HC Deb 16 January 1974 vol 867 cc762-74

2.59 a.m.

Mr. Laurance Reed (Bolton, East)

The first speech that I made in the House was about pollution of the sea by oil, and in raising the same topic again tonight it occurs to me that this may be the last speech that I shall make in the House,. If I were defeated in a General Election I should reflect upon the irony of the situation because, if my enthusiasm for exploiting the resources of the sea bed had been shared in Government circles, we would even now have had some of our own oil ashore and the country would not be in its present fix.

North Sea oil is a great boon to Britain but our euphoria at the prospect of becoming self-sufficient should not blind us to the environmental hazards that are associated with this development. I know that in Scotland there is disquiet about the effect that the onshore side of the industry may have on areas of outstanding beauty, but I think that this side of things is a preserve of Scottish Members and I do not propose to trespass on their territory tonight. I wish to concentrate my remarks on the pollution risk from the offshore side of the operation.

Marine oil exploitation, unlike the carriage of oil by ships, is localised and, therefore, the areas at risk are fairly easy to identify. Spillage can occur, however, in any number of ways—a fault in a geological structure, a blow-out during drilling, the failure of equipment, storm damage to installations, breakage of pipelines by ships' anchors, carelessness in loading tankers, fire, explosion or quite simply a navigator's error. The policy must be to reduce to the minimum the chances of a mishap and to ensure that any spillage is brought under prompt and effective control.

It is, I suppose, reassuring to know that in what is now more than half a century of offshore exploitation there have been surprisingly few accidents. In the Gulf of Mexico, for example, I understand that more than 13,000 wells have been drilled during the past 35 years but that there were only seven incidents involving any real risk to the environment.

Nevertheless, when a disaster occurs the results can be rather spectacular. Most hon. Members will recall the incident at Santa Barbara in, I think, 1969. On that occasion the oil smeared something like 30 miles of beach and blackened 800 square miles of sea, and it took three months to plug the leak effectively. In that case, I am told, the geological structure was somewhat unusual, and the experts seem to think that the likelihood of that type of spillage occurring in the North Sea is rather remote. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, in replying to this debate, could confirm that that is the opinion also of his Department.

A blow-out is an uncontrolled flow of oil into the sea from a formation being drilled or producing and blow-out preventers, storm chokes and other fail-safe devices are used. Like all complex pieces of equipment, however, they are not completely reliable and blow-outs occur.

Then there is the risk of fire and explosion. This seems to be a more frequent cause of accidents, certainly if experience in the Gulf of Mexico, which is about the only area of which we have experience, is anything to go by. In several instances there pollution has resulted, and in each instance it took some weeks to bring the spill under control.

Another possibility is that the pipeline connecting the well to shore could be broken, allowing oil to escape into the sea. Again, the operations are automatically controlled and the break should result in an immediate cut-off in the pressure. However, undersea pipelines are subject to corrosion and automatic shut-off systems do not always function properly. Again in the Santa Barbara Channel—not the most famous spill—there was an incident in December 1969 when a pipeline belonging to the Union Oil Company ruptured, causing a 50 square mile slick before it was detected.

I dare say that my hon. Friend will argue that the best safeguard against faulty equipment is the interest that the oil companies have in the security of their own investments, and I am sure that that is true, but human error and a desire to reduce costs work against good practice and sound procedures, and it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the highest standards are adopted and applied and it is also the responsibility of the Government to coordinate any clean-up operations that become necessary and to negotiate changes in international law where required.

I believe that I am right in saying that the platform and equipment used in the United Kingdom sector of the Continental Shelf come under British jurisdiction, but can my hon. Friend confirm that that is also true of mobile floating rigs? I take it that in future controls will be exercised by my hon. Friend's Department under the Continental Shelf Act and subsequent legislation.

Could my hon. Friend say a little more about preparations that the Government and the industry have made for carrying out clean-up operations, and has there been any attempt to negotiate efforts at collaboration with other countries that may be affected by a spill, such as Norway? Could my hon. Friend also say what progress has been made in trying to secure a fund out of which any damage could be paid for?

