The UK regulatory body is attempting to prevent the disclosure of documents pertaining to Shell’s operations in the North Sea.
Environmental organizations are criticizing the UK’s oil and gas regulator for hiring lawyers in an attempt to block the release of five crucial documents regarding the environmental consequences of Shell’s operations in the North Sea.
During a December hearing, a lawyer representing the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) will likely oppose the release of documents disclosing pollution risks related to the decommissioning of the Brent oilfield. The field was under Shell’s operation for over 40 years. The NSTA states its opposition to publication based on procedural grounds.
Shell has requested an exception from global regulations mandating the removal of all infrastructure from the field. The UK government is currently deliberating on whether to grant the oil company permission to keep the 170-meter-tall legs of their oil platform in place for the three platforms, referred to as Bravo, Charlie, and Delta.
The leg structures hold a combined 64 concrete storage cells, with 42 of them previously utilized for storing and separating oil.
The majority of the cells are equivalent in size to seven Olympic swimming pools. Together, they hold approximately 72,000 tonnes of contaminated sediment and 638,000 cubic metres of oily water.
The NSTA’s records are believed by environmental organizations to contain fresh details about potential long-term environmental threats that are applicable to other oil projects in the North Sea, such as Equinor’s proposal for developing Rosebank, which is currently the UK’s biggest untapped oil reserve.
The five papers involved in the hearing consist of revised editions of the field decommissioning plan and the environmental assessment for the field, along with technical reports pertaining to radioactive sediment and hazardous drill cuttings.
The previous editions of the five documents were released during the consultation period in 2016 and 2017. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced that the newer versions have been revised to include additional consultations that occurred.
The papers contain plans for shutting down the facilities, information about the materials inside the compartments, and studies on how these materials may affect the environment in the near and distant future.
Lang Banks, the director of the conservation group WWF Scotland, said: “It’s an absolute farce that the regulator is spending public money on lawyers to try and prevent the release of documents that should have been made publicly available a long time ago.
“If they are willing to incorporate these papers into the planning and licensing procedures, they should also be willing to release them to the public.”
According to Tessa Khan, a lawyer specializing in climate crisis and human rights on an international level and the executive director of Uplift, the regulator’s attempts to prevent the documents from being made public are aimed at protecting the interests of the oil and gas industry, but at the same time, they are harming the environment and the general public.
“The NSTA’s job is to act as an independent regulator but, for as long as it’s been around, it has favoured oil and gas firms, including colluding with the industry on how to best sell new drilling to the public,” she told Sky News.
“It may not be unexpected, considering that former executives from the oil and gas industry are on the board of the NSTA, and some of its members still have investments in the sector.”
In July 2022, investigative journalism organization Point Source requested the regulator to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations. The documents were initially requested to be published.
The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) announced in September of that year that they had reached out to Shell for guidance, and ultimately determined that they were not permitted to make the documents public. This was because the documents were in the possession of a third party who had not given consent for their release.
The ICO declared in May 2023 that the NSTA’s failure to timely respond to the request was deemed “unacceptable” and a violation of the Environmental Information Regulations.
The ICO directed the regulator to make the documents public or provide a legitimate legal explanation for not supplying them within 35 days. However, the NSTA has not released the documents and plans to present its arguments to a judge during a hearing in December.
Certain activist organizations have stated their belief that the recent legal appeal initiated by the NSTA is a strategic move intended to block the release of environmental information during a crucial period for the government.
The General Regulatory Chamber will oversee the case and handle appeals against decisions made by government regulatory bodies.
In the previous month, the NSTA caused outrage among environmental activists by approving the development of the Rosebank oil and gas field, located near Shetland.
The government has recently initiated a new licensing round, granting permission to oil and gas companies to conduct fossil fuel exploration in the North Sea.
According to Robin Wells, who is the director of Fossil Free London, it is imperative that the regulatory body shares any new information they have on the environmental consequences of current oilfields. This will enable informed choices to be made regarding the development of additional fields.
Previous reports on the environmental assessment stated that there is a considerable level of uncertainty surrounding the potential environmental consequences of Shell’s decision to leave the remains of the Brent platforms in the North Sea.
One of the uncertainties identified was how to handle the contaminated material in the cells, as the amount of radioactivity was not yet determined.
The records indicated that only a small number of samples were collected from the polluted sediment.
The researchers collected samples from the upper 50cm layer of sediment in three out of the 64 cells. They only tested 6kg of sediment and 10 litres of water, even though there were potentially tens of millions of kilograms of sediment and hundreds of millions of litres of oily water present.
The previously released reports stated that 261kg of mercury may potentially be released and that the hazardous substance phenanthrene could have a chemical impact on an expanse of 1.7 sq km of the seabed due to contaminants leaking from deteriorating concrete cells.
According to the documents, a significant amount of oil that was discharged with cellular water was expected to reach the surface of the sea. This could potentially harm seabirds.
In 2019, Germany and other EU member states expressed strong disapproval of the publicly accessible environmental evaluation materials, stating that Shell’s assessment of potential environmental harm was overly cautious. They labeled the remaining oil and pollutants as a potential “timebomb”.
A study requested by the German government revealed that Shell’s approach in their publicly accessible assessments of environmental impact was deemed to be “fundamentally flawed” and showed a significant “mathematical bias”.
The NSTA’s representative stated that they are not responsible for the decommissioning decisions and environmental assessments, as those fall under the jurisdiction of the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning (Opred). The NSTA is challenging the decision made by the ICO to disclose specific information related to a procedural matter.
Shell stated that their suggestions were based on a decade of research and over 300 scientific and technical studies. They also formed a team of independent scientific experts to review the results and thoroughly explore all possible options for decommissioning.
Shell provides documents as a part of a regulated process, fully aware that they will eventually be made public. The timing and method of this publication is determined by the regulator.