The Dangers of Abandoned Oil and Gas Pipelines in the North Sea

February 25, 2024 - Reading time: 3 minutes

Decaying oil and gas pipelines left to fall apart in the North Sea could release large volumes of poisons such as mercury, radioactive lead and polonium-210, notorious for its part in the poisoning of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko, scientists are warning.

Scientists have raised concerns that deteriorating oil and gas pipelines abandoned in the North Sea may become a source of significant environmental pollution by releasing harmful substances such as mercury, radioactive lead, and polonium-210 into the marine ecosystem. Mercury, a potent toxin found naturally in oil and gas, accumulates inside pipelines over time and can be discharged into the ocean as these structures corrode. The degradation of these pipelines poses a risk not only due to mercury but also due to the potential release of other dangerous substances like methylmercury, a highly toxic variant of mercury, which can have severe effects on marine life at the top of the food chain, including dolphins, whales, seals, seabirds, and large fish species, leading to reproductive issues, behavioral changes, and even mortality.

The North Sea, with approximately 27,000 kilometers of gas pipelines, faces a potential increase in mercury levels by up to 160% from current concentrations, according to research published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials. The abandonment of these pipelines, a practice permitted in the North Sea, contrasts with other regions like Australia, where companies are mandated to remove pipelines post-operation to prevent environmental harm.

Further concerns are raised by the presence of naturally occurring radioactive materials in some undersea oil and gas reservoirs. These materials can accumulate inside pipelines, transforming into radioactive substances such as lead-210 and polonium-210, which pose radiological risks to marine organisms. The call for more comprehensive research underscores the need to understand the long-term environmental impacts of these substances and the mechanisms through which they enter marine food webs.

The issue highlights the broader environmental challenges posed by oil and gas developments in marine ecosystems, emphasizing the urgency for rigorous environmental safeguards and the importance of international cooperation, as embodied by the Minamata convention, in addressing mercury pollution and protecting marine biodiversity.

Lhiam Paton, a researcher from the Institute for Analytical Chemistry at the University of Graz has raised the alarm over the mercury pollution, told 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”

“We still need to understand how clean pipelines need to be of mercury to ensure there will be no long-term impacts to the marine environment. This requires research investigating the long-term fate of mercury if left in contaminated pipelines and the conditions that will result in mercury ending up in food webs,” said Koppel.

DW Staff

David Lintott is the Editor-in-Chief, leading our team of talented freelance journalists. He specializes in covering culture, sport, and society. Originally from the decaying seaside town of Eastbourne, he attributes his insightful world-weariness to his roots in this unique setting.