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18 Oct 2005 : Column 225WH—continued

Oil Transfers (Firth of Forth)

12.30 pm

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): East Lothian has one of the finest coastlines in the United Kingdom and attracts 2.5 million visitors every year, with all the obvious advantages for local communities, including the employment of approximately 3,500 people in the tourist industry. The coastline stretches for 69 km from Cockburnspath north to Musselburgh; its beauty is valued by local and visitor alike.

The East Lothian coastline is of outstanding natural heritage; 90 per cent. of it is classified as being of biological, ornithological and geological interest, forming part of the Forth special protection area. The coastline also has nine designated bathing waters, from Seton Sands down to Thornton loch. There are designated shellfish harvesting areas around the Forth estuary, including the coastline from Dunbar to north Berwick. Anyone travelling on the east coast main line will see its breathtaking beauty at first hand. Over the summer recess, I was extremely busy in surgeries and correspondence with constituents determined to protect the beautiful coastline on their doorstep.

The issue that has caused consternation and alarm among local communities in East Lothian is the proposal to transfer oil from ship to ship in the firth of Forth. Melbourne Marine Services, a Sunderland-based company, wants to transfer 7.8 million tonnes of crude oil from Russia off the coastline of East Lothian, with no benefit whatever for the area and its communities.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): My hon. Friend may know that there is a transfer facility at Hounds Point on the River Forth, which lies in my constituency. During the tenure of Tam Dalyell, the former Member of Parliament for the area, there were a number of spillages because the equipment was insufficient. I support my hon. Friend: there should not be another terminal in the firth of Forth given that, at last, the one at Hounds Point is working correctly.

Anne Moffat : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which I hope the Minister heard. It is an example of the point I want to illustrate; I want to move on to those who are totally against the proposals.

Three local authorities have voiced very strong doubts. Fife county council deputy leader Alex Thompson has suggested that ship-to-ship transfer represents the biggest single threat to Fife in the history of the council. That is how seriously Fife council takes the matter.

Mr. John MacDougall (Glenrothes) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which will be very helpful to my constituents in central Fife, who are clearly affected by the proposals. I am sure that she is aware that the council unanimously opposed the proposals, and a unanimous decision in any form of politics these days is unique. We must take careful consideration of that, and I hope that the Minister takes cognisance of it.

Following this debate, I have a meeting on this very subject with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, and concerned people from
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my constituency. A number of issues have not been made clear. Does my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) accept that investment along the River Forth, which, as she rightly points out, affects many constituencies, has been tremendous? The benefits of the investment in jobs and the tourist industry have been tremendous, and there is no indication of the benefits to our constituents of the proposals. There are health and safety issues that have yet to be clarified. Those issues must be considered seriously before a definite commitment is made to go ahead with any proposals.

Anne Moffat : I am glad that that intervention was made, too. It is great that Fife council and East Lothian council can come together with the appropriate MPs and MSPs—that is also happening in the case of Edinburgh.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): To complete the picture of the constituencies and the authorities along the Forth, I should say that, as my hon. Friend knows, Edinburgh city council has expressed its objections to the proposal. Considerable concern has also been expressed by local community organisations, including Newhaven community council and Leith harbour community council in particular. Does my hon. Friend agree that what is significant about the proposal is that concern about it has been expressed not just by the local authorities and experts but by communities and individuals in her constituency and right along the tidal stretch of the Forth, on both sides of the firth?

Anne Moffat : Of course, I agree. That was another helpful intervention. It is great that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. I hope that the Minister takes on board how strongly we, collectively, feel about this issue. I am glad that Edinburgh city council is firmly against the proposal and is on board. My local authority has said that there is nothing to gain from ship-to-ship oil transfer and that all that we would gain is

At the outset, East Lothian council, to its credit, decided to oppose the proposal. I congratulate the chief executive, the provost, the deputy leader, the leader and all the councillors on their stance on this issue. Since then, others have followed suit, including Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. More importantly—this is crucial—the people of East Lothian, in their thousands, have opposed the proposal. They are up in arms about it and are writing to the press and to me. My mailbag is full. It is one issue that everyone feels strongly about.

