HC Deb 25 April 1977 vol 930 cc719-31
The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Ekofisk blow-out.

The House will be aware that during the evening of 22nd April, a blow-out occurred in one of the production wells on the Ekofisk Bravo platform. The Ekofisk field is wholly on the Norwegian Continental Shelf and produces oil and gas delivered by pipeline to Teesside and Emden, in West Germany, respectively.

The House will also have noted that, following the blow-out, the platform was evacuated without loss of life or serious injury.

Oil is currently escaping at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes per day, and a large oil slick is forming. Responsibility for dealing with the blow-out and consequential oil spillage rests with the operator, Phillips Petroleum, and the Norwegian Government.

Yesterday I had talks in Oslo with the Norwegian Minister of Industry and the Norwegian Foreign Minister. The Norwegian Government have been offered whatever help and assistance they require from Her Majesty's Government in dealing with the incident. They will, of course, be keeping Her Majesty's Government in close touch with developments.

The priorities are to prevent the outbreak of fire, cap the well and stop the flow of oil and gas, and deal with the oil spillage. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade has responsibility in relation to measures required by Her Majesty's Government to deal with oil pollution at sea, which is now the first priority.

I am now considering what further action is indicated arising from this incident and will keep in close touch with the Norwegian Government about safety matters, what caused the blow-out and what other action may be necessary on the part of countries concerned.

Mr. Tom King

We are grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement on what is clearly a most serious matter and note with regret that the team has had to withdraw from the rig because of the serious weather, which further postpones any rescue attempt. We particularly welcome the fact that no loss of life was involved in the incident, and congratulate the company on the procedures used. We should like the Secretary of State's confirmation that the same procedures would operate on any British rig in a similar situation. We also warmly endorse the offer that he has made to the Norwegian Government of any assistance which may be necessary.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Department of the Environment published a report last year which stated that there was a 50–50 chance of a blow-out occurring on a rig in the North Sea within the next five years but that the procedures and arrangements for dealing with it were considered to be adequate. Does the Secretary of State believe that that is so? Does not the gravity of what could follow from this accident underline just what is at risk? Do not the incidents that could affect a rig underline the need for a much harder look at the security procedures involved?

Mr. Benn

First, I associate myself with what the hon. Gentleman said about our gratitude that there was no loss of life and our regret that the team which mounted the platform yesterday, in very difficult circumstances, has now had to withdraw. The House will know that the weather conditions there are very difficult, quite apart from the technical complexities, which have not been experienced in similar circumstances elsewhere.

I have had prepared for me a list of all the preparations that have been made by this Government and by other Governments since 1969, when the responsibility for oil-spill clean-up was given to the Department of Trade. It includes discussions that took place as recently as last week at official level as part of a continuing series among all the signatories of the Bonn Agreement of 1969, which was drawn up to deal with matters of this kind. I think that the House will want to now what has been done by Governments here and in other countries. I shall, therefore, with permission, put the list in the Library of the House and make it available, especially to Opposition spokesmen.

It is also clear that, despite the best degree of preparation that can be made, there are hazards that cannot be anticipated, and the preparations which can be made in advance of actual experience will have to be re-examined in the light of this incident.

The Norwegian Minister told me, and I accept it from him, that the command structure set up in Norway to deal with such incidents had come into operation very well. We were quickly notified and made our offer of help. The dispersant ships were available with the spray equipment and the dispersant, if needed. Although, clearly, there are lessons to be learnt from this incident—and I am not giving the House the impression that I could possibly be satisfied with what has been done—nothing that has occurred so far has revealed any obvious weakness. Even the arrival of the team from Texas was achieved within about 18 hours of the incident occurring. That team is skilled and is recognised worldwide.

Mr. Palmer

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that some experience was gained with the "Torrey Canyon" wreck about 10 years ago, on which the Select Committee on Science and Technology produced a report? How far now are practical men with practical experience being brought in to deal with this situation?

Mr. Benn

The answer to the latter point is that the responsibility rests entirely with the oil companies, which employ practical men with practical experience. One of the things made clear in earlier experience is that operators must accept responsibility for pollution. They cannot offload it on to Governments. The operators have a keen interest in seeing that pollution does not occur.

Under the regulations that I made, every operator is required to submit to the Government—and has submitted—plans for dealing with an oil spill. All of these plans—some of which I have seen—have been vetted by my own engineering staff from the petroleum engineering division. On that side, a great deal has been done.

