HC Deb 11 February 1987 vol 110 cc390-8
Dr. Godman

I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 3, line 38, at end insert— '(3) Before approving a programme with modifications or subject to conditions which will allow an installation or pipeline or parts thereof to remain on the seabed the Secretary of State shall satisfy himself as to—

  1. (a) any potential effect of the programme on the safety of surface or subsurface navigation;
  2. (b) the rate of deterioration of the material left and its present and possible future effect on the marine environment;
  3. (c) the risk that the material left will shift from its position at some future time;
  4. (d) the costs, technical feasibility and risks of personal injury associated with removal of the installations or pipelines;
  5. (e) the potential assignment of liability from damages resulting from any installation or pipeline or part thereof left on the seabed;
  6. (f) the determination of a genuine new use or other reasonable justification for allowing the installation or pipeline or parts thereof to remain on the seabed, and
  7. (g) the identification of the party responsible for maintaining the aids to navigation deemed necessary to mark the position of any obstruction to navigation and for monitoring the condition of the remaining material.'.

The contents of this amendment owe a great deal to a certain International Maritime Organisation document—NAV 33/WP. 4/REV1 dated 15 January. Some might call this plagiarism, but I would say that, in the context of this Bill and this debate, we had a borrowing requirement and we exercised it in a most sensible manner.

Removal programmes will be costly and intricate. Experts in this sector have mentioned the finance involved in removing platforms. Incidentally, I have long argued that we should be talking in terms of total removal and not partial removal. An expert, Mr. N. G. Boyd of Taywood-Santa Fe Ltd. said: The cost of totally removing a platform, taking account of inflation over say a 20 year life, may, in monetary terms, exceed the original capital cost of the installation and this cost will be incurred at a time when production and hence revenue has ceased.

The activities involved in removal range from the preparatory work, the shutdown, the well plugging and abandonment down to the towing away and disposal of such installations and pipelines.

It is reasonable to say that at this moment we do not have much experience of this form of maritime demolition work. I am right in saying that only one platform has so far been removed from United Kingdom waters. That was a small satellite platform that was situated in approximately 100 ft of water and had a jacket weight, complete with piles, of only 400 tonnes. The cost of the removal of that platform was reported at the time— 1978—to be about £2 million.

One can imagine the cost of removing a structure of, say, 40,000 tonnes, situated in, for example, 500 ft of water. That would be an immensely costly business. However, in spite of those financial considerations and the inherent difficulties associated with removal and partial removal, we must, at all times, consider the interests of other maritime industries such as maritime transport and fishing. In that respect, paragraph (a) of our amendment emphasises the need for the Secretary of State to pay close regard to the navigational implications of removal. I am not necessarily here talking of nuclear submarines, which are surely the most sinister vessels ever built in a shipyard.

Paragraph (b) and subsections (c), (d) and (e) would, I am sure, be welcomed by fishermen throughout the United Kingdom and throughout the EEC's fishing nations.

Paragraph (d) is concerned with deterioration of the material left on the seabed. I refer in this context to the potential dangers that are associated with toxic and hazardous chemicals and their effects upon marine life. Paragraphs (c) and (e) refer to: the risk that the material left will shift from its position at some future time. Paragraph (e) refers to: the potential assignment of liability from damages resulting from any installation or pipeline or part thereof left on the seabed.

Those implications could be of critical importance to fishermen as they go about their lawful activities. Similarly, paragraph (b) emphasises the need, inter alia, to pay careful attention to the health and safety needs of those involved in what will be extremely complicated and potentially dangerous work.

With regard to the health and safety needs of those involved in the demolition of the installations I should like to ask the Minister a question, to which perhaps I should know the answer. I am sure that he will give me the answer. Does the Explosives (Age of Purchase Etc.) Act 1976 extend to the use of explosives throughout the United Kingdom's territorial waters, and, if that is the case, can I take it as given that the Act extends to the carriage and use of explosives by foreign personnel on foreign registered vessels involved in, say, felling, or as some call it, toppling, a structure in United Kingdom waters?