I believe that the major threat of pollution from the development of the Continental Shelf arises not from the technology or methods used by the oil industry, but rather in our inability, because the waters overlying the Continental Shelf are the high seas, to control fishing fleets and other shipping in the vicinity of operations. Submarine pipelines are fairly well protected. They are coated in reinforced concrete and they are normally buried to a depth of between three and six feet, but, unfortunately, in parts of the seabed where the bottom is very soft, or very hard, it is not possible to achieve burial with present techniques.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to some divers who are building the pipeline from the Forties Field to Cruden Bay. They told me that they had run into 12 kilometres of boulder clay and that it was improbable that they would be able to bury the pipeline for that length. I understand that even when trenching is successful, heavy scouring action tends to remove the overburden after a time, leaving the pipe exposed on the bottom. In this state it is vulnerable to ships' anchors and fishermen's nets.

I know that pipelines are marked on charts with a warning to mariners against anchoring and trawling in the vicinity, but pipelines under water are attractions to fish, as is any metal object, and fishermen have a habit of trawling up and down the lines and even within the rig complexes, despite the obvious risks. I understand that BP's pipeline from West Sole Field, though thought originally to have been buried, is now at least partly exposed on the bottom, and the divers who went down to inspect it found dozens of trawl boards lodged against it.

As the law stands, we are quite powerless to do anything about this when foreign fishing fleets are concerned. All that we can do is to notify the relevant embassy and lodge a protest. That is not good enough when one considers the pollution threat and other dangers which are associated with these pipelines.

It is not only pipelines which are at stake. Rigs and platforms are similarly endangered. Under international law any installation on the Continental Shelf must not unjustifiably interfere with recognised shipping lanes, and the maximum safety zone allowed around them is 500 metres. Within those zones, I understand that we are allowed to prohibit the approach of ships which have no direct business with the installation, and that rule applies to foreign as well as to British shipping. But the offshore operators to whom I have talked tell me that they consider this zone to be totally inadequate and that there is a serious danger of ships colliding with rigs.

I do not know how seriously the Government take such a possibility. The danger may seem remote. However, in 1971 a Norwegian ship hit the Nab Tower Lighthouse off the Isle of White and a German coaster collided with the Mid-Barrow Lightship near Clacton-on-Sea. Offshore installations are lit and marked, and their locations are published in notices to mariners and marked on charts. The notices are published annually. Not all ships carry up-to-date charts. From one of the inquiries about accidents which have occurred in the Channel, it appears that some ships do not carry charts at all but do things by instinct and smell.

If ships can collide with lighthouses and lightships, they can ram oil rigs. British Petroleum sent me its records for a period of six months, which showed that 33 ocean-going ships passed less than a mile from its Indefatigable gas field, many ships passing between the individual platforms. The gas fields off Norfolk and the oil fields in the northern sector of the North Sea lie outside the paths of really heavy maritime traffic, but the danger of a major catastrophe is increased now that the oil hunt is spreading to the English Channel and the Celtic Sea.

I advance three proposals for immediate consideration. Firstly, has my hon. Friend's Department considered placing on rigs some special transmission system to notify not only surface ships but also submarines of the presence of rigs and platforms? Second, a large number of small boats are used to service rigs, carry crews, and so on. I am informed that many of these boats are flying flags of convenience and, therefore, are not subject to our control. Should not we insist that all ships serving offshore oilfields fly British flags and are controlled properly by our authorities? Third, should not the notices to mariners be published more frequently, perhaps on a monthly basis, and should not there be some kind of notice which is distinct from the traditional notices to mariners?

Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the hydrographer to the Royal Navy is inserting on Admiralty charts sufficiently quickly the movement of rigs and platforms and the laying of submarine pipelines? I ask that question because I am told that the pipeline now being laid from the Ekofisk field to Teesside, though almost completed, is not yet on the chart.

