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Oil and wildlife don’t mix: 20 years after the Braer disaster

Oil escaping from the wrecked Braer tankerOil escaping from the wrecked Braer tanker, 10 January 1993. Shetland Islands (UK) © WWF / Dominique Halleux

Twenty years ago this week 85,000 tonnes of oil poured out of the Liberian-registered MV Braer after it grounded on rocks on the southern tip of Shetland.

In environmental terms the Braer disaster was most definitely a close shave. Had it not been for the weather and the light nature of the oil the spill would have caused much more widespread environmental and economic damage. However, we should not rely on the weather to get us off the hook next time.

As it was, thousands of birds are still estimated to have perished and marine wildlife, such as shellfish, finfish and marine mammals were also badly affected.  Add to that the thousands of pounds lost by fisheries and salmon farms as a result of oil contamination and it’s easy to see why it could have been much, much worse.

Sadly, however, two decades after the Scotland’s worst oil spill, our marine environment still remains at serious risk from new pollution.

We’ve seen an increase in shipping movements alongside ever more extreme weather as a result of climate change.

We’ve Ministers north and south of the border hell-bent on squeezing every last drop of oil and gas from beneath the North Sea, which has led companies to drill in more hazardous deep-water locations.

To top it all off, the UK Government’s short-sighted decision to press ahead with a reduction in the number of Emergency Towing Vessels (put in place as a result of the Braer disaster) and you’ve a disaster just waiting to happen.

Every year the oil and gas industry is responsible for almost a thousand oil and chemical spills in the North Sea. It just needs one of these incidents to go big and we’re in trouble. This month’s grounding of a Shell rig in Alaska along with recent accidents on Total’s Elgin and Shell’s Gannet Alpha platforms in the North Sea show we are never far away from the next major pollution incident.

So, other than the Government agreeing a permanent and workable solution to Emergency Towing Vessel cover, what’s the answer?

Well, I believe prevention is always better than cure. So, here’s three suggestions to kick things off with:

But, protecting our precious marine environment from the next Braer is not the only reason we need to act.

One thing we do know is that the planet certainly can’t afford to allow all the oil left in the North Sea to be burned.

If all the 24 billion barrels of oil estimated to be left were extracted and burned, over 10 billion tonnes of climate-wrecking carbon dioxide would result. That’s equivalent to more than 200 years of greenhouse gas emissions from Scotland, and would increase the risks of climate chaos here and elsewhere around the world.

I’ve be immensely proud to tell people from around the globe about Scotland’s world leading climate change targets and aim to generate 100 per cent of its electricity from renewables. But, I find it hard indeed to try and explain that we also want to squeeze every last drop from beneath the seabed.

Developing a low carbon economy – as politicians also tell us they want – requires a strategy that focuses on ending our addiction to oil and gas. If we are to prevent catastrophic climate change the reality is that we have no choice but to ensure much of our remaining fossil fuel reserves remain firmly in the ground. WWF has crunched the numbers and by 2050 the world could be run entirely on renewable energy. All we need is the political will to do so.

So, while it is true that the oil and gas industry is and will continue to be for some time a major contributor to our economy, Scotland should really be setting out a plan to transition away entirely from dirty fossil fuels. That’s something I’d be even prouder to share with the world.

Follow Lang on Twitter: @LangBanks

Do you think our seas need more protection? How should we wean ourselves off fossil fuels? Feel free to add a comment below…

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