Following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, UK pollution prevention systems are to be examined afresh to ensure they provide maximum protection against similar incidents happening in the United Kingdom Continental Shelf ("UKCS"). Industry association Oil and Gas UK has recently announced the creation of a new Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group ("OSPRAG").

The remit of the advisory group is to conduct a review of oil spill prevention practices in the UKCS. Mark McAllister, Chief Executive of Fairfield Energy Limited, is to chair OSPRAG and the group will comprise senior members of the oil and gas industry, trade unions and representatives from relevant regulatory bodies, such as the Health and Safety Executive ("HSE") and the Department for Energy and Climate Change ("DECC").

According to Oil and Gas UK, key considerations for OSPRAG will include:

  • technical issues such as first response for the protection of offshore personnel;
  • oil spill response capability and remediation;
  • national emergency response measures;
  • indemnity and insurance requirements; and
  • regulatory and response mechanisms across the North Sea.

Although there is already a comprehensive regulatory system in place, it is valuable to review these systems to ensure they still represent the best defence against oil spills and other types of pollution. Key legislation in this area includes:

  • Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response & Co-operation Convention) Regulations 1998;
  • Offshore Installations (Emergency Pollution Control) Regulations 2002;
  • Offshore Petroleum Activities (Oil Pollution Prevention and Control) Regulations 2005;
  • Merchant Shipping Act 1995, implementing the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation;
  • Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Oil Pollution) Regulations 1996; and
  • Merchant Shipping (Implementation of Ship-Source Pollution Directive) Regulations 2009.

Under this legislation, it is an offence to make any unlawful discharge of oil. Offshore production licences require licensees to do all they can to prevent the escape of oil into the sea and in the event that there is an oil spill incident, this must be reported to the Coastguard and to DECC. All offshore operators must prepare an Oil Pollution Emergency Plan ("OPEP"), which sets out clear procedures for dealing with offshore oil pollution incidents. All such plans must be approved by DECC. Where there is a risk that any offshore incident may cause significant pollution, the government also has the power to intervene to prevent the situation being worsened by an inadequate response.

The Gulf of Mexico disaster has reminded all those involved in the oil and gas industry how catastrophic an offshore oil spill can be, so it is clearly of prime importance to ensure that pollution prevention measures are as effective as possible. OSPRAG held its first meeting in Aberdeen on 2nd June 2010. It was agreed that four working parties will be established to look into the relevant issues and that any lessons to be learned from the US disaster will be put into practice in the UKCS. The group is due to meet again in one month. Any significant developments resulting from the review process will be covered in future editions of our Energy E-bulletin.