Our experience in handling oil was much advanced by the "Torrey Canyon" incident. There are booms for containment of oil, which do not work very well in Force 10 gales, and there are dispersants, of which we have ample supplies, which have adverse effects on fish. All the interests have to be brought to bear in the circumstances of the individual incident so that the operators can carry out the best practical programmes for dealing with the situation.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Since this is, above all, an international matter, will the Secretary of State take steps to convene a conference of all the riparian nations of the North-West Atlantic, first, for the purpose of co-ordinating their monitoring of oil spillages of this kind; secondly, to prepare a ready-reaction capability; and, thirdly, to consider the possibility of recruiting and training in Europe some ability to cope with these problems, so that we do not always have to rely on the availability of Mr. Red Adair?

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman is quite right in saying that this is an international problem. Looked at against the magnitude of a spillage of this kind, the North Sea is a lake, and the response must be planned internationally. That is why in 1969 the Bonn Agreement was signed for co-operation between the North Sea States. There has been continual contact on these very questions, the last contact being as recently as last week, between the signatories of the agreement. When the hon. Gentleman sees the very rough outline of work which has gone on—including the Anglo-French study two years ago on co-operation in the event of an oil spill and the talks with the Norwegian Minister in London last September and again when I was in Norway 10 days ago—I think he will be satisfied that the international nature of the problem has been recognised.

As to whether we have adequate resources in the North Sea to deal with a sudden emergency and whether it is wise to rely on Mr. Red Adair and his team, that is a matter on which I think the oil companies will give us advice. For a long time Red Adair from Texas has been used for Middle-Eastern blow-outs. His team left Texas within two hours of being asked to come and was able to board the platform within 48 hours. At least those resources were rapidly available, and, fortunately, no fire intervened meanwhile to make the situation more serious.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

Is the Secretary of State aware that the concentration of oil platforms in the Scottish section of the North Sea puts the Scottish coast, in particular, in the front line, and that the tourist and fishing industries are very worried about the effect of pollution?

I wish to ask two specific questions arising from this incident. First, is the Secretary of State aware that in a recent BBC programme Mr. Red Adair made some criticisms about the nature of the precautions taken in the North Sea, particularly if a fire occurred? Secondly, have the British Government changed their mind in the negotiations which they have had with the Norwegian Government over the possibility of having separate accommodation platforms on oilfields in order to protect the lives and safety of those who work in the industry?

Mr. Benn

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's special interest in the Scottish coast, though I must tell the House that Norway is most at risk with the prevailing winds in the North Sea, even if the incident had occurred on the British side of the median line. Many interests are involved as well as fishery interests, including Danish, German and Dutch interests. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would accept that it would be wrong to identify Scotland as being in some way a specially exposed victim of an incident of this character.

In Oslo yesterday I discussed with the Norwegian Minister the two points which the hon. Gentleman raised. One was Mr. Adair's criticism on the BBC "Energy File" programme and the other, for the second time in a fortnight in Oslo, was the question of separate accommodation. It so happens that the Ekofisk complex has accommodation at the "central hotel", as it were, which allows the Bravo platform to be free from accommodation responsibilities. But in other new platforms that matter will have to be looked at. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the matter has already been discussed.

Dr. Bray

Will a public inquiry be held by the Norwegian Government? Is my right hon. Friend aware that there seem to be grounds for concern that the amount of safety equipment, not merely fire-prevention equipment but large-scale engineering equipment, readily available in the North Sea seems to be inadequate? Whilst I entirely accept my right hon. Friend's argument that it is the responsibility of the oil companies, will he nevertheless look into the degree of co-ordination and the pooling of expenses in this very expensive safety operation? Finally, is he aware that the production volume from any one rig in the North Sea is much greater than in any other part of the world and that experience elsewhere may not be an adequate guide to what is needed in the North Sea?

Mr. Benn

On the first of the three matters which my hon. Friend raised, I cannot anticipate what form the Norwegian inquiry will take. But British relations with the Norwegians are so close that I am sure that all the information will be shared with us and will be made generally available. On the question of safety equipment, I have asked the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association to come to see me, because it has a co-ordinating rôle, and I shall take up this question with it. On the last point about production volumes from these big North Sea rigs, in doing preliminary estimates of the loss of production through taking out a particular platform, or, indeed, a particular well, one runs rapidly into enormous figures. If these are set side by side with the cost of dealing with the blow-out, the cost of pollution and the cost of replacing the platform if it is damaged, we are running into astronomic damage figures compared with what we are familiar with in normal industrial accidents.

