Royal Dutch Shell's oil spill in the North Sea is small but it may have bigger implications for the company.

Shell’s big little oil spill in the North Sea.

Royal Dutch Shell has been struggling to contain a 1,300 barrel oil spill in the North Sea.

Last week the company reported an oil leak from a flow line at the Gannet Alpha oil rig (co-owned by Shell and Exxon Mobil) located 112 miles east of Aberdeen and operating in about 310 feet of water.

The company dealt with the main leak by shutting down the well and isolating the reservoir. Unfortunately a second, smaller leak (of one barrel a day) has proven more difficult to control.

Shell is quick to assert that this is not a major spill like BP’s Macondo well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. For one thing the amount of oil released is only several hundred barrels, unlike the estimated 4.9 million barrels spilled in the Gulf. For another the major leak was in the flow line at the rig, in shallow water. A finite amount of oil is involved (the flow line contains a maximum of about 4,000 barrels), unlike BP’s uncontrolled gusher from a broken riser on the sea floor in deep water.

What makes this little spill bigger than it seems is that during BP’s oil spill in the Gulf, Shell had pointed to its own offshore drilling operations as more safety-conscious and reliable than BP’s. So this spill is at least an embarrassment.

But more significantly, the company has used its safety record to recently secure its first license for exploratory drilling off the coast of Alaska, in an environmentally sensitive location. A spill, even a small one, will give local environmentalists more ammunition to oppose Arctic drilling, and the US Department of the Interior pause, and make some Shell board members nervous.

(Industry officials estimate that there is as much as 25 billion barrels of oil reserves in the Alaskan Arctic, and no offshore drilling had been permitted in Alaskan federal waters since 2003.)

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Photo by photographerpandora used under a Creative Commons license.
Stuart Hampton

British editorial veteran Stuart Hampton has been covering oil and gas companies for Hoover's since the Neogene-Quaternary period. Well, actually, since the early 1990s. For the best overview of the oil industry and its history he recommends Daniel Yergin's "The Prize." You can also follow Stuart on Twitter.

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