LONDON – The British government warned Monday that several hundred tons of oil may have leaked into the North Sea from a Royal Dutch Shell rig.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change said it estimates that the leak from a flow line at the Gannet Alpha platform off the Scottish coast that began last week could have spilled several hundred tons of oil into the sea.
It said the leak was small compared to the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, but said it was still substantial for the U.K.'s continental shelf. The government said the oil would disperse naturally and was not expected to reach the shore.
It said Britain's offshore oil industry had a strong safety record, "which is why it is disappointing that this spill has happened. We take any spill very seriously and we will be investigating the causes of the spill and learning any lessons from the response to it."
The government said the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which monitors the waters around Britain, was making twice-daily flights over the area to monitor the situation.
Royal Dutch Shell estimates 1,300 barrels of oil have spilled into the North Sea off Scotland's coast.
Glen Cayley, technical director of Shell's European exploration and production activities, said Monday the amount is a "significant spill" in the context of annual amounts of oil spilled in the North Sea.
He says the flowline to the Gannet Alpha platform is now leaking around five barrels a day. The leak began last week.
Cayley says he expects waves to disperse the oil sheen and he does not expect it to reach the shore. The platform is still operating.
Shell says the spill covers a surface area of 19 miles by 2.7 miles at it largest point.
The oil field, about 112 miles east of the city of Aberdeen, is operated by Shell and co-owned by Shell and Esso, a subsidiary of the U.S. oil firm Exxon Mobil.
Stuart Housden, Director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland, said razorbills, puffins and guillemots that gather in the North Sea in late summer could be at risk.
"We know oil of any amount, if in the wrong place, at the wrong time, can have a devastating impact on marine life," he said.
The Scottish government said it was working with Shell to monitor the spill and warn local fishing boats about it.