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Cambo oil field threatens native ocean species, environmentalists warn

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The controversial Cambo oil field project, which is awaiting the go-ahead by the UK government, represents a risk to “hundreds” of marine species including rare deep-sea sponges, long-lived clams, and whales and dolphins in the area, experts have warned.

Amid the second week of the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, campaigners and environmental groups have said pipelines to export the oil drilled from the site off Shetland, would cut through around 22 miles of the “Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt”, a marine protected area (MPA).

As well as the drilling and industrial activity impacting dolphins and whales which depend on sonar for navigation and hunting the area the project “could jeopardise hundreds of species over several decades, as well as livelihoods”, a review by the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (Elaw), has warned.

The site, 75 miles west of Shetland, is where five cold water masses converge, bringing a unique array of nutrients which support a huge variety of life.

The sea bed species most at risk include the rare deep-sea sponges known as “cheese-bottoms” by fishermen, and ocean quahogs, a species of clam which has been known to live for over 500 years, making it one of the oldest-living creatures on Earth.

Against the backdrop of the climate summit, at which the UK has played a leading role in urging countries to ditch fossil fuels, environmental groups are calling on the UK government to lead by example and “say no” to the Cambo proposal, which has been put forward by Siccar Point Energy, and in which Shell has a stake.

Calum Duncan, head of conservation Scotland at the Marine Conservation Society said: “The UK government presents itself as a global leader on climate change and ocean protection, committing to protect a third of the ocean by 2030. It now needs to act on these promises and protect this precious sponge belt from Shell. The sponge beds and associated species are incredibly sensitive deep-sea habitats. Construction, movement and potential leaking from this pipeline could have devastating consequences for deep-sea sponge and protected features already under pressure from damaging activities such as deep-sea trawling.

“Against the twin climate and biodiversity crises, Boris Johnson must heed the message from scientists when they say there can be no new oil and gas developments, like Cambo, if we want a liveable climate.”

Ocean Rebellion, an activist group linked to Extinction Rebellion, said if the government gave the go-ahead to the project it would “deepen the climate crisis and is nothing short of ecocide”.

Calling on the government to “stop greenwashing”, the Sophie Miller from Ocean Rebellion told The Independent: “The Cambo Oil Field is a continuation of bowing to fossil-fuel industry pressure. We need to wean humanity off oil, not dig more wells.

“How can the UK government on the one hand make promises about carbon reduction at Cop26 and talk about ‘leading the world on commitments to the planet’ when on the other they increase subsidies to the oil and gas industry by £2bn? Our leaders are failing us,” she said.

Sixteen marine protection and climate groups, including Greenpeace UK, WWF UK, the Marine Conservation Society and Friends of the Earth Scotland, have written to the UK government’s offshore oil and gas environmental regulator, Opred, asking it to include marine impacts when assessing the Cambo drilling application.

A UK government spokesperson told PA: “The Cambo oil field was originally licensed in 2001. Development proposals for oil fields under existing licences are a matter for the regulators: the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) and the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning; following their standard regulatory processes.

“As part of regulatory process, Opred complete an environmental impact assessment and a public consultation on any proposal, including ensuring the impact on the marine environment is taken into account."

A spokesperson for Siccar Point Energy said: “We are committed to producing oil and gas responsibly to provide a homegrown energy supply during the transition and have been subject to all the regulatory processes, checks and balances expected of any offshore energy development.”

“The export pipeline from Cambo is for gas. All our environmental work is underpinned by extensive special scientific analysis and research, predominantly using external specialists.”

They said discussions were held with the regulator and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) when compiling the environmental statement and the analysis of seabed habitats was completed in line with JNCC’s current methodology.

A Scottish government spokesperson said Nicola Sturgeon has called on the UK government to use its power to urgently re-assess all approved oil licences where drilling has not yet commenced against our climate commitments.

They said: “There are duties on all public authorities to ensure that there is no significant risk to achieving Marine Protected Area conservation objectives from their decisions to consent activities. In the case of oil and gas development that is the responsibility of the UK government through the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment & Decommissioning.”

Additional reporting by PA.

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