Those are just three proposals which may help to avoid an accident, but by themselves they are not sufficient. The problem is that the waters overlying the Continental Shelf outside territorial waters are high seas and Britain has power there only over ships which fly her flag. Therefore safety in waters around our offshore oil producing areas can be assured only by internationally agreed rules which are enforceable solely at the discretion of the Government whose colours happen to be worn.

It is easy to get countries to sign any number of conventions, and we have signed any number of them. It is another matter to persuade them to implement the measures to which they have set their hand. IMCO must have produced half-a-dozen conventions which have not yet been ratified by enough individual countries to be effective. So we must consider whether we are to continue with a state of affairs whereby shipping capable of inflicting massive ecological damage is free to wander through our offshore oilfields within sight of our coast but outside our control.

It might be argued that ships' owners and masters have a vested interest in the safety of their vessels, but so did the owner and master of the "Torrey Canyon". They are under a strong pressure to meet financial deadlines, and many appear to take the quickest way for the quickest return. It is the coastal State and not the flag State which bears the brunt and burden of a maritime casualty. It is Britain which must mount a rescue operation, carry out the lighting and buoying and the salvage work that becomes necessary. Above all it is our population which suffers the consequences of pollution damage which no amount of compensation from an international fund can fully restore.

Recently international law has begun to accept the right of coastal States to act in self protection. The Convention on Intervention on the High Seas in Cases on Oil Pollution Casualties 1969 gave the coastal States power to take such measures as may be necessary to prevent, mitigate or eliminate grave and imminent danger to their coastline from pollution or threat of pollution of the sea by oil following a maritime casualty. That convention, I am told, has recently been extended to cover cargoes other than oil. That is fine as far as it goes, but we need not remedial action but a preventive system of control.

It is quite extraordinary that flag States can accept the right of a coastal State to bomb a vessel on the high seas if that vessel, as a result of an accident, is threatening pollution, but at the same time deny that State the right to take measures to prevent such an accident in the first place. One proposal that has been made is that we should simply extend our limits so that any ship anywhere near any of our offshore oilfields would come under national jurisdiction and we could control them all effectively. That would entail a unilateral enlargement of sovereignty and would challenge the whole doctrine of the high seas. It is for that reason that the Foreign Office objects and believes that were we to do this unilateral action would follow which would undermine the freedom of navigation on the high seas elsewhere. I appreciate that there are important commercial and defence considerations involved.

The alternative therefore would be for countries such as Britain to promulgate navigation safety zones in congested or dangerous waters and within those zones to enforce a navigational code covering the routing, traffic separation, pilotage, speed controls and so on. It could be justified in international law as an act of self-defence or by the acknowledged need for coastal protection against pollution and related hazards.

Before my hon. Friend rejects that view, I remind him that Canada has already set a precedent along those lines with her Arctic Waters (Pollution Prevention) Act 1970, which gave the Canadian Government the right to declare any part of the waters covered by the Act as a shipping safety zone and to make regulations applicable to shipping in that area, to appoint pollution prevention officers with power to board any ship and to prohibit navigation if necessary. The Canadians based their case on the overriding right of coastal States to protect themselves against grave threats to the environment. Surely, we should also be entitled to take similar steps by promulgating navigational security zones in areas where we are producing oil, and on grounds of self-protection.

If there were a major accident between a ship and a production platform, there would be loss of life, the write-off of a multi-million-pound investment, an interruption in oil supplies to this country, and a massive pollution threat. If we had such an incident at present it might create a climate of opinion hostile to speedy development of North Sea oil, because of the effect on wild life, amenity and fisheries.

I strongly support the view that we should work towards more speedy development of these offshore assets. I am sure that even in our efforts to speed it up we must accept some greater risk. There is a greater risk in using some of the methods that have been proposed—single buoy mooring systems, for example. But if there were a serious catastrophe it would have an adverse effect on the Government's efforts in that direction.

