Oil pollution conviction quashed

Offshore operator Amoco (UK) Exploration has succeeded in its bid to have its conviction under the Oil Pollution Act 1971 quashed.

Amoco had been convicted in Aberdeen Sheriff Court for an oil pollution incident in which 6.4 tonnes of diesel was discharged into the North Sea. The incident occurred when a storage tank was overfilled during the transfer of diesel from a supply ship.

Amoco was convicted under section 3(1)(b) of the 1971 Prevention of Oil Pollution Act, which makes the discharge of oil into the sea “as the result of any operation for the exploration of the sea bed and subsoil or the exploration of their natural resources..” a criminal offence.

In appealing its conviction, to the High Court in Edinburgh, Amoco claimed that as they were running a gas platform there was no evidence that they were engaged in the specific operation set out in the compliant against them – namely “searching and boring for petroleum”. Amoco also asked the court to consider whether the discharge of oil could properly be said to have taken place “as a result of any operation” and whether there had to be a causal connection between the discharge and a specified operation for the exploration of the seabed and subsoil or the exploration of their natural resources.

In rejecting both these arguments, the Court held that the 1971 Act created absolute liability in the event of a discharge and was not restricted to crude oil being extracted from beneath the seabed but could extend to the discharge of diesel oil which had been brought to the platform for use in activities ancillary to the main operations of exploration and exploitation. The court held that the words “as a result” must be read as meaning “arising out of the existence of an installation carrying out relevant operations” and that there was no need to establish a causal connection between the discharge and the specific activity.

Although part of the charge “searching and boring for petroleum” was accepted to be inaccurate the court held that all that is necessary for the commission of an offence is that an operator should be able to fall within the opening part of section 3(1)(b).

However, although Amoco’s contravention of the 1971 Act was confirmed, the Court held that Amoco was able to avail itself of the statutory defence set out in section 6 of the Act which provides – “it shall be a defence to prove that neither the escape nor any delay in discovering it was due to any want or reasonable care and that as soon as practicable after it was discovered all reasonable steps were taken for stopping or reducing it”.

The court accepted that Amoco had taken substantial steps to put in place all reasonable precautions, procedures and systems to guard against the possibility of oil escaping from the installation into the sea, such as: employment of experienced and competent staff, continuing training and assessment of staff, clear and unambiguous procedures for bunkering diesel from supply ships and the installation of alarms in control rooms.

In finding that the whole of the statutory defence made out, the Court held that the Sheriff had misdirected himself in coming to the conclusion that Amoco had failed to establish that the discharge incident was not due to any want of reasonable care. Furthermore, the Court also found that immediate and effective action had been taken to stop the discharge as soon as it had been discovered.

The full judgement of the High Court of Justiciary is available here.

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