chevron-protestLate last week, the British government gave the goahead for the American oil company, Chevron to start drilling a deepwater exploratory well as part of its Lagavulin project in the waters north of the Shetland Islands.

In a highly controversial move, it is the first time the new British Coalition government has granted permission for deepwater drilling since BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Drilling could now start within days.

The decision has been criticised by the environmental group Greenpeace, whose activists last week spent 50 chilly hours in the water in front of Chevron’s drill ship, and another 100 freezing hours on Chevron’s anchor chain in a forlorn attempt to stop the drilling.

Greenpeace argues that it is “asking the government to stop giving out these licenses for new offshore drilling and to carry out a comprehensive new environmental assessment into offshore oil.”

The group believes the license is also a breach of European and UK law and is threatening legal action.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change – DECC – argues that the strictest possible regulation was being applied to Chevron.

“All lessons learnt from Macondo [in the Gulf of Mexico] have been applied to this well and steps have been taken to prevent the specific failures on Macondo. Close scrutiny of the well will continue, by the Health and Safety executive, by DECC and by Chevron itself,” it added.

Apparently Chevron has agreed to this supposed extra scrutiny during drilling, including more inspections by the Health and Safety Executive.

To things sping to mind. Firstly how can all the lessons from the Deepwater disaster be applied, when we don’t evne know what those lessons are yet?

DECC’s statement seems a tad premature.

But more importantly, very senior union officials I have spoken to – who have decades of experience in the offshore oil and gas industry – are worried about the ability of the HSE to maintain safety inspections at current levels, given the proposed cuts to all government departments.

Although nothing specific has been said about the HSE, as part of the government’s austerity package and cuts, government departments have been asked to find savings of 20 per cent or more. Even up to 40 per cent.

With cuts like this, there is no way that the HSE will be able to maintain its current safety checking, let alone increase them, especially to new frontier areas so far from Shetland.

So there is a huge dichotomy going on here – the government cutting jobs on the one hand and promising extra inspections on the other.

Something will have to give.

And that could well be safety.