Oil Leak 31 …..when 300,000 became 1

We’ve talk a bit about the maximum credible oil spill – all the consultees picked up on the fact that 1tonne of oil being lost as worst case scenario is nothing short of ridiculous. We would go as far as to say its been put in downplay the impact of an oil spill – effective massaging the figures. I mean think about it – you have a tanker with 180,000 tonnes of oil on it – it goes runs aground and holes both skins or it goes on fire – what’s the worst that could happen? A primary school kid could tell you that the most you could lose is 180,000 and not 1 tonne. I’ve asked a couple – they gave me the right answer. So if its so blatantly obvious what the worst that could happen is, what the hell is going on in this application? We’ll explain.

The current application produced by consultants Intertek on behalf of the Cromarty Firth Port Authority (CFPA) bases the maximum volume of oil that could spilled on a previous application by the same consultants in Scapa Flow on behalf of the Orkney Islands Council. Somewhere along the line the estimation of the maximum oil spill volume has gone from being greater than 300,000 tonnes to only 1 tonne.


Both licenses applications were to transfer up to 8.6million tonnes of crude oil per annum, up to 180,000 tonnes at a time. The Orkney application included a risk assessment as part of the oil spill response plan, undertaken by Briggs Marine Environmental Services Ltd which estimated the maximum volume of oil that could be lost to be greater than 300,000 tonnes following mechanical failure. How then did this become only 1 tonne?


Following scrutiny of the Orkney licence application process, the reduction in the maximum oil spill occurred at a meeting between the OIC, the MCA, Intertek, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) held in Edinburgh on 28th January 2015 (Marine Scotland did not attend). The minutes of the meeting can be read HERE – within them, the MCA stated

“A one tonne spill is a hose burst; it’s not realistic to look at a 100,000 tonne spill. Max oil spill possible is 1,000 kg (1 tonne). This is what should be assessed.”

The current CFPA application, which is still under consideration by the MCA in Southampton, states that the maximum volume of oil that could be lost during operations to transfer crude oil is 1 tonne. Consultees have argued that this does not account for risks associated with mechanical failure or a catastrophic event such as fire, grounding or terrorism. With nearest emergency tug in Orkney, there are fears that the port tugs would not be able to prevent a very large tanker smashing against the rock coastline. A real life scenario that played out during the Braer disaster in Shetland in 1986 where the subsequent enquiry by Lord Donaldson, laid the blame with the lack of emergency towing vessels. However, 1 tonne is what the MCA say. We pushed them on this in our legal letter – Intertek replied that this was put forward by the MCA at the 2015 meeting in relation to Orkney, which is correct, however they went on to say that it was then agreed to by SNH as being reasonable. We put this to SNH – they replied:

“As far as our role in the Scapa case is concerned, we would not agree that we “approved” or in any way agreed that the 1 tonne limit was acceptable for the discussions. We advised MCA that as the competent authority, they had to decide on what was the most appropriate. Their line was that the actual STS transfer operation was the operation requiring licence and that owing to technical solutions, then 1 tonne was the potential total oil spill in the case of the pipes coming apart. We had no locus to either approve or agree this as MCA is the competent authority. As you know, we provided advice on the potential to affect Natura interests as set out in our advice on that case.”

Intertek argue that the size of the spill for modelling purposes is irrelevant, however it must be plain for anyone to see that loss of the entire cargo of up to 180,000 tonnes of crude oil in the environmentally sensitive waters of the inner Moray Firth would have a catastrophic effect on wildlife and businesses that depend on the waters remaining clean.

The quantity of oil also has a direct bearing on the assessment of the impact of the proposal on European nature conservation sites. Although a 1 tonne spill of crude oil would have a severe impact on marine life (– the incident in South Africa last November during ship to ship transfer and the subsequent impact on the penguin population surely highlight that) – a catastrophic event with a 180,000 tonne spill would cause complete devastation to the natural environment and take generations to recover. This is  crude oil you are dealing with – you don’t have to be a scientist to see that the potential consequences really have not been thought through. It doesn’t bear thinking about. In our opinion, the applicants are deliberately trying to play down the worse case scenario in order to make this application more palatable to the public and it is clear that the MCA, who are supposed to be the regulator, are working very closely with the applicant on this, by unilaterally setting the maximum spill volume for these operations. We think this is wrong.