury to people or significant impact on the environment, this incident should not have happened.

‘‘In the period immediately after this incident, we carried out a thorough investigation and applied lessons learned.

‘‘We remain as committed as ever to maintaining safe and reliable operations across our business.”

And Alistair Duncan, head of the Health and Safety Investigation Unit at the Crown Office, said: “Thankfully there was no significant impact to the environment as a result of this incident and the company has introduced improved procedures since then.

“Hopefully this prosecution will serve as a reminder that failing to have sufficiently robust procedures and adhere to the regulations can have potentially serious consequences.”