An offshore operator has been found not guilty in a prosecution for breach of pollution-prevention regulations on one of its Northern North Sea oil and gas platforms.

The company was charged with a breach of Regulation 3(1) of The Offshore Petroleum Activities (Oil Prevention and Control) Regulations 2005. The breach related to a discharge of oil from the platform into the sea, which exceeded the terms of the relevant discharge permit. Such permits impose discharge limits and conditions in relation to discharges of oil during production and processing operations.

At trial, the company relied on the statutory defence provided under Regulation 16(2)(a) of the 2005 Regulations, which states that it is a defence to prove that the breach “arose as a result of something which could not reasonably have been prevented by him”, and led evidence to that effect.

The court accepted that the equipment concerned had been checked shortly prior to the incident and had been found to be in good working order. It also recognised the reality that unfortunately those operating offshore installations must prioritise risks; and that whilst protection of the environment is important, crew safety must always be paramount. It was further acknowledged that the maintenance procedures in place on the platform were sound both theoretically and in the company’s implementation thereof. It was therefore concluded that there was no reason in this case not to accept that the statutory defence had been made out and the company was found to be not guilty in relation to the charge. The court had also heard evidence of the efforts and commitment of the operator in upgrading the facility and the environmental impact of the discharge had been nil.

Prosecutions under offshore environmental regulations are very rare, and it is unusual to have the benefit of judicial interpretation of the words “could not reasonably have been prevented”. The bench indicated that they meant “in the greater scheme of things”, taking all relevant factors into account.