Oil spill at largest onshore oilfield in Western Europe was a disaster waiting to happen

An oil spill has occurred in Wytch Farm, Poole Harbour. The harbour is here pictured from a plane. Perenco ran the field. Pollution.
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An oil spill incident just occurred at the largest onshore oilfield in Western Europe. But it wasn’t the first pollution incident at the site – and it likely won’t be the last. On Sunday 26 March, fossil fuel company Perenco spilled 200 barrels of ‘reservoir fluid’ into a natural harbour at Wytch Farm in the South of England.

Perenco estimated that the fluid is a mixture of 80-85% water and 15-20% oil. It leaked from a pipeline situated under Poole Harbour in Dorset. The spill occured at the company’s Wytch Farm oilfield. The harbour is adjacent to multiple biodiverse protected sites. For example, Poole Rocks Marine Conservation Zone lies just east of the harbour entrance, and is home to more than 360 marine species.

Perenco shut down the pipeline in response to the incident. The company mobilised the local harbour commissioners and the oil spill response teams to contain the leak. They also advised the public to avoid the local beaches.

This is the first major incident declared at the site. However, Perenco has reported a number of pollution events at the ageing oilfield since it took over operations from British Petroleum (BP) in 2011.

From Deepwater to local oil spills

The Wytch Farm oilfield started operating in 1979. In 1984, fossil fuel major BP bought the site. However, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the company decided to sell a number of their UK assets to fund the clean up costs. This included their majority stake in the Dorset oilfield operations.

A leak at Wytch Farm in the same year as the disaster in the Gulf may have also prompted the company to ditch the site. The spill was small, but BP shut down operations for two months. During this period, the company investigated the cause of the leak and implemented necessary maintenance. The closure cost BP millions in lost revenue. Moreover, they told the Telegraph at the time of the leak that they shut down the field due to “extreme caution”. A BP spokesperson told the paper that they were being extra careful over “pipeline integrity issues” after the Deepwater spill.

French oil and gas company Perenco took over operations at Wytch Farm in 2011. Since then, local campaigners and an investigative journalist made a series of Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests to monitor its operations. They reveal that Perenco have caused at least ten other pollution events at the oilfield.

Read on...

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Spills and pollution a disaster waiting to happen

In 2018, investigative journalist Russell Scott found that Perenco had caused five pollution events at the site between 2013 and 2017:

As Scott pointed out, this included four leaks. Furthermore, two of these leaks equated to approximately 85 barrels and 94 US barrels of oil respectively. However, the spills in these instances were both comprised mostly of water. For example, as the documents explain, Perenco estimated that crude oil accounted for 9% of the leak in the first incident.

Nonetheless, local Green Party Councillor and anti-fossi fuel campaigner Chris Rigby tweeted that these previous spills showed that the current major incident was a “disaster waiting to happen”:

Further information reported by iNews revealed that between 2011 and 2020, at least ten pollution events occurred. These include incidents where the operator exceeded safe levels of harmful gas emissions like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. On one occasion, Perenco went three times over the permitted limit of carbon monoxide. Additionally, in another case they caused a leak of 40 barrels worth of hydrochloric acid.

Not the first scandal

Moreover, this isn’t first time Perenco has made the news over their polluting operations in Dorset.

In 2017, local campaigner Stuart Lane from Fossil Free Dorset found that an oil well at Kimmeridge, was venting nearly 300 tonnes of methane into the atmosphere. And it was doing so by design – reduction measures were labelled “not cost effective”. The campaign group estimated that over its lifetime, this would be equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions for approximately 112,500 people.

The Kimmeridge well site is just along the Dorset coast from Perenco’s main operations at Wytch Farm. Since the revelation, Perenco have continued to vent methane at the location. The company did not suspend operations at the site. Instead, the Environment Agency issued the company a variation to its permit, allowing it to continue to vent up to 350 tonnes of methane per year.

For example, in 2019 it emitted 333 tonnes of methane. The new permit did, however, also require that the company produce a plan for containing the vented gas to be used for generating electricity. However, Drill or Drop reported that the company instead installed a flare to burn the waste emissions. They did this without initially receiving approval from the local council.

Record of UK-wide problems

The well at Kimmeridge, known as a ‘nodding donkey’, has been operating since 1959. It is believed to be the oldest continually producing well site in the UK. But it was this old-style well design that resulted in Perenco venting climate-wrecking pollutants into the atmosphere. In addition, as the documents from Scott and campaigners show, Perenco caused the spills as a result of corroded equipment. It might suggest that Perenco is failing to maintain this ageing infrastructure.

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has also issued Perenco a large number of notices at other operations throughout the UK.

In the last five years, HSE has given the company eight notices to improve the safety of its operations. It also issued Perenco with a ‘Prohibition Notice’ for its gas terminals in the East Riding of Yorkshire. This pertains to a more serious breach of health and safety guidelines. HSE issue this notice when operations may put a person at “a risk of serious personal injury”.

Yet despite this list of UK-wide health and safety issues and the recent oil spill at Wytch Farm, the company will continue to operate the ageing site.

In 2013, Dorset Council extended Perenco’s permits for the Wytch Farm oilfield and Kimmeridge well site. These permits had been originally set to expire in 2016. However, the council agreed to grant Perenco a further 21 years of oil and gas extraction until 2037.

A wake-up call

This should be a wake-up call. With the government poised to make a decision on the Rosebank oilfield and new oil blocks in the North Sea, this most recent spill could not issue a clearer warning. Not only is continuing to extract oil incompatible with meeting the Paris Climate target of 1.5C, but there will also continue to be huge environmental cost and risk to human health. In short, the only safe fossil fuels are the ones kept in the ground.

Feature image via Petr Kratochvil/Public Domain Pictures under CC0 1.0 license

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