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The Invisible Threat to the North Sea Ecosystems

Researchers Say Abandoned Gas Pipelines Could Be Releasing Toxins Into The North Sea

By Georgie Burns

Aberdeen Beach Front at Sunrise by Rab Lawrence via Flickr

The North Sea is a beautiful backdrop to Aberdeen, a part of our city’s material which has provided entertainment and enjoyment for hundreds of years. It is a part of most students’ everyday lives, whether they enjoy watching the boats on the horizon from the library, surfing the waves, or studying its significance in oil and renewable energy. However, scientists warn that the roughly 16,800 miles of gas pipelines throughout the North Sea could slowly poison it. Miles of the installed pipelines are now abandoned, and as they sit decaying, they could release significant quantities of toxins. 

Governments have chosen not to follow in the footsteps of countries like Australia, which require companies to remove pipes when they are no longer operational, instead allowing North Sea companies to leave them decaying in our sea. So, how much damage is this choice, and its consequential toxins, causing? 

The first concern is mercury, a highly toxic element that naturally builds up on the sides of oil and gas pipes and is released into the water when the pipe's metal is corroded after abandonment. The release of mercury into the water can have catastrophic impacts on animals, as its ingestion can result in behavioural issues, infertility and death. This is a particular concern of Lhiam Paton, a researcher from the Institute for Analytical Chemistry at the University of Graz in Austria, who explained to the Guardian and Watershed Investigations that

“even a small increase in mercury levels in the sea will have a dramatic impact on the animals at the top of the food web”.

There is still more research needed to fully understand the effect the mercury leaching could have on marine life, including what aspect of the ocean it will contaminate (for example, seawater, sediments or biota) and how quickly it will enter the food web - something which could quickly harm us, maybe as much as it could the marine ecosystem.  

The UK is already aware of mercury's devastating effect on animal and human populations, as they are a signatory to the Minamata convention. This agreement was formed to tackle mercury pollution after its namesake, a Japanese city that experienced large-scale mercury contamination of its fish and shellfish from wastewater, which resulted in the death of many people in the area and severely disabled many others.

However, mercury is not the only toxin threatening the North Sea’s ecosystems. Natural radioactive materials, such as dissolved radium, may also be building up as scales inside the oil and gas pipelines. Dr Tom Cresswell, from Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, is studying the impacts of these materials which are present in oil and gas seabed reservoirs and their potential build-up. He also calls for more research into the effects of the North Sea’s inactive pipelines, explaining that “radium will physically decay into radioactive lead and polonium, which may be taken up into marine organisms and may represent a radiological risk to these organisms”. Polonium may sound familiar to some readers, as its toxicity made headlines in 2010 when it was used to poison Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko.  

According to a spokesperson for Opred, a part of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), steps have been taken to minimise the release of harmful substances and monitor corrosion levels. They further outlined that “prior to the decommissioning of oil and gas fields, the contents of a pipeline are also flushed and filled with seawater to keep contaminants to a minimum.”

However, many believe that DESNZ’s procedures are not enough. Paton, for instance, responded that unless DESNZ provides evidence, it is “not reasonable to assume that flushing with seawater solves any issues.”

With the potential risks of toxins leaching from inactive pipelines in the North Sea, we must demand stronger regulations, more research and clarity from the companies who own them, not only to protect ourselves but also the animals that call the North Sea home.


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