If the answer is in the affirmative, does the Minister and his Department envisage changes in the Explosives Act, the object of which would be to make that potentially hazardous occupation a little safer? I should be grateful if the Minister would respond to those questions when he replies. I am sure that the officials in the Box have the answers at their finger tips. I have not, and I ask the question because, at this moment, there are few people—I am talking principally about the divers involved in the offshore oil and gas industries— who have wide experience of the use of explosives in deep waters.

I am right in saying that the explosives that have been used to demolish wells have been used in vaporising them. I am sure that the Minister and his officials understand that term better than I do. I have been told by experts that vaporising wellheads and other subsea structures is a crude and inexact art. What is achieved, if that is the word, with this crude, inexact use of explosives is a scattering of debris in the area of the structure which is being dismantled. I have been told that in some cases even heavy explosive charges have been lowered down in wire baskets at the end of a long wire—it is a crude and inexact business—but the process has been wholly wasteful. I am given to understand that the Norwegians, once a well has been demolished by explosives, drag heavy trawling gear across the area of the installation, to ensure that the debris is at an acceptable level for the interests of the fishermen. I am sure that if I have got that wrong, the Minister will correct me. As I am sure that the Minister will agree, these are important questions, to which I shall refer on Third Reading.

Paragraph (g) acknowledges, reasonably, that pipe infrastructures may need to stay in place, since the existence of such infrastructures might well encourage the development of nearby fields. I refer the Minister to the debate that we had in Committee and to his positive contribution, in which he said that his Department was most interested in the use of artificial matting to cover over those sections of the pipeline that are subjected to natural phenomena such as scour.

I may seem sceptical about the idea of changing these platforms into rafts or reefs for the growth and exploitation of shellfish colonies. Such a project may work successfully off the coastline of Alabama in the United States, but I am not sure that it would work off the coastline of Scotland. However, my mind is open enough to be dissuaded of my prejudice if possible.

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The last section points to the need to maintain navigational aids in perpetuity. The Minister may not be able to answer my next point because it may be the responsibility not of his Department but of that of the Secretary of State for Transport. The cost of these navigational aids might be partially met by the imposition of light dues. That question needs to be addressed.

The monitoring of the remaining material will be a crucial issue for fishermen. Again, there are many implications. The amendment highlights some of the issues associated with the removals of platforms and pipelines. These issues are of considerable importance to other maritime industries, principally the fishing industry.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

The amendment has a useful place in the debate because it details the heart of the dilemma of the Bill which, as the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) said, includes many unknowns, in terms of both costs and technology, that have not been explored fully. What follows on from the Bill will have to expand considerably from its basis. Both the users of the sea who might be affected by the partial removal of the platforms and the operators of platforms that will be removed need to know the implications and the ongoing liabilities, and where they stop and the lines are drawn. The amendment addresses itself to some of those problems, so it is useful to probe, for the record, the great deal of unfinished business that the Bill leaves. It has only begun to explore the process of what is involved.

When the Bill becomes law, and the industry and the Government go on to try to work out the implications of removing installations, the debate will centre on the need to limit liability in terms of both space and time.

Many of us believe that the total removal of a platform will always be the best possible solution if it is achievable within a realistic framework. if that course is followed, the problem of liability does not apply. The installation is removed and the sea bed, to all intents and purposes, is returned to normal. However, we all understand the difficulties and costs involved in the removal of platforms and we understand that these problems require us to consider the possibility of something less than partial removal.

I must express concern that the worries of the people who installed the platforms in the first place must not be allowed in any way to modify the pressure for ensuring the most effective removal and monitoring of what remains. Cost considerations must obviously be taken into account.

However, these considerations must not be allowed to dilute the commitment to find ways, if possible, of removing platforms or making them acceptable and safe.

The amendment identifies the problems that exist in breaking up, migrating and marking and, if damage occurs, of identifying liability. That point relates to amendment No. 1 moved by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Proctor). We must know what operators are liable for and the operators also need to know. Consortia change and we need to know whom to approach.