Therefore, I urge my hon. Friend to get together with his former colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry and with the Foreign Office to work out more satisfactory safety for the operations on our Continental Shelf. I hope—and I say this with some reticence, because it seems so rare in this country—that something will be done on this occasion in advance of events, before a catastrophe and the ensuing public outcry force the Government's hand.

3.23 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Peter Emery)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) should not be so pessimistic——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

Order. Does the Minister speak again with the leave of the House?

Mr. Emery

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At this hour of the morning one sometimes forgets these points. I must ask the leave of the House to speak again, and my request appears to have no opposition.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not be so pessimistic. He thought that he might be making his last speech in the House, but I have no doubt that whenever the election comes he will be successful and that we shall see him in the House for a long time to come. I remember once sitting with a majority of only 10 votes but saying that the House had not heard me for the last time whatever the outcome of the forthcoming election. I am sorry to have to remind my hon. Friends that it happened to be true, although there were about 340 days when they were relieved of my presence.

I realise very much my hon. Friend's ability, but, great as it is, I do not believe that he could have spirited, transported or even exploited the oil hydrocarbons under the North Sea to these shores any more quickly than will be achieved as a result of the massive efforts which are now being made. May I remind the House that the first commercial discovery was just over two years ago. The fact that we are as far ahead in getting oil to our shores is, in all the conditions, a major achievement on the part of the oil companies and a tribute to the cooperation of the Government in bringing the oil companies to their present advanced state in exploiting the oil which we wish to see landed as soon as possible.

Mr. Reed

Perhaps it is too late to lament the speed at which we have proceeded in the task of getting the oil brought ashore. In 1970 we should have gone for a semi-submersible rig and a single-buoy mooring system. We could then have brought the oil ashore by tanker. If that had been done we should have had the oil ashore before now. That would have been the result if that had been done instead of opting for fixed platforms in 400 feet of water and for pipelines in 350 feet of water. That was the longest way to go about the matter. Evidence in support of that view is provided by the fact that the Norwegians brought their oil ashore from Ekofisk in two and a half years from discovery. The Danes obtained oil from Dan Field within 13 months of the date of discovery.

Mr. Emery

This matter did not form a major part of my hon. Friend's speech. It is not two and a half years since the first commercial find. The Ekofisk position was known and planned for much longer. I can speak with some personal knowledge of these matters as I was directly concerned. I believe that the use of semi-submersible and mono-buoy loading factors which the Ekofisk field has had to employ would have caused even my hon. Friend some doubts.

The Government and the Department of Energy remain firmly convinced of the major importance of protecting the environment against any adverse effect from offshore exploration and production operations. The first emphasis must be on the need to avoid pollution. I respond immediately to what my hon. Friend said in that we want to take action before accidents arise rather than to attempt to close the barn door after pollution has been discharged.

The deliberate discharge of oil from offshore operations is prohibited under the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1971. I mention that to show that the Government have all along been taking preventive measures. The accidental spillage conditions imposed in petroleum products regulations in offshore licences are directed specifically to avoiding escapes of oil by insisting on the best oilfield working practice.

As my hon. Friend was paying attention to the debate earlier today when I was replying on the licensing factors and on safety in the North Sea, it would be tedious for me to run through the whole of the regulation then outlined, other than to repeat that we shall be laying, within a very few days, the regulations concerned with design and construction of rigs and platforms in the North Sea and codes concerned with pipelining which will go a long way to meeting some of the constructional worries my hon. Friend was outlining.

The drilling and production programmes have to be approved by the Secretary of State and my Department. In so doing, we set out to ensure that the necessary technology for safe operation is embodied in these programmes. Again, here is justification for adjusting to specific problems of a location of a platform or rig to meet all weather conditions, which my hon. Friend realises vary very much in different types of location.

We are not attempting to centralise but to ensure that we can use a variation of the necessary safe operating techniques for the different types of programmes, dependent on the geographical location.

