November 11, 2021

Protected ‘cheesy-bottom’ Sponge Belt threatened by controversial Cambo oil field

New analysis of the sea bed casts further doubt over Shell’s proposed North Sea oil expansion

Sensitive deep sea sponges and 400 year-old clams could be among the protected marine life impacted by the Cambo oil field off the coast of Shetland, according to a new scientific review by the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW).

Already, Boris Johnson is under intense pressure to reject Cambo’s imminent approval due to its impact on the climate, as he hosts the COP26 climate talks.

Calum Duncan, Head of Conservation Scotland at the Marine Conservation Society: “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 of this pipeline and potential leaks 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, and the Scottish Government must ensure the adequate protection of this vulnerable sponge belt from all impacts.”

Pipelines from the Cambo field are set to cut through approximately 35 kilometres of the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt, which is a UK Marine Protected Area. It is home to rare, deep-sea sponge habitat, known as “cheesy-bottoms” by fishers, and ocean quahogs, a type of clam that can live for hundreds of years, making it one of the oldest living animals on Earth. Both species are listed as “threatened” by the OSPAR Commission.

This week, 16 marine protection and climate groups wrote to the offshore oil and gas environmental regulator, OPRED, asking it to include marine impacts when assessing Cambo’s drilling application. They raised concerns about the likely impacts the pipelines will have on the seabed, on hundreds of marine species and on the local fishing industry, and underline the devastation that an oil spill in the area would cause; risks that have been seriously downplayed by Cambo’s operator, Siccar Point Energy, according to ELAW.

Shell and private-equity backed Siccar Point Energy want permission to extract 170 million barrels of oil in the first phase alone, which would generate emissions equivalent to the annual carbon pollution from 18 coal-fired power stations. Ever rising emissions – driven by new fossil fuel developments like Cambo – are having an alarming impact on the ocean, including changes to major currents and their chemical makeup. As a result, scientists are demanding an immediate end to all new oil and gas projects, like Cambo.

Tessa Khan, director of Uplift said: “These critical climate talks have two goals: enormous global cuts to carbon emissions and the protection and restoration of the natural world. And yet, just a of hundred miles north of Glasgow, COP26’s hosts are considering doing the complete opposite. This new oil field will contribute to the climate crisis while potentially damaging a sensitive underwater world. Everyone loses except the oil companies. The UK government must protect its seas, lead the world beyond oil and gas and say “no” to Cambo.”

Here is some coverage of the potential impact of Cambo on these protected habitats:

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Cover image credit: Joint Nature Conservation Committee