Shell/Esso's Kittiwake platform, North Sea (1996)

As I write, Shell is working to contain an oil spill off the Aberdeenshire coast that is already, reportedly, the worst spill in UK waters for over a decade.

As well as indulging in some shameless greenwashing (Shell is choosing to call the spill and the resulting 50 square mile slick a gentle sounding "oil sheen"), the oil giant has been less than transparent about the spill from the moment it started.

The pipeline started leaking last Wednesday; it took Shell until Friday to publicly confirm the accident.

Five days on, we still don't have enough information to know how serious the spill is. Shell hasn't confirmed how much oil has been leaked (although it's widely thought to be around 100 tonnes) and the company is also assuring the public that the leak is "under control" while, according to many reports, oil continues to pour out from the Gannet Alpha platform.

What we do know is that, according to most oil companies and the UK government, an oil spill in the North Sea is meant to be very unlikely.

North Sea drilling is regularly held up as a gold standard for oil drilling safety regulations, and ministers tell us that the risk of a Deepwater Horizon style blow out in the UK is small. In fact, BP thought the risk so small that it decided not to consider the consequences of a blowout in their North Sea emergency spill response plan.

The fact that accidents evidently can and do happen - Shell had a near miss back in 2009 on a platform they'd contracted to Transocean - is why we went to the High Court a few months ago to seek a legal challenge to the government's decision to issue 26 new licences for deep water drilling in UK waters.

The High Court judge gave us the green light, raising the serious prospect that the government will no longer be able to continue to rubber stamp dangerous deep water oil projects without assessing the environmental damage that a spill could have should one happen, despite George Osborne's apparent enthusiasm for squeezing as much oil out of the North Sea as he can.

The events presently playing out in the North Sea are also worrying on another count - Shell is among the companies looking to move into risky drilling in the Arctic.

If Shell can't prevent an oil spill in the 'ultra safe' North Sea, we have to ask how they'll manage in the pristine wilderness of the Arctic, where extreme conditions mean that any oil spill would be all but impossible to clean up?

Image: © Greenpeace/Fred Dott