The National:

THERE have been more than 2000 oil spills in the North Sea since 2011 including 215 in marine protection areas which are home to some of Scotland’s most threatened species and habitats, The Ferret can reveal.

Our analysis of official UK Government data on oil and gas spills found that 1175 tonnes were spilled between January 2011 and December 2023. In total, there were 2252 spills.

A total of 308 tonnes of oil spilled into marine protected areas (MPAs) over the 13-year period. Marine life is at risk from routine spills, green groups pointed out, and oil and gas production harms marine life through toxic chemicals, ­microplastics and ­extreme noise pollution through ­seismic blasting.

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Exposure to toxic oil fumes has been recognised to kill whales and dolphins even years later, according to the Centre for Biological Diversity.

Nearly all the spilled oil – 97% – came from oil rigs, while the ­remaining amount was spilled from mobile rigs, pipelines and vessels.

The Ferret’s investigation is part of a special series called Scotland’s Seas in Danger, and it follows the UK ­Government’s controversial plans to authorise hundreds of new oil and gas licences in the North Sea.

'Devastating marine systems'

Environmental campaigners said The Ferret’s findings showed the scale of “chronic oiling” of the North Sea by the fossil-fuel industry. Greenpeace said drilling for oil can “devastate marine ecosystems” but despite this the UK Government is “greenlighting a new North Sea drilling ­frenzy – including in marine ­protected areas – that will further imperil ocean life and worsen the ­climate crisis”.

In reply, the UK Government said it has an extensive framework of ­environmental protection measures in place to deal with spills. A trade body for the oil and gas industry said companies have “comprehensive oil spill response plans in place to ­mitigate against potential incidents occurring and minimise the impact should they occur”.

The National: The UK Government has admitted oil from Rosebank field will be sold on the international marketThe Ferret analysed the data on unplanned hydrocarbon releases at North Sea oil and gas facilities, which were reported to the Offshore ­Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning (OPRED).

Offshore oil and gas operators in UK waters must report all ­accidental releases of oil or chemicals to OPRED within six hours, regardless of the volume of the spill. They use the ­Petroleum Operations Notice 1 (PON1) reporting system.  The vast majority of incidents – 99% – were below two tonnes and ­averaged two kilograms. Spilled ­liquids include crude oil, diesel, ­condensate, hydraulic oil and lube oil. Most spills include oil and liquid gas.

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But the small spills add up to 125 tonnes of spilled oil and liquid gas. Their causes include spills while filling bunkering vessels, overfilling vessels, holes and ruptures in pipelines, valve, seal and pump failures, equipment failure, and subsea releases.

There have been 25 incidents since 2011 where more than two tonnes were spilled, releasing 1051 tonnes of oil.

In 2012, 605 tonnes of natural-gas condensate was spilled at the Elgin field platform, operated by ­TotalEnergies.

The second-worst spill in Scottish seas was in 2020 when 238 tonnes of diesel was spilled into the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA.

There have been 215 spills into MPAs since 2011, totalling 308 tonnes of oil. 116 spills were reported in the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt and 93 in East of Gannet and Montrose Fields which is a habitat for the ocean quahog, a clam native to the North Sea with a lifespan of up to 400 years.

In 2011, two spills released 580kg of liquid gas into waters just nine miles off the coast of Fraserburgh. The area was designated as the ­Southern Trench MPA in 2020 and is a breeding ground for the minke whale which is a protected species.

BP, Shell and TotalEnergies ­operated the wells and vessels that spilled the most and they ­collectively ­accounted for 82% of spills by ­quantity and 42% by number of spills.

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The spills in the three most “leaky” fields – Elgin (operated by ­TotalEnergies), Foinaven (operated by BP) and Gannet F (operated by Shell) – were all in, or in close ­vicinity, of the MPAs. 79% of all spilled oil in the Scottish North Sea area came from one of these three fields.

Spills have decreased in mass as well as number, with an average of 200 spills per year between 2011 and 2019, compared to 112 spills per year since 2020.

