COMPLAINTS have been lodged that plans for an oilfield near Shetland could 'destroy' a Scottish Marine Protection Area (MPA) which is home to "threatened" deep sea sponges and 400-year-old clams.

Some 16 marine protection and climate groups have written to the offshore oil and gas environmental regulator, OPRED, demanding a proper study of marine impacts when assessing Cambo’s drilling application.

They say pipelines to export the oil from the Cambo field are set to cut through approximately 22 miles of the Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt, which is a UK MPA.

A technical review carried out by Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide has found that the normal operations of the Cambo Project could jeopardise "hundreds of species over several decades".

The MPA covers over 2000 square miles in an region of sea where the mixing of relatively warmer North Atlantic water with sub-zero deep water from the Norwegian Sea leads to a diverse range of sea life in the area, including fields of slow-growing deep-sea sponges that are a key feature in the area.

HeraldScotland:

The deep-sea sponges, which are found on the slopes of the channel at depths of between 440 and 660 yards, known as "cheese-bottoms" by fishers (see above) ,  provide a sheltered habitat that supports creatures such as brittlestars, squat lobsters and burrowing heart urchins. 

The gravel beds within the channel also support ocean quahog, a large and slow growing clam which have a lifespan of more than 400 years and are thus considered to be amongst the oldest living animals on Earth.

READ MORE:80,000 tell Boris Johnson about 'devastating' new Shetland oil field after saying he hadn't heard of it

The sponges are one of the most primitive forms of multicellular animal life on the planet, with their fossil record stretching back some 600 million years.

The sponges and the clams are listed as “threatened” by the OSPAR Commission, the mechanism by which fifteen governments of the western coasts and catchments of Europe, together with the EU, cooperate to protect marine environments.

The Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt MPA was designated in 2014, and the Scottish Government proposed management measures for this and other offshore MPA sites at the time.

Now a host of environment groups including Uplift, the Marine Conservation Society, RSPB, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Ocean Rebellion, Fauna & Flora International, Blue Marine Foundation, WWF-UK, Greenpeace UK, Wildlife and Countryside Link, Friends of the Earth Scotland and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation have registered their deep concerns with OSPAR (the Oslo/Paris convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic).

They say the technical review provides further evidence that consent for the Cambo Project should not be granted.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and Marine Scotland have been carrying out the research in the area this summer as part of their work monitoring the condition of marine protected areas (see video below).

Calum Duncan, head of conservation in Scotland at the Marine Conservation Society said : “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.

"The sponge beds and associated species are incredibly sensitive deep-sea habitats. Construction, movement and potential leaking from this pipeline 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.”

A Scottish Government said the First Minister has called on the UK Government, who have the power to act in this instance, to "urgently re-assess" all approved oil licenses where drilling has not yet commenced against climate commitments.

The Cambo oilfield could produce 170m barrels of oil and produce emissions equivalent to 16 coal-fired power plants running for a year, according to Friends of the Earth.

There have been concerns the approval would risk undermining the UK government’s past decision to bar new oil exploration licences unless the oil driller can pass a “climate checkpoint” test that proves the fossil fuel is needed and can be produced with as small a carbon footprint as possible.

There are concerns the Cambo project will not face the same scrutiny in part because it would be an extension of an existing oilfield owned by the private equity-backed oil explorer Siccar Point.

Ministers announced in the spring that they would allow oil drillers to keep exploring the North Sea for new reserves, despite the government’s pledge to reduce UK carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, as long as they passed a “climate compatibility” test in addition to the existing environmental checks.

It later emerged that a major new development backed by Royal Dutch Shell at the Cambo oilfield in the North Sea would not be required to face the compatibility test because technically the plans were an “extension” to an existing licence.

A report from the International Energy Agency this year said there could be no new development of oil and gas fields if the world was to stay within safe limits of global heating and meet the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

Lawyers from ClientEarth, an environmental law charity, wrote to Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, days before the start of the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow to warn against approving projects such as Cambo by relying on outdated climate checks.

Joint Nature Conservation Committee video of the Faroe-Shetland Channel MPA.

In the letter sent at the end of last month, ClientEarth warned the government that any decision on offshore oil and gas developments must consider their full climate impact or its lawyers would be “prepared to challenge” ministers through a judicial review.

Sam Hunter Jones, a lawyer at ClientEarth, accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel” and said ministers risked making decisions based on out-of-date climate assessments unless it adopted new criteria reflecting growing international evidence against new fossil fuel developments.

Official figures show that the UK’s reserves stood at 4.4bn barrels of oil at the end of last year, or enough to sustain production until 2030 without any additional exploration.

Tessa Khan, director of Uplift added: “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 couple 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.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “The Cambo oil field was originally licensed in 2001. Development proposals for oil fields under existing licences are a matter for the regulators - the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) and the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning (OPRED) - following their standard regulatory processes.

“As part of regulatory process, OPRED complete an environmental impact assessment and a public consultation on any proposal, including ensuring the impact on the marine environment is taken into account.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Scotland’s current position on oil and gas is clear. Unlimited extraction of fossil fuels is not consistent with our climate obligations. Our focus must now be on achieving the fastest possible just transition for the oil and gas sector - one that delivers jobs and economic benefit, and also ensures our energy security and meets our climate obligations.

“There are duties on all public authorities to ensure that there is no significant risk to achieving Marine Protected Area conservation objectives from their decisions to consent activities. In the case of Oil and Gas development that is the responsibility of the UK Government through the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment & Decommissioning.”

A spokesman for Siccar Point Energy, said: “We are committed to producing oil and gas responsibly to provide a homegrown energy supply during the transition and have been subject to all the regulatory processes, checks and balances expected of any offshore energy development.

“The export pipeline from Cambo is for gas. All our environmental work is underpinned by extensive special scientific analysis and research, predominantly using external specialists. During the Environmental Statement (ES) process, we carried out extensive and detailed discussions with the regulator and the JNCC, which were directly involved in scoping the detailed survey work we undertook. The analysis of seabed habitats from the survey work was completed in-line with JNCC’s current methodology.”