Mr. Rost

As this accident is only one example of the type of hazard inevitable in working in the dangerous North Sea, would the Minister look seriously at the feasibility of combining the extraction of energy from wave power by putting up "floating duck" barriers, not just off the North-West coast of Scotland but possibly also in the northern North Sea, to form protective barriers behind which calmer seas would mean that the development of North Sea oil rigs could be undertaken more safely, more quickly and at lower cost?

Mr. Benn

I shall look at what the hon. Gentleman says, but, given the fact that we have to protect against wind speeds of 100 miles an hour or more and 90-foot waves, the provision of mechanical protection around all oil platforms may be a very big and complicated engineering task. But, if the companies feel that there is merit in this scheme, I have no doubt that they will look at it, and I shall encourage a study of any possibility that offers some hope of advance.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Whilst at present the greatest attention is being given to the actual spillage of oil, may I take it that my right hon. Friend will be in touch with the Norwegian Government with regard to investigating how the accident occurred in the first place? Will he ensure that such information is published to allay the fear which has long been in people's minds of an accident of this kind and to dispel it for the future?

Mr. Benn

I certainly shall. There may have been a technical failure, or it may have been human error, but it is a good and healthy reminder that, however good the scientific background and basis and the engineering effort may be, high technology is susceptible to the same difficulties as all normal human activity.

Mr. Emery

Will the Secretary of State underline again the great dangers of getting oil from the North Sea, but will he make clear to the House whether any safety regulations apply on the British side of the North Sea which do not apply on the Norwegian section and whether anything more would have been done to bring aid or to take other action if this accident had occurred in the British section? Lastly, and perhaps most important, will he tell the House what percentage of delivered oil to this country could be affected in the next two years by this accident?

Mr. Benn

On the last question, it is impossibe to indicate what effect one blow-out, which we hope will be corrected, may have on oil supplies to the United Kingdom over the next two years, beyond saying that we are reminded by this incident of the hazards involved in North Sea oil operations generally. I think that that is accepted.

I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's first question, either, about what the difference would have been on the United Kingdom side, because the oil companies are operators of their own platforms. Therefore, the incident would presumably be as likely to occur on either side of the median line. The response would have been in our hands. We have a very formidable command structure ready to deal with it. We would have had to call upon the Norwegians in the way that we have offered help to them, and I am sure they would have responded.

We would have had to call in the same people as the Norwegians called in, and we would then have had the discretion entirely in our hands about whether to use dispersants. That is probably the most important difference in the part of the North Sea in which the accident occurs, and I might add that the Scottish Office has issued a statement on this matter to which I draw the attention of the House.

Mr. Canavan

Who is liable for the damages which this oil slick may cause to the fishing grounds and the Scottish coastline?

Instead of public money being used to foot the bill, whether from rates or taxes, should it not come from the oil companies, and is it not about time the Government told the oil companies to come together with some agreement about a joint protection service to deal with incidents such as these, particularly in the British sector of the North Sea?

Mr. Benn

I think the House should know the oil companies are responsible for pollution. That is why, among other reasons, I am not anxious to take over responsibility for a function which properly lies with them.

There was an international conference on civil liability for pollution which met recently and arrived at some conclusions about the limits and extent of liability. As to joint dispersal operations and the sharing of equipment between ourselves and the Norwegians, subject to some unforeseen incident that I cannot now anticipate, I believe the arrangements with the Norwegians are very close. We have been discussing with them over a prolonged period exactly how we would react in circumstances exactly like the ones that have occurred.

The House should not suppose we were taken by surprise. We discussed these matters as recently as 10 days ago and for many years beforehand.

Mr. Adley

Is the Minister aware that people will be grateful for the speed with which he has got himself involved in this incident? Is he aware, further, that there is unease that the oil companies themselves are the manufacturers of many of these dispersants and that these are, in fact, marine killers and do untold harm to marine life?

Will the Minister now take an opportunity to look at the representations which I made through a company in my constituency—Oil Recovery International—to the Department of Industry a year ago on the company's Oilmop machinery? As he has taken this interest, will he arrange to meet representatives of the company to see what relevance he thinks it has to just this sort of disaster?

Mr. Benn

I know something of what the hon. Gentleman has proposed and of the Oilmop scheme. It is a responsibility of the Department of Industry, and I cannot intervene in its research establishment, though I know it from past links with it.

I believe the scheme should be looked at again in the light of the experience that we have gained. It has not, as I understand it, been rejected, in any case.

The boom is the best if one has got steady waters, but in very high seas the boom is practically ineffective because the oil gets under or over it.

