Oil in Poole Bay: now is the time to stand up for wildlife

Undulate Ray © Peter Tinsley

Recently a proposal to drill a 1,800m deep exploration oil well out at sea in Poole Bay was sent around for consultation. It would be just 6 km (3.7 miles) east-north-east from Studland, somewhere south of about Boscombe pier.

Drilling in Poole Bay

Recently a proposal to drill a 1,800m deep exploration oil well out at sea in Poole Bay was sent around for consultation.  It would be just 6 km (3.7 miles) east-north-east from Studland, somewhere south of about Boscombe pier.  Strictly speaking it was the Environmental Impact Statement that was sent out.  Sited in the middle of Poole Bay and in a potential Special Protection Area, the mobile drilling unit would be on-site for up to 45 days.  By drilling the romantically named 98/11-E well, the company is looking to see if there is sufficient oil in reservoirs that can’t be reached from the existing wells on land at Wytch Farm.

Dumping waste in Dorset’s seas

20 years ago as a youngish aspiring applied research scientist I worked in a large Norwegian research institute in Stavanger.  I led a team of scientists helping various petroleum companies with decommissioning: the removal or shutting down of oil production infrastructure in the North Sea after the oil fields were exhausted.  One of the main issues was what to do with the large piles of drilling waste that remained on the sea floor. 

In order to help lubricate the drill bit and to bring the chips of rock (cuttings) to the surface, drilling muds are used during the exploration drilling process.  In the early days of the North Sea oil rush both cuttings and muds were dumped at sea under the drilling platforms.  As some of the muds were oil-based and some of the cuttings were from inside an oil reservoir, it meant that the area around a drill cuttings pile could be polluted.  Indeed some scientists found traces of pollutants from the piles hundreds of miles away. 

Nowadays we are more enlightened and technology has improved so that the muds and cuttings are separated off.  The muds are reused and rarely oil-based, whilst the cuttings can be brought safely to shore for land-fill.

Imagine then my surprise to read, 20 years later, that the proposal by Corallian Energy to drill an exploratory well in Poole Bay included the dumping of about 1.7 million kg of drill cuttings and muds in the Bay.  These were expected to be dispersed by the currents - even worse than building up a mound.

The risks from pollution

From an environmental and marine wildlife perspective I think this is far from acceptable and completely un-necessary.  It is not as a nimby that I say that Poole Bay is the last place we should allow oil drilling.  Some sites, such as this are far too sensitive.  Within only a few square miles we have a major part of Dorset’s economy and reputation.

Dorset is not the industrial heartland of the country.  We don’t have steel smelters, aluminium works or car production plants.  We had our chance in Victorian times but chose wool over coal thank goodness.  Dorset does though have a thriving economy and businesses based in a large part on our natural environment.  A clean, healthy Dorset, and Poole Bay in particular, is vital for the tourism, commercial fishing, aquaculture, boating, angling and transport industries.  Add to that the resources we get from the sea or the fish, shellfish, dolphins and seals, sea birds, seaweeds and habitats such as rocky reefs, sandy gullies and seagrass beds, and you have a real concentration of riches between Old Harry and Hengistbury Head.

A blow-out, such as happened to BP in the Gulf of Mexico or the type of chronic pollution found in the North Sea would be a disaster for wildlife and the local economy for years to come.  Now admittedly it would be over-dramatic to think that the Gulf of Mexico accident could happen in the far smaller scale operation planned for Poole Bay, but the geography is far smaller and more compact in Poole Bay.

The environmental record of oil production in Poole Harbour with BP and then Perenco was very good.  The drilling on land at Wytch Farm was carefully regulated and impacts very restricted.  That’s much easier to do on land than out at sea.

In my previous job I was sent to cover the Prestige oil tanker disaster off the northern coast of Spain.  Again, a much bigger scale than could happen as a result of the Poole Bay well, but the lesson to be learned from La Coruna was that the oil pollution damaged the reputation of fishing, aquaculture and tourism in the area for many years.  The market for the seafood products from there and tourism was compromised for many years after there was actually any residual pollution.  With a newly environmentally certified fishery in Poole Harbour, high quality shellfish farms, sea grass beds in and around Studland so important for a wide range of sea life including seahorses and undulate rays, and the newly designated Poole Rocks Marine Conservation Zone, there is just too much of importance to risk with an oil well close by in this day and age.

What about climate change?

Added to those local pollution concerns are questions about whether we should be drilling for yet more oil at a time when the government is struggling to reach our climate change targets.  Investment in renewable energy is now the way forward. The government’s Green Growth strategy is calling for a significant acceleration in the pace of decarbonisation in the UK.  Recent analysis shows that burning the reserves in already operating oil and gas fields alone, even if coal mining is completely phased out, would take the world beyond 1.5°C of warming.  It is difficult then to see how this proposal could fit in with the Green Growth Strategy or the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Not in Poole Bay

So my and Dorset Wildlife Trust’s objections to this speculative proposal is not because we are against development, nor is it a nimby approach.  Also I admire the more forward-thinking elements of the petroleum industry, especially having worked for them for many years.  If they turn their minds to it this industry has the money, experience and technology to apply to reduce the risks of damage to the environment and harm to wildlife.  Why then isn’t this being done in Poole Bay?  Why are 1.5 million kg of drill cuttings and drilling muds being dumped in our Dorset seas.  Local interests stopped the development of the Navitus Bay wind farm which was a far more benign and environmentally valuable project.  How is drilling for oil in such a rich and important area acceptable?

Personally, especially with drill cuttings and muds being dumped into the sea, I just can’t see this project as being necessary for society and too great a risk for the environment and community in Poole, Bournemouth and Purbeck.  I therefore hope the authorities will not grant the necessary licences, or in the very least require environmental standards appropriate for this sensitive, valuable and important site.  Now is the time we need to stand up for wildlife.