Regulations made and to be made under the Mineral Workings (Offshore Installations) Act 1971 are and will be directed to securing the provision of adequate equipment and to establishing all safety standards for that equipment. These play an important part in avoiding pollution and go some way to get over the fears expressed by my hon. Friend on the problems of accidental spillage and about equipment.

The Department's Petroleum Production Inspectorate which periodically visits all offshore installation to ensure that the rules and procedures are being applied, is being strengthened by the appointment of several inspectors who, the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) will be pleased to know, will be based in Scotland.

These inspectors are attempting to make sure that we can, all the time, make certain that regulations are being complied with and that accident or lack of maintenance and other factors do not allow the type of accidental spillage about which my hon. Friend is concerned.

It is no use just attempting to ensure that spillage does not happen. One has to be prepared to deal with it if that most unfortunate factor arises. If spillage should occur—and I am more than pleased to say that so far there has not been one spillage—oil companies operating in the North Sea have set up, at their own expense, a co-operative arrangement to deal at first hand with notification, clearing up, and dispersal of such a spillage. Arrangements for a warning system, for low-toxicity dispersants, and for the provision of specially-equipped vessels have been made. That answers some of my hon. Friend's queries. Close liaison has been arranged between the industry's arrangements for dealing with spillage and the DTI's nation-wide spillage clearance system, and the latter would be called upon if necessary.

Some of the considerations affecting shipping are, I understand, of concern to my hon. Friend. I would only say that no experience of hazard or collision has arisen to date. Let us not be complacent, for that does not mean that such an experience might not arise in the future. If ships navigate without charts an area many times the dimensions of the area worked at present, that will not help. My hon. Friend put forward certain suggestions that the Abstract to Mariners might bear investigating. His suggestion that all ships serving on the British side of the Continental Shelf oilfield should fly the British flag has, prima facie, a nice sort of emotional attraction, but when we are trying to build up expertise equal to that in any other part of the world, and with an ever-increasing amount of deep sea exploration and exploitation, when we want to be able to provide from our own experience services in other parts of the world, it would seem very bad policy to be so restrictive. When we have the best opportunities of being able to compete now with any foreign competition we would be encouraging other nations to take similar action against our shipping. We might not be able to provide work and earnings of foreign currency in the years ahead.

I would answer another query in particular. That was about the pipelines, and the worry of trenching and exposure. I would be foolish not to say the obvious—that this is obviously something which has to be watched. The problems of laying pipes at the depths and in the currents and weather conditions of the North Sea are new, and however much in theory the oil companies and my Department believe that we have got it right I accept, immediately, that we have constantly to be checking on the problems which can arise from exposure, and in trenches, even of a number of feet and with concrete basing. We have to ensure that these factors can be checked and that they can be seen not to be hazards.

I would point out that it is very much in the interest of oil companies as well as of the Government, because rupture of a pipeline involves expense and labour for an oil company. The rupture has to be repaired, but first the two ends have to be found. As my hon. Friend will know, once there is a break, the ends walk, and many weeks may be spent trying to find them and to bring them back to join them up again. That expenditure is so much greater than any maintenance cost that it is very much in the interests of the oil companies to ensure that it does not happen.

The new Department is cognisant of the problems and determined not to be caught napping, always to be one jump ahead. No doubt sometimes we shall not be, but we are investigating to try to ensure that the kind of problem which he outlined can be guarded against as much as humanly possible.

I fully appreciate the fears that an increased pace of North Sea oil development might result in a lowering of standards and an increased risk of large-scale pollution, especially from well burners. But we do not contemplate any lowering of standards and I and my hon. Friends in the Department will do everything in our power to avoid that.

Mr. Reed

Could my hon. Friend undertake to explore with the Foreign Office the whole question of controlling navigation in the vicinity of oil rigs? He has not covered that.

Mr. Emery

I will draw that part of my hon. Friend's speech to the attention of some of my other hon. Friends. It does not rest entirely with my Department or with me. My undertaking is that the Foreign Office, the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping and others concerned will consider his suggestions.