All the organisations and individuals have clearly identified the economic, as well as the environmental, threat that would exist if the scheme went ahead in the firth of Forth. In recent years, millions of pounds of public money has delivered major improvements to the coastline and beaches of East Lothian. That investment should never be put at risk.

Hon. Members may ask whether there is a genuine risk from the proposal for the ship-to-ship transfer of oil. The answer is yes. The transfer of 7.8 million tonnes of crude oil, involving hundreds of ships, is an accident
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waiting to happen. The hazards include oil spills, vessel collision, fire and explosion, environmental emissions, damage to coastal and sea-bed habitats, financial implications, damage to tourism and damage to fishing. I am sure that most of us remember the 1993 Braer disaster off Shetland and the devastation that the oil spill caused. We need to stop this proposal in its tracks. When there were ship-to-ship heavy oil transfers in Lyme bay in Dorset in 2003–04, Devon and Cornwall councils got together to oppose that and the transfers were stopped. I do not want them to start. As recently as March 2004, the Swedish company Brostrom Tankers AB was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay costs of £11,000 after oil leaked into the firth of Forth.

I have had many conversations about where I was born and brought up and the constituency that I represent. I was born in Fife and I represent East Lothian, so I have seen the firth of Forth from both sides and it is a sight to behold. I have written to the Secretary of State for Transport to ask him to listen to opponents of the proposal. Edinburgh has been mentioned. We are also talking about East Lothian council, Fife council, East Lothian civic organisations and most importantly, as I said earlier—I cannot emphasise this enough—the East Lothian people. None of them wants the coastline to be put at risk as a result of ships transferring 3,000 tonnes of crude oil every hour. That is a real danger, and my constituents with my help will oppose the proposal. I hope that the Minister has listened carefully to what has been said and that he will agree to meet a small delegation from the affected areas around the firth of Forth with a view to resolving this environmental and political hot potato as soon as possible.

12.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) on securing this debate. I listened carefully to what she and other hon. Friends said about the issue and the concerns that they expressed. Members of Parliament will be meeting the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), this afternoon. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian said a few moments ago about meeting a delegation of residents and other organisations from the area. We will give that consideration and write to her as soon as possible.

Ship-to-ship transfer is an internationally recognised practice, which takes place worldwide. Voluntary industry guidelines were issued under the aegis of the International Chamber of Shipping and the Oil Companies International Marine Forum and set out the procedures to be followed when carrying out ship-to-ship transfers. A new and updated edition of those guidelines was issued earlier this year.

Ship-to-ship transfer operations have been undertaken globally for many years and have a very good safety record. In UK waters particularly, ship-to-ship transfer operations have an excellent record on both safety and the environment. Ship-to-ship transfer operations at Scapa Flow in Orkney, Sullom
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Voe in Shetland and the Nigg oil terminal in the Cromarty firth have not given rise to any spills that caused damage to the environment. It is worth noting that Scapa Flow recently saw the 25th anniversary of such operations.

Ship-to-ship transfer operations can provide substantial economic benefit to the locality in which they are carried out, the most prominent example in the UK being Scapa Flow. Consequently, the UK would certainly not wish to undermine the practice of ship-to-ship transfers. Instead, our concern is to ensure that such operations are regulated and managed appropriately so that they are carried out safely and with minimum risk to the environment.

The ship-to-ship transfers that we now see are predominantly transfers of persistent oils. There must be adequate safeguards in place, otherwise any spill may result in environmental damage. We must ensure that ship-to-ship transfers take place only when there is a fully worked-up oil spill contingency plan with trained personnel and the necessary equipment for responding to a spill close at hand. That means managing the practice of ship-to-ship transfers so that they take place only in areas where the harbour authorities have suitable oil spill contingency plans.

Turning to the proposal to carry out ship-to-ship transfers of oil in the firth of Forth, I can tell the Chamber that at an early stage my Department's Maritime and Coastguard Agency determined that the Forth Ports current approved oil spill contingency plan does not address the specific risks associated with ship-to-ship transfers of persistent oil in the Forth Ports harbour authority area. The agency determined that a revision of the contingency plan was necessary to take those risks into account and to incorporate the necessary safeguards.