In January, the UK Government gave 17 oil companies the right to drill for fossil fuels in 24 new ­licence areas across the North Sea. These ­followed an initial tranche of 27 ­licences ­offered in October last year. The ­licences were granted in the ­Central North Sea, Northern North Sea and West of Shetland areas.

Firms could begin producing oil and gas before the end of the decade, the North Sea Transition ­Authority said.

According to the Scottish Government’s 2020 Marine Assessment, even small oil spills can have an ­environmental impact if they happen in conservation areas.

Green groups condemn spills

Philip Evans, a campaigner at Greenpeace UK, claimed that The Ferret’s findings “prove that many of the UK’s marine reserves are paper parks protected in name only, where fossil fuel giants like Shell drill – and spill – to their hearts’ content”.

He added: “Drilling for oil at sea can devastate marine ecosystems, but the government is greenlighting a new North Sea drilling frenzy – including in marine protected areas – that will further imperil ocean life and worsen the climate crisis while doing nothing to lower our energy bills or boost our energy security.”

Naomi Tilly, campaign lead at Oceana UK, said: “While catastrophic oil spills grab headlines – as they should – the less well-known ‘chronic oiling’ of UK seas has an insidious impact, creating an almost constant hazard for ocean wildlife.

“Sea birds are especially vulnerable, for instance, as the oil strips them of the ability to stay warm, dry and afloat. Even if they escape ­hypothermia or drowning, oiled ­feathers make flight more tiring, which on a migration can be the ­difference between life and death.”

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She added: “Of course it isn’t just sea birds, whales and dolphins that ingest the toxic oil as they come up for air – shellfish accumulate the ­contamination in their ­bodies, the list goes on. Yet our ­government ­continues to allow oil and gas ­developments to be sited within our marine ‘protected’ areas.

“This utter disregard for some of the UK’s most inspiring wildlife is not what the British people want or deserve.”

Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell (below) said that the “number, volume and location of these spills are extremely concerning”.

The National: Green MSP Mark Ruskell at Holyrood

He added: “We’ve all seen the damage even a single spill can do. To have so many, especially in close proximity to marine protection areas designed to protect vulnerable species and ­habitats, should ring alarm bells.

“While oil companies rake in ­billions, they seem to be taking safety for granted, putting our seas, their fragile ecosystems, and the communities that rely on them at risk.

“Government and regulators must ensure the proper precautions are in place and followed, and act swiftly where they aren’t.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland climate and energy campaigner Caroline Rance said: “With a spill recorded every couple of days on average for the past decade, it’s clear this industry can’t operate without causing serious harm.

“The repeated damage to marine protected areas is totally unacceptable and these offenders must be taken to task to explain these incidents and put in place plans to stop it ­happening again in future.

“Oil will spill and gas will leak so any new oil and gas production will inevitably lead to further pollution of this type, in addition to the climate devastation it will bring.”

Mark Wilson, health, safety and environment operations director at Offshore Energies UK (OEUK), said the oil industry “recognises that there is no room for complacency when it comes to unintentional releases to sea”.

He added: “The industry takes all such releases seriously, regardless of size or potential for harm, and is ­focused on driving continuous ­improvement.

“The reporting of unintentional ­releases of oil is conducted in an open and transparent manner no matter how small the release. For context, the UK annually produces about 40 million to 45 million tonnes of oil and up to 40 billion cubic metres of gas. This equates to just under half the UK’s demand for oil and gas.”

A spokesperson for the UK ­Government’s Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said it ­monitors offshore pollution incidents “closely” and investigates all reports of accidental releases.

“If required, appropriate action will be taken, including the use of fines or referral for criminal prosecution,” the spokesperson added.

“We have a comprehensive ­legal framework of environmental protection measures for offshore oil and gas activities, which covers all ­stages of the licensing and consenting ­process.”

BP and TotalEnergies have been asked to comment.

Shell referred The Ferret to OEUK for a comment.

This article is part of a series on marine protection called Scotland’s Seas in Danger.

It was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe – an independent, non-profit organisation based in Belgium that supports cross-border investigative journalism.

Our investigations were carried out in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI), which will publish its work later this year