Saturday, February 23, 2008

Oil drilling raises concerns for dolphins' safety

CONCERN for rare dolphins yesterday led to the Moray Firth being excluded from a list of sea areas around Britain being opened up for oil exploration.

John Hutton, the Energy Secretary at Westminster, announced that a record-breaking 2,297 blocks or part blocks in UK waters were being offered to oil companies to investigate.In the last licensing round a number of Moray Firth blocks were put on the market but withdrawn amid concern that drilling might harm the fragile bottlenose dolphin population.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society claimed seismic testing could damage the mammals' hearing, reducing the 130-strong colony's prospects of survival in the Firth.Officials last night confirmed the blocks had now been excluded from the latest round.Mr Hutton said: "We have been careful to avoid harming dolphins and other sealife that thrive in these areas in the past and will continue to do so."The UK's oil and gas industry provides three-quarters of our energy needs and 400,000 jobs, which is why we will continue to support further exploration."

He also announced that following an extensive strategic environmental assessment, blocks to the west of Rockall off the west coast of Scotland had also been excluded.A spokesman for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said: "Any licences awarded in the 25th round will contain conditions to protect environmental interests and those of other sea users.

In addition, activities carried out under the licences will be subject to a range of legislation which is designed to protect the marine environment."A spokeswoman for the conservation society gave a cautious welcome to the announcement. But she said the society's experts would be studying the government's announcement in detail before giving a considered response to the proposals.She said: "It may not be as straightforward as we think."

The record number of licences on offer was warmly welcomed by North Sea industry leaders.Malcolm Webb, the chief executive of Oil and Gas UK, the pan-industry trade body, said that with up to 25 billion barrels of oil and gas still to recover from British waters, the new licensing round had provided a wide range of opportunities for companies to find and develop the UK's remaining hydrocarbons.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"