Tough regulations make Gulf of Mexico disaster off Shetland highly unlikely, insists minister

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Stringent UK regulations mean that deepwater drilling for oil and gas to the north and west of Shetland is safe and there is little chance of a repeat of BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster, energy and climate change minister Chris Huhne insisted on a visit to the isles today.

Speaking at Scatsta Airport before travelling to a Total oil platform in the North Sea, Mr Huhne – who gave Chevron consent to drill on the Lagavulin prospect 160 miles north of Shetland last week – said the UK had a tough regulatory regime which was getting tougher. In the US, President Barack Obama has imposed a moratorium on deepwater drilling.

Greenpeace has been campaigning vehemently to stop new drilling in recent weeks, with protesters mounting an anchor chain on Chevron’s Stena Carron drill ship off Bressay last month. They described Mr Huhne’s decision to sanction drilling in waters more than one mile deep as “irresponsible”.

The move to a low-carbon economy will be a slow and gradual process, the minister said, describing it as “like turning around a great carbon super tanker”. “That’s what we’ve got to do to move as fast as we can towards a low carbon world, but in the interim period we’re still going to need the oil and gas.”

He continued: “We’ve increased the number of inspections, the number of inspectors. We take very seriously our commitment to the environment. If we were not to do that all that would happen is we would end up importing oil and gas from parts of the world where respect for the environment is probably a lot less than it would be here.

“We already had a much better regulatory regime because of our own Piper Alpha disaster back in 1988 and I’m making sure that we’re improving it even further and learning the lessons of BP’s experience in the Gulf of Mexico, and I very much hope that we will never face the same sorts of problems here.”

During a 24-hour visit to the isles, Liberal Democrat MP Mr Huhne met with opponents and supporters of the Viking Energy windfarm. The decision is one for Scottish ministers and Mr Huhne said he did not want to pass judgement without having examined the specific details of the Viking project, but in general he is “very much in favour” of both onshore and offshore wind power.

He believes there is a “strong case” for a more favourable transmission charging regime to help make renewable energy projects in areas like Shetland more viable.

“One of the things that Ofgem is looking at is whether we can indeed change the transmission charging regime,” he said. “The regime at the moment is based on purely the cost of the transmission charging and that provides a very strong incentive to build plant near the market. But of course with renewables increasingly you can’t build a plant near the market.

“You have to build it near where the wind’s blowing, or where the waves are or where the tide is, therefore it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a transmission charging regime which is encouraging people to do something that they can’t do.”

Mr Huhne is a believer that carbon capture and storage technology could provide a big part of the solution in the fight against climate change, at least in terms of powering households (such an approach will do nothing to address transport emissions). He hopes to see the first commercial-scale plant up and running within five years.

He also visited pupils at Brae High School, who he described as “a very bright bunch” who asked him a series of “tough” questions and were “clearly a load of Jeremy Paxmans in the making”.


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