If we could stick to the ideal principle of total removal, we would avoid those problems. However, I accept that it is sensible in this enabling Bill to allow for that possibility. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) may not necessarily believe that the amendment will be incorporated in the Bill. However, it is a marker which encapsulates the list of relevant problems and I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that it addresses relevant considerations. The industry and the Department of Energy must come to grips with these problems.

Once the Bill becomes law, I hope that the Minister will stimulate and, if necessary, commission more intensive research into identifying and dealing with these problems. Only in that context are we likely to modify or reassure the views of those people who arc rightly concerned about anything less than partial removal. At the moment I believe that those people are right to be worried. I can hardly blame them for standing out for total removal as the ideal way to solve the problem.

Mr. Ernie Ross

Throughout the early stages of this Bill, Opposition and Conservative Members identified areas of international law, international responsibilities, legal and moral responsibilities, areas of environmental concerns and areas of new technology and the possibilities which that new technology would bring to job prospects in the industry. At the moment, the industry has seen a great reduction in the number of people employed building structures for the North sea. We argued that those people might be usefully employed while we were deliberating in Committee on the training and procedures which the Bill would hopefully establish. We hoped that that training would be the responsibility of those who placed the structures and pipelines off our shores.

In Committee we identified those responsibilities and there was much concern on the Government and Opposition Front Benches about the draconian character of parts of the Bill. I am sure that the Minister recalls the debate that he had with my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rolands) about the draconian nature of clause 4 and the lack of arbitration which my hon. Friend explained had existed in previous legislation. When the Minister suggested that no criteria existed, my hon. Friend said that, if criteria were published, they might be the backcloth against which the Secretary of State's proposals could be decided. If his proposals were found to be too strong, those affected by his decisions who had stayed within the published criteria could be allowed arbitration. Now that criteria have come from the meeting of the International Maritime Organisation, will the Minister reconsider what he said about the draconian nature of clause 4? Does he believe that it would be right to provide for arbitration, given the criteria that now exist?

From reading the report of the Committee stage, when the Minister gave us an idea of how the International Maritime Organisation discussions had gone, and from an examination of the draft guidelines and standards which are contained in the document mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), one can see the hand of the Minister or his Department in those guidelines and standards. It might be useful to take a few minutes to examine some of the guidelines and standards and question the Minister to discover how he intends to pursue them. When he gave us an idea of what they were likely to be, it was against the background that the United Kingdom input into the discussions was along the lines outlined by the Minister during the debate.

Although we could not participate in those discussions, it was as though there had been a fly on the wall of the Committee Room and a fly on the wall of the committee of the International Maritime Organisation. Both committees were determined to ensure that wherever and whenever possible we should return the environment to its natural state, or to as near a natural state as possible, before our structures and pipelines invaded that environment.

It was right to pursue those matters in Committee and for us to suggest that the guidelines be incorporated in the Bill. Although, after listening to the Minister, we may decide not to push the amendment, perhaps it could be incorporated in a future licensing round or in a joint operating agreement between the Government and the operator.

Another useful debate in Committee concerned the experiences of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who reminded us of his formative years as a junior construction engineer. He said that, had he been aware of his grave responsibility when he was involved in the nuclear industry, he might have taken a little more time in the construction of nuclear installations.

9.15 pm

My hon. Friend certainly gave us the benefit of his training. He said that, if one was ever in doubt about who was responsible for different parts of a project, one should consult the contract documents and in them one would find, set out quite clearly, the responsibility for each activity undertaken.

The amendment, which has been drafted from the International Maritime Organisation's guidelines, gives the Minister some indication of how Opposition Members want him to approach future joint operating agreements and how we would like to see this legislation put into practice. Could the Minister tell us if he intends to pursue those areas in the IMO document which were not agreed and which are, therefore, in parentheses?

For instance, paragraph 2.2 of the document refers to The determination of any potential effect on … (the location of commercial fishing areas)". I should like to hear, as would the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow, from the Minister if he intends to pursue this assiduously and to have the parentheses removed, so as to make this phrase part of the paragraph rather than something that is not agreed.

