A better way

07 September 2010 | News story

Representatives from Shell, an influential leader in the oil and gas industry, recently met with senior staff and experts from the IUCN network to discuss the implications of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the largest marine oil spill in US history, and the measures being taken to avoid future catastrophes.

One of IUCN’s priority areas of work is to minimize the environmental and social impacts of energy developments and help the world make the transition to a clean energy future. IUCN is keen to hear what is being done by the industry to make sure incidents like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill - which caused considerable damage to marine and coastal ecosystems, as well as the Gulf's fishing and tourism industries - are avoided.

Following the incident which took place in April this year, IUCN called for a global moratorium on oil and gas exploitation in ecologically-sensitive areas, including deepwater ocean sites and polar areas. It said that the rising demand for energy is leading to exploration in more difficult environments, increasing the risk of accidents with a price that is too high both for human livelihoods and the natural systems which support them.

The dialogue, the first meeting of which took place at IUCN headquarters in Switzerland, 1 September, is seen as a constructive way to exchange experiences between the environmental community and the oil and gas sector, outline key lessons learned, and help develop a road map to minimize the risks associated with deep water exploration.

Shell representatives looked at why the incident occurred; the level and quality of the technology that was being used as well as ‘best practice’ technology that would minimize the risk of future ‘blowouts’. They also outlined the spill responses that are available, the state of current knowledge and further research that is needed.

“Whilst incidents like this should not happen, and higher industry standards should be put in place to avoid such occurrences, we cannot entirely rule out their occurrence in the future, so if they do, the industry should be clearer on what to do if things go wrong,” said Allard Castelein, Shell’s Vice President, Environment. “The world needs more and more energy and unless we have a major transformation in energy use, this need will continue to grow. As an energy company we have a role to ensure that the energy is produced in a safe and reliable manner, and with full respect for the environment.”

New, tighter regulations, as well as a better understanding and sharing of information that’s already available throughout the industry are crucial steps to be taken to address current concerns.

Shell described regulatory changes such as the US drilling moratorium, and outlined an initiative that is being undertaken by some of the major oil companies including Chevron – Texaco, Exxon-Mobil, Conoco Phillips, and Shell on future deepwater containment systems as well as measures the industry may need to take to avoid future harm to coastal ecosystems.

Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission emphasized that the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which contains the best available species data, should be taken into account when developing effective restoration plans, which has not been the case so far.

Participants also raised the issue of oil spills in the Niger Delta where Shell has been accused of not respecting international standards and criticized for its relationship with local communities. Allard Castelein pointed out that the Nigerian situation was extremely complex and causes of spills were varied and often beyond the oil companies’ control. Shell was continuing its work in Nigeria, committed to eliminating flaring, to cleaning up oil spills associated with its facilities and engaging with communities in the clean-up activities. He also expressed his hopes that Shell’s partnership with IUCN could provide further help in effectively responding to the challenges.

“This is an important step forward in the Shell-IUCN partnership,” says Deric Quaile of IUCN’s Business and Biodiversity Programme. “The aim is to establish an ongoing dialogue so that incidents like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill can be avoided in the future and if they do occur – that our response and restoration plans are well thought through and based on cutting-edge science.”

For more information contact:

Nicki Chadwick, IUCN Media Relations Officer, email: nicki.chadwick@iucn.org