Poole Harbour oil spillage: unacceptable environmental damage

All photos reproduced by kind permission of Naturehawk Photo

News broke on 26 March 2023 of ‘reservoir fluid,’ containing oil, leaking into an environmentally sensitive area for wildlife. The devastating impacts of the oil spill from the Wytch Farm site in Poole Harbour are unacceptable in a climate and ecological emergency – and heart-breaking for the many organisations and individuals involved in conservation work there.

The spill could not have come at a worse time: at the start of the bird breeding season. Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Director Brian Bleese said,

“This oil spill has the potential to have serious implications for many of the species of birds which are reliant on the Brownsea lagoon for feeding. The impact of oil pollution on marine wildlife below the surface is also of great concern and even harder to monitor. Poole Harbour is a bass nursery and an important area for molluscs, which feed by filtering seawater and so may be particularly badly affected, as well as seahorse which breed in the harbour, and seals”.

The full impacts will take a while to be revealed, with over 100 kms of coastline being affected. The oil company responsible, Perenco UK, has said it promptly cleared up 60 per cent of the spill and that most of it was saline solution. That still leaves a large quantity of crude oil in the marine environment.

Over 20,000 birds visit Poole Harbour each year. Earlier this month, the charity Birds of Poole Harbour logged 5,450 birds along the southern shore in the spill area. In winter, Poole Harbour hosts nationally and internationally important numbers of wetland birds and equally important numbers of other species including Sandwich and Common Terns, which nest in and around Brownsea lagoon each summer.

The area is a focus for conservation efforts. An exciting new Arne Moors project involving the Environment Agency, RSPB and Natural England has just started, which aims to provide essential space for nature, to replace areas lost elsewhere in Poole Harbour due to sea level rise.

The natural beauty and the wildlife attract 10,000 visitors a year to Brownsea Island, bringing welcome income to the local area. Delight at the return of a male osprey to a nest site covered by webcam was quickly quashed by the news of the spill, because the ospreys catch most of their fish in the Harbour.   

The response has been grief for the present ecological damage, tempered by anger at the longer-term impacts of fossil fuel extraction.

Mark Chivers, of Zero Carbon Dorset, was on the quayside by chance on the day of the spill. He said:

“This isn’t just an environmental disaster, but also a wakeup call to stop all new drilling. It’s not just a story about ‘locals worried about swimming.’”

Dr Malcolm Hudson, an associate professor in environmental science at the University of Southampton, said:

“It’s a very large, enclosed bay, and so pollutants may not be flushed out quickly by the tides. Also, it’s a very low-energy environment, so unlike a spill on an open coast there won’t be much wave action to help break down and disperse the oil. Poole Harbour is especially sensitive, and internationally protected for the wildlife there.”

But how did we get to a position where a damaging oil spill was even possible in Poole Harbour? It is one of the most protected sites in the UK. The permitted oil-production site lies partly within European sites designated for wildlife, Sites of Scientific Interest and a Ramsar site, which is an international designation for wetlands. It’s within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and part of the Heritage Coast.

Since initial permission was granted in the 1970s, 102 wells have been drilled at the site. In 2020 there were 70 production wells and 37 reinjection wells, [boreholes used for the disposal of wastewater arising from oil production – Ed.]  according to the Environment Agency. Dorset Council had a real opportunity to stop the operations in Poole Harbour but in 2013 it granted an extension to operations at the site until 2037. If this hadn’t been approved, the site would have closed down in 2016.

Wytch Farm was sold to Perenco for £200m in 2017 and has remained the biggest onshore oil production site not just in the UK, but in Europe. It’s now in a phase of decommissioning as commercially viable reserves run out. The company also operates fields at Kimmeridge and Wareham in Dorset.

Naturehawk Photo

“We call on the regulators who license the operations at Wytch Farm to call time on it as soon as the current licences run out, or terminate them sooner if that’s possible. As long as we have fossil fuels being extracted, we face these kinds of risks”, said Sandra Reeve of Dorset Climate Action Network. “Additionally we have the daily risk of releasing greenhouse gases from fossil fuels into our atmosphere, setting us on course for climate catastrophe which will lead to significant species loss and untold human misery. We cannot continue to simply count the cost of oil spills like this and carry on as before. We must work to end this ruinous activity which has no part in a safe future”.

Moving in that direction rapidly should be part of the government’s Energy Security Strategy and delivering its Net Zero commitments. However in ‘Powering Up Britain’, which has just been published, the government says: “We will be powered by renewables including wind and solar, hydrogen, power with carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) and new nuclear plants – while recognising the vital role that UK oil and gas will play in the transition. This will make us much more energy independent, to protect us from volatile international energy markets, while underpinning our clean energy transition, so the UK becomes a net zero economy by 2050”. In the light of the recent IPCC report that we are on an inevitable path to crash through the 1.5 degree limit of warming even with current fossil fuel production levels, any reliance on fossil fuels to see us out of this mess by 2050 seems misguided at best.

In order to move away from fossil fuels, minerals planning authorities need to be given the right information and tools to make decisions. I’m involved in a case going to the Supreme Court in June 2023 which argues that environmental impact assessments should include all the greenhouse gas emissions arising from the decision being made. R (on the application of Finch on behalf of the Weald Action Group) v Surrey County Council and others is a ground breaking case about a decision the council made in 2019 to allow 20 years of oil production from Horse Hill in Surrey. The planning officers and councillors failed to assess all the carbon emissions arising from their decision – including those from the combustion of the oil. They said it would be assessed at another time and place.

Naturehawk Photo

We need to start counting the carbon and the cost of releasing it right now. Planning authorities would then be properly informed of the impacts of their decisions. If Dorset council had known about the spill risk, would they have granted another 31 years of drilling? If they had considered the elephant in the room – the thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions arising from the operations at Wytch Farm – would they have permitted it? In the first case, they would have needed a crystal ball and some information about the relatively common problem of spills from oil production operations. But when it comes to the greenhouse gas emissions, they’re entirely predictable and we now know what damage is being caused. It’s time to count the carbon and say ‘no more’.

Vicki Elcoate, Dorset Climate Action Network; Weald Action Group