In paragraph 2.3 we have a reference to monitoring parts of structures left on the seabed and their impact on navigation (or the marine environment)". Once again, those words are in parentheses. We had a very long debate on the effects on the marine environment and voiced our concern that it should be returned to as near its natural state as possible. Will the Minister assure us that he intends to have those parentheses removed and make the statement part of the general guidelines?

Paragraph 3.4 says: In situations where entire removal is technically unfeasible or would involve extreme cost, or an unacceptable risk to personnel or marine environment … the coastal state may determine that it need not be entirely removed. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us just who would determine the criteria so that we knew exactly how he intended to pursue that clause in future discussions.

The amendment offers the Minister an opportunity to make it quite clear that the success enjoyed by his representatives at the IMO meeting will be built on, and also to indicate to the industry and those outside who are listening to our debate that he is determined to ensure that when all this is over we shall return the environment as nearly as possible to its previous state.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I am grateful to my two hon. Friends who have demonstrated that the Opposition has reached international standards in drafting an amendment; as the Minister will perceive, our amendment is very much a response to the expertise and involvement of the International Maritime Organisation.

The amendment is very important and, although we will not spend very much time on this debate, it is right that we ask the Minister, if he disagrees with the amendment, to tell us in precise detail where his disagreements lie. Is there any part of the amendment with which he disagrees?

My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) is right to press the point that we must leave the environment in decent order. As chairman of the Council of Europe's committee for the environment, I would hate to think that all the work that we have done here would lead to my committee receiving complaints from another national assembly about the responsibilities of Britain not being properly exercised. The Minister must respond positively to the amendment.

The Minister may feel it impossible to accept the amendment as it stands, but many interest groups and the industry need to know where the Government stand. Some other member states of the International Maritime Organisation have been more precise. The Soviet Union takes the view that there should be no exemption to the 300 m depth limit. France and the United States of America do not wish to see many exceptions to the general rule. We are not sure where the Government stand. The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) would prefer total removal, but he is realistic. We need to know how much realism the Government will show. So my hon. Friends are entitled to ask these questions, and the amendment is justified.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), in a brief but substantial contribution, reminded the House of the enormous costs involved. He also reminded us of the substantial risks which the fishing industry could face if the Government do not apply satisfactory standards. As a Member sponsored by the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, a small but important union whose members are trained and frequently use explosives, I have not yet heard that the Department has consulted my trade union about the use of explosives in industry. Certainly I am worried about the concept of vaporisation. My hon. Friend caused several of us to be anxious; his fears may need less relief than mine.

Dr. Godman

I am sorry if I gave my hon. Friend the vapours. No doubt he will readily acknowledge that there is a world of difference between using controlled explosives in a coal mine, although there are dangers there, and using explosives to remove structures several hundred feet below the surface of the sea.

Mr. Hardy

I accept that. I was coming to the point that there are very strict controls on the use of explosives in collieries. The point that my hon. Friend made about vaporisation suggests that there must be strict controls on the use of explosives offshore. I hope that the Minister has received adequate advice on the matter.

We have not spent long on the amendment, but the Minister must recognise that we need to know where the Government stand. The industry is entitled to know that, and the House certainly is. While the Minister may not be prepared to accept the amendment, I am sure that he will agree, in view of our consideration of the matter in Committee, that the House should have not necessarily a long response but one that is firm, positive and clear.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I assure the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) that, when the amendment appeared on the Order Paper it did not take long to trace its parentage. One should always be proud of one's children. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman no doubt felt it worth while to expose the amendment to the full light of scrutiny in the House.

I address one word of caution particularly to the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) who is perhaps interpreting the IMO document too widely. If he had considered the whole document, he would have noticed that what is in the body of the amendment is referred to in the document as "preliminary draft guidelines". No phraseology could be more tentative. The hon. Gentleman should have read further into that document. He asked me whether I would also adopt the parts of the document that are in parentheses. If he had read a bit further, he would have discovered that those parts are in parentheses because they were believed to be beyond the competence of the sub-committee that was considering the matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not found too much on this point.

