More than a quarter of new oil and gas licences cover marine protected areas

More than a quarter of the offshore oil and gas sites licensed by the UK government last month sit within marine protected areas (MPAs) prized for their rare habitats and species, an analysis from Greenpeace's Unearthed unit has revealed

The NGO’s investigative team found that of the 64 licences awarded to develop or explore for oil and gas resources in UK waters last month, 17 (27%) sit wholly or partly within an MPA. 

The news has enraged conservation groups, who have warned that new oil and gas activity in protected conservation areas has the potential to cause “devastation” to “wildlife and habitats that are vital to ocean health.”  

An exploration licence does not always lead to a production field but the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) says that the new licences were “prioritised because they have the potential to go into production more quickly than others.”  About half of the 27 licences will start development in known reserves, while the others will begin exploration. 

The NSTA said that “vulnerable and protected habitats and species are considered throughout the licensing and permitting process” and that licences are only awarded when the NSTA has received permission from the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning (OPRED) “that their environmental assessment requirements are met”.

The NSTA emphasised that, even after a licence is granted, the licensee will still need to get further consents from the authority before they can conduct seismic surveys, drill exploration wells or progress towards full production.  

More than half of the blocks awarded last month (11 out of 17) that sit within or overlap MPAs went to the oil giant Shell UK. A further three went to a subsidiary of the Italian oil company Eni, and three to Athena Exploration. 

Hugo Tagholm, director of the charity Oceana UK, told Unearthed that even before drilling starts oil and gas operations can damage sea life in MPAs. 

“In the exploration phase, seismic airgun surveys – which are used almost exclusively in offshore oil and gas exploration – emit an ear-splitting noise that is 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine. These blasts deafen animals that rely on echolocation like dolphins, and can cause feeding disruption and even death among a range of ocean life,” he said. 

The MPA most-affected by the new tranche of licences is the the North-east Faroe-Shetland channel, which is believed to be a vital migration route for marine mammals, including fin whales and sperm whales.