Scotland sea at risk from exploration

There will be blood, and oil will be to blame. Scotland’s seas and the wildlife they harbour are facing one of the biggest threats they have ever encountered.

A massive new search for oil and gas launched by the UK government will put whales, dolphins and other marine life at risk. And it will jeopardise global attempts to cut the pollution that is causing climate chaos.

Plans to open up virtually all of the seas around Scotland to multinationals seeking to find oil and gas have been greeted with widespread horror by experts and environmentalists.

“This represents the most substan-tial threat to Scotland’s seas in the modern age,” warned Green MSP Robin Harper.

“Practically every mile of our coastline could see drilling and seismic exploration, putting marine ecosystems and wildlife at risk. This amounts to exploitation of the crudest sort, and undermines every improvement in marine conservation since the 1970s.”

Harper demanded that UK ministers abandon the plans, and called on the SNP government in Edinburgh to oppose them.

“UK ministers seem determined to take us in exactly the wrong direction,” he said. “Have they forgotten that their dependence on fossil fuels is what has led to the threat of climate change in the first place?”

The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) in London launched the 25th offshore oil and gas licensing round on February 20. Nearly 2300 blocks of sea around Scotland and northern England are being offered for exploration for the first time.

It was, BERR said, a “record-breaking” number. Vast reaches of ocean to the west of the Hebrides, around Shetland and Orkney, and off the Scottish east coast have all been zoned for exploration.

The spin put on the announcement by the secretary of state for energy, John Hutton, was positive. “We have been careful to avoid harming dolphins and other sea life that thrive in these areas in the past and will continue to do so,” he said.

This was widely reported, with the added suggestion that the famed bottlenose dolphins of the Moray Firth had been saved from the threat of oil development. But, according to marine specialists, the truth is very different.

“The sheer scale of the oil and gas development offered by the government could have very significant effects on all whales, dolphins and porpoises all around our coasts,” said Erich Hoyt, a senior research fellow with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

The Moray Firth dolphins were particularly at risk, which was why they had been protected by a designated conservation area. “Yet the oil and gas licensing plans could now render this protection almost meaningless,” Hoyt argued.

As the Sunday Herald reported in November, parts of the Moray Firth were included in the previous 24th oil and gas licensing round.

Contrary to reports, these have not been withdrawn, but are still under active consideration by UK ministers.

One of the major risks comes from the underwater seismic surveys conducted by oil companies. Evidence suggests that the sounds they broadcast over large areas of sea can disturb and disorientate cetaceans, causing them to strand themselves on beaches.

“The latest research shows that the impacts of the kind of seismic surveys planned for Scottish waters may be greater than previously thought, with sounds travelling further, and with higher frequencies being produced,” said Dr Chris Parsons from George Mason University in Virginia, US.

“This means many more whales and dolphins will be affected than ministers imagine,” he added. “This kind of exploration and exploitation is entirely unsuitable for Scotland’s nearshore waters.”