The work of the IMO is important, but as it and the sub-committee acknowledged, it deals primarily with navigation. There will be discussion in other interanational forums about matters other than navigation, important though it is. When we looked at this in Committee, we recognised that navigation is important and that it underlies the policies followed in the IMO, in the United States and in the Soviet Union.

This is an important document and my officials took part in its preparation. It is obviously at an early stage of consideration and has many more processes to go through over a considerable time. It is a good starting point and I commend the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow for choosing a topic that helps to concentrate our minds on the way we should approach these issues. As we have all recognised from the beginning, and as I have never sought to hide from the House, the Bill is simply a beginning, a framework. That is because we are preparing for a situation which probably will not arise on any scale until the mid–1990s.

Some people may say that it is unnecessary to bring in such provisions as early as this. That is a wrong approach. It is necessary to start to concentrate people's minds now, because there is a great deal of work to be done. I have never tried to make any apology for bringing in these provisions so early even though some of the Bill's provisions, especially clause 11 which we are discussing, are tentative. That is because there is so much work to be done. The international regulations on which the amendments are based will be subject to a great deal of refinement and once they are agreed the Government will have to observe them. They will become a major part of the conditions; hence one of the reasons for the general nature of clause 11. It will enable us to provide a flexible system which can change over time to meet, perhaps, even developments at international level.

I hope that the House recognises that this is a realistic and practical approach. In clause 11(2) we have sought to describe the main areas that we think the regulations should cover. We have been careful in the wording of that clause, without prejudice to the generality of clause 11(1). That leaves us with enormous room, so that if other circumstances arise, they can at least be covered. The Committee broadly welcomed what we sought to specify in clause 11— broad headings and broad categories, which I hope cover most of the points raised in this debate and in committee. The effect on navigation underlies the IMO document and, of course, we are bound under international obligations to take account of standards and safety regulations.

The deterioration of material and its effect on the marine environment has already been covered to some extent in clause 11(2)(c) in its provisions for the prevention of pollution. At the same time we have—this is important because it underlines the preliminary nature of the Bill—embarked upon an extensive research and development programme. The House will be aware that the research and development programme is being sponsored by the Science and Engineering Research Council and my Department is playing a considerable role in that programme. It is examining the effects on the environment, including the fisheries criteria. Therefore. we already have work under way in this important area.

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Matters of personal injury are obviously important and there is a question of prescribing under clause 11(2)(a), standards and safety requirements. Of course, that is important in any circumstance and not just in the instance of abandonment. It may require special provisions, but there can be regulations under this clause.

I want to reassure the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow that there is a full weight of offshore safety regulations and that these will remain in force while the dismantling takes place. I am glad to have had the opportunity to say that those regulations already exist in addition to what may be introduced as a result of this legislation.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) laid particular emphasis—again, rightly so—on liability for damage. That is something that the oil companies will have to address and obviously that will have a certain relevance in relation to costs. Such things are covered by the provisions relating to standards of inspection but there could be a provision in a programme for monitoring. Therefore, any liabilities for something that is left only partially removed could be covered within that programme should the Secretary of State so require. Therefore, the House is absolutely right to draw attention to that, and it may well be something that the industry, in the years ahead, will need to consider in the overall costs of an abandonment. in whatever form. Again, that is adequately covered by the umbrella nature of the regulations that will be brought in later under clause 11.

We have had a good opportunity yet again this evening to go over all the main areas of importance. None of them are exclusive to each other, but each has a different importance attached to it and is important to different interests. We must think not only of the interest of the oil industry and the costs that may be involved but of the many other matters covered in the amendment and clause 11, which provides an opportunity for full account to be taken of the other users of the sea whether navigators, fishermen or anyone else.

I welcome this opportunity to reiterate that all the issues are important. When standards are worked out, whether they are the result of a research and development programme—for example, the use of explosives—or of the international standards to which this amendment is specifically drawn, or whether they relate to some of the interests of the other users of the sea covered under the regulation-making powers of clause 11. I hope that we have made provision, at this early stage, to ensure that all those important points are covered.

I thank the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow for giving us another opportunity, finally to debate all these important subjects.

Dr. Godman

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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