As the hon. Gentleman says, the use of dispersants can be immensely damaging to fish life, especially, as I was told in Norway, at seasons of the year when the mackerel are breeding in particular areas. While I was there, the Danish Government suggested an international conference on this subject, and we have set up arrangements for discussion.

The balance of advantage between one system against another in circumstances where one might have a fire hazard on the one hand and immediate pollution risks or fish interests on the other means there must be very close contact. I would favour having at our disposal, available for immediate use, every possible system that might deal with the pollution problem.

Mr. Skinner

Is it not worth noting that a small nation such as Norway has had to have assistance from other countries to deal with this disaster?

Did not the Minister get the impression from the Scottish National Party spokesman that, whilst on the one hand he was still claiming that North Sea oil was Scottish oil, he was hedging his bets and suggesting that if, unfortunately, there was a disaster in the North Sea, he would disclaim all responsibility for the Scottish oil slick?

Mr. Benn

I appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying. In this area, we are totally interdependent, as we would be in many other areas. In the event of a nuclear accident or any major marine accident, we are interdependent. We must have availability of skills at short notice, but no country can be completely self-sufficient and ready to cope with every possible situation. That interdependence underlies our approach to North Sea pollution and safety matters.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I intend to call the four hon. Members whom I have seen standing throughout the exchanges. I would be glad if they would be brief.

Mr. Welsh

In spite of the state of the prevailing wind, what gurantee can the Minister give about the Scottish fishing and tourist industries? Will he take the strongest possible steps to prevent Scottish waters from turning into a major ecological disaster area? Will he further accept that the SNP will be happy to accept responsibility for action in these matters if we also receive the money from the North Sea oil?

Mr. Benn

I understand the hon. Gentleman's question, but I cannot give a guarantee that the oil slick will not approach the Scottish coast. What I can do is maintain contact with the companies and the other riparian nations to see what can be done. We shall monitor its movements very carefully.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Is the Secretary of State aware that in his answers this afternoon he has given the impression that the Government's role is that of a spectator rather than a participant in these events? I am sure he would wish to correct that impression. Would he also agree that we should try to learn from this catastrophe and require the oil companies and the Ministry of Defence to set up some kind of combined operation, based perhaps in Aberdeen or Lerwick, to deal with any future blowout and the serious consequences?

Mr. Benn

In fairness, I did not imply that the Government were spectators. We have the power—and have discharged that power—to force every oil company to submit to us in detail its plans for dealing with an oil spillage. I have seen one book of over 100 pages which has been gone through in detail.

We also have back-up facilities and our own skills and research establishments. The hon. Gentleman asks for special centres at Aberdeen and Lerwick but that is where provision is already made, through the Offshore Operators' Association in conjunction with the coastguard, and at Lowestoft, to deal with the southern North Sea basin. So, although we have much to learn, I hope that he will not think that we were taken by surprise by something that had long been thought of as a dangerous possibility.

Mr. Younger

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is great concern among local authorities along the East coast because the prevailing wind at this time of year is not as reliable as usual and there are frequently periods of east and north-east winds at this time? Will he discuss with his right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Scotland the possibility of calling meetings of the local authorities concerned so that they may be fully briefed as to what help they will receive and what their duties are?

Mr. Benn

My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Scotland who are both present, have already taken action in conjunction with their own authorities. The Scottish Office issued a statement to which I made reference.

I am well aware that there is a hazard to the Scottish coast. Although North Sea oil, unlike some heavy fuel oil, does not leave a tarry black substance on the surface, half of it evaporates as gas within 24 hours, which creates the fire hazard. The rest of the oil, though less obvious in appearance, is very toxic. All these matters are understood by Governments and by the operators and such appropriate measures as can be taken are being taken. No doubt there will be much to learn and we aim to learn from it.

Mr. Macfarlane

Is the Secretary of State aware of the report made this weekend by one of the American investigating teams which recently arrived in the North Sea, that, generally, North Sea rigs are not fitted with effective blow-out safety valves? Does he consider that to be an accurate or a mischievous observation, and can he allay the fears of those involved in this particular sphere?

Mr. Benn

I was not aware of that comment. I will of course, raise it with the Offshore Operators' Association.

The circumstances of winning oil from the North Sea are quite different from those which have been familiar on shore in the United States and elsewhere over many years. It may be that the arrangements are different. I cannot believe that some of the biggest oil companies in the world would have hazarded their own platforms for lack of basic safety arrangements. I am extremely keen that the House should not tempt me into seeking a scapegoat at this moment for an incident the origins of which we do not know but the response to which has won widespread admiration here and outside.