The legislation governing that process is the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation Convention) Regulations 1998. It is a normal requirement for ports throughout the UK to have an oil spill contingency plan, and detailed oversight of those plans is a matter for the agency as expressed in the regulations.

It is the function of the oil spill contingency plan to address the risk of an oil spill, resulting damage to the environment and harm to human health from the full range of activities carried out in the port. Consequently, for ship-to-ship transfers to be carried out within a harbour authority area, the authority must first have an approved oil spill contingency plan which addresses the specific risk presented by such activities.

Guidance issued by the agency—Contingency Planning for Marine Pollution Preparedness and Response: Guidelines for Ports—required that the Forth Ports proposed revision of its oil spill contingency plan be put out to consultation before being formally submitted to the agency for the Government's approval. The list of consultees included the local authorities for the area concerned, the Scottish Executive's Environment and Rural Affairs Department, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage.

I am aware of the important seminar that Fife council hosted on 10 June to discuss ship-to-ship transfers, with particular reference to whether such activities should
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take place in the firth of Forth. I also want to mention the stakeholder meeting that the agency hosted in Grangemouth on 25 July for the purposes of mediation in which East Lothian council, Fife council, Forth Ports, Melbourne Marine Services, the Scottish Executive, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage all participated.

The current position is that Forth Ports has submitted its revised oil pollution contingency plan to the Government and a decision will be taken in the near future. Part of that decision-making consideration relates to the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994, commonly known as the habitats regulations, and whether the revision of the Forth Ports oil spill contingency plan is a plan for the purposes of regulation 48(1) of the habitats regulations. If it is, it is mandatory for the competent authority, in this case the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, before deciding to undertake or give consent, permission or other authorisation to the plan, to make an appropriate assessment relating to the implications of the plan for certain categories of designated nature conservation sites that are listed under regulation 10 and which are thereafter referred to as European sites. Such sites exist in the firth of Forth and that consideration is therefore relevant.

We have sought views and assistance from other parts of the Government. That has inevitably taken some time, but it has proved to be beneficial. Our consideration will be aided further by the outcome of a case that is currently before the European Court of Justice and which, although it does not relate directly to shipping matters and oil pollution contingency plans, does relate to the interpretation of the plan for the purposes of regulation 48(1). I understand that the European Court of Justice is expected to present its judgment on Thursday 20 October.

It would be prudent to wait until we have had sight of the judgment before deciding whether regulation 48(1) of the habitats regulations applies in the matter. When we have had sight of the judgment, it should be possible
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to make progress swiftly. Whether or not the habitats regulations apply, Scottish Natural Heritage and other interested parties will continue to be consulted as the decision-making process continues, either under the MCA's contingency planning guidelines or the statutory procedures that are set out in the habitats regulations.

In the last analysis, it is for the Government to make a decision about the revised Forth Ports oil spill contingency plan. The Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation Convention) Regulations 1998 define tightly the considerations that the Government may take into account when making their decision. The Government must consider whether the Forth Ports revised plan is compatible with the United Kingdom's national contingency plan for marine pollution and shipping and offshore installations. They must also consider whether the plan is appropriate for dealing with oil pollution incidents in the area for which the harbour authority is responsible.

In strict terms, there is no provision in law for the Government to reject an oil pollution emergency plan that is submitted to them. They must either approve the plan or, if the plan is not compatible with the national contingency plan or is not appropriate for dealing with pollution incidents that might occur, they may direct the plan to be altered. It is the duty of the harbour authority to alter the plan if directed to do so. Failure to comply with that direction is a criminal offence. Failure to implement an oil pollution emergency plan is also an offence on the part of the harbour authority or the operator. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian and other hon. Friends that the Government are wholly committed to making the right decision in accordance with the law. I have listened carefully to what has been said in the debate and I shall write to my hon. Friend about her request for a further meeting.

12.48 pm
Sitting suspended.
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