More than half of the oil accidentally spilled by offshore oil and gas operations in UK waters over the past decade has ended up in marine protected areas (MPAs) meant to protect rare and threatened habitats and species, a Greenpeace Unearthed investigation has found.

The Unearthed analysis of official data has found that over the past ten years UK offshore oil and gas operators have reported 551 accidental “oil releases” in fields sitting wholly or partly within protected conservation areas. In total, these MPA spills released 273 tonnes of oil and oil products – amounting to 54% of the 509 tonnes accidentally spilled in UK waters over the period. The majority of these spills are small and chronic leaks of less than one tonne, often caused by equipment failures, damage, or human error. But according to the Scottish government’s 2020 Marine Assessment, even small oil spills can have an environmental impact if they happen near species or habitats of conservation importance.

Ocean conservation campaign group Oceana said these chronic oil leaks could accumulate in the environment over time, posing a threat to vulnerable wildlife species.

Offshore Energies UK (OEUK), a trade body for the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry, said the reporting of unintentional releases of oil or chemicals was conducted “in an open and transparent manner no matter how small the release”.

“The offshore energy industry recognises that there is no room for complacency when it comes to unintentional releases to sea,” OEUK operations director Mark Wilson told Unearthed. “The industry takes all such releases seriously, regardless of size or potential for harm and are focused on driving continuous improvement.”

He added: “OPRED play a key role in investigating each reported release and the company that reports the release will undertake their own investigation to prevent recurrence.

Not all spills reported are small. Unearthed’s investigation identified five spills into MPAs over the past decade of  two tonnes of oil or more, the definition used by the Advisory Committee for the Protection of the Sea (ACOPS) for a larger-scale release.

By far the worst of these occurred between 2019 and 2020, when a company called Altera Infrastructure spilled approximately 238 tonnes of diesel directly into the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt nature conservation marine protected area (NCMPA), in the UK’s worst accidental oil spill since 2017.

To read the full Greenpeace Unearthed article click here.

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