HC Deb 11 April 1989 vol 150 cc739-42 3.33 pm
Mr. James Wallace(by private notice) (Orkney and Shetland)

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what assessment he has made of the environmental impact of the leak of 50,000 gallons of drilling mud from Shell's North Cormorant platform 100 miles north east of Shetland?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I understand from inquiries made by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland that about 1,140 barrels of oil-based drilling mud were accidentally discharged into the sea yesterday afternoon from the North Cormorant oil and gas production platform. The accident occurred during transfer of the mud from a supply vessel to a holding tank on board the platform. It is believed that there was a mechanical failure in a drainage pipe from one of the holding tanks which led to the leakage of mud about 100 m below the surface of the sea.

The drilling mud contained about 60 per cent. of refined oil. It is expected that the released mud has fallen to the sea bed close to the installation. The spilled mud contained about 680 barrels of oil. The tanks on board the platform were emptied yesterday afternoon, immediately following discovery of the leakage. No further spillage has occurred.

The information received as a result of inquiries indicated that the effect on the environment is minimal. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Energy and I will be seeking a report on the source and impact of the spillage from the responsible authorities and the operators as soon as possible. Furthermore, we have asked Shell to report to us immediately if there is any evidence at all of any adverse environmental impact.

Mr. Wallace

I am grateful to the Minister for his detailed reply. I am sure that he will reassure the House that if Shell report, any sightings of adverse environmental impact immediate action will be taken. Does he agree that, given the present sensitivity about pollution, not least from oil-related installations, merely to look at incidents individually is to miss the whole point that further consideration should be given to an overall examination of the environmental implications of North sea oil developments?.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is yes. In answer to the second part, I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that in the wake of the Alaska episode my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Energy asked for an update on how we deal with oil spillages in United Kingdom continental waters. That process is already under way, and if improvements are needed they will be made. Exercises on a considerable scale take place annually and are carried out by the marine pollution control unit of the Department of Transport. The last major one was on 4 July last year, and a smaller exercise was carried out in Humberside on 7 March.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside)

First, will my hon. Friend confirm that Shell acts very responsibly in relation to matters such as pollution, and indeed safety and other matters? Will he assure the House that he is getting all possible co-operation from the company, as I am sure he is? Secondly, will he confirm that, if a major pollution problem should arise, there are adequate resources in the area to deal with it, as evidenced by the fact that companies in Aberdeen have been called upon to assist in clearing up pollution in Alaska?.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

With regard to my right hon. Friend's first point, I have had a meeting with a representative from Shell, and I agree with what my right hon. Friend said. The other matter will certainly be followed up with the relevant Departments and we shall do everything in our power to ensure inter-departmental co-operation to effect this very important purpose.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

The Minister is being characteristically vague about who is to provide this very important information. When he refers to responsible authorities in the company, does he mean that the Government will be relying almost entirely on the company for further information? Ought he not to be insisting that all Government resources be commanded immediately to inspect the area, continue to monitor and to take positive action with urgency to prevent the pollution having any effect on the marine environment?.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

We received information from Shell in the first instance, but I assure the hon. Member that we will check monitoring and that wider surveys are carried out by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries scientists in this matter. It is the responsibility of the operator—in this case Shell—to monitor the oil content of discharges of mud or cuttings around each platform under the powers exercised by the Secretary of State for Energy.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is impossible to eliminate either human or mechanical accidents in any sphere whatsoever and that therefore, as long as we extract oil from the sea and transport it in ships, there will be a risk? The important thing is that we have the resources available to deal with the possible results of that risk. It would seem certain that we do in this case.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

We want to reduce risk to an absolute minimum and do everything humanly possible to achieve that purpose. As for safety issues generally, which my hon. Friend touched on indirectly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is responsible. As my hon. Friend knows, Lord Cullen is now conducting the Piper Alpha public inquiry and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has made it clear that if he makes any recommendations for improvement of the safety regime they will be adopted.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Following the point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), does not the Minister consider that there is a difficulty in that all the information that he has given us today has come from the company? When will the independent investigation take place? Does he not consider that there is a real difficulty in that we do not have a system of regulation in the North sea; we have in effect a system of self-regulation?.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Preliminary investigations indicated that isolation of the mud storage tank on the platform failed and that involved the valve and cement plug, we believe, allowing the mud to discharge into the sea through one of the platform legs about 100 m below sea level. The mud contained approximately 680 barrels of oil out of 1,140 barrels and this sank to the sea bed. There is no visible sign of a slick on the surface. Admittedly, conditions are not particularly good, but I can give the hon. Member the assurance that there will be monitoring as necessary by the appropriate authorities.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

Can my hon. Friend reassure the House that in the review dependence on dispersants will be looked into very carefully, as much of that technology comes from the oil companies which manufacture the dispersants and there are serious misgivings that that means of dealing with a major oil spill will fail, as it has failed in Alaska?.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Energy has asked for an update on how to deal with oil spillages so as to get the most up-to-date advanced technical and technological information to enable us to deal with these matters appropriately in all circumstances.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Will the Minister stop muttering platitudes about monitoring and updates and acknowledge that it is fairly common practice for unwanted material to find its way over the sides of oil rigs? Is there not an urgent need for effective action by Government Departments to control this practice?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Strong penalties exist. If it is shown, for example, that a discharge is due to want of reasonable care, the operator is liable to penalties under the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1986 of up to £50,000 on summary conviction or an unlimited amount or imprisonment on indictment. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence of misdeeds in the sea outside his constituency he should report them as appropriate.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

I note what the Minister has said, and I recognise that there is no surface slick and that the mud has sunk to the sea bed within the 500 m exclusion zone, but surely he accepts that any unintended discharge of as much as 50,000 United States gallons of oil-based mud—even if it is of low toxicity—is a matter for genuine concern, and that the House and the country would expect monitoring to be very tight and extended.

The Minister referred to the circumstances of the discharge. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that the supply vessel, the Edda Fram, started pumping into the storage tank at 1130 hrs yesterday and it was only at 1500 hours, a considerable time later, that someone noticed that the contents of the storage tank were dropping and not rising. That suggests that at least there was something wrong with the surveillance system. In effect, they were pumping through an empty discharge drain straight into the sea for three to four hours before those operating the system became aware that something was wrong. Does not that suggest that there was something wrong with the inspection system and that there is food for thought for the Department?.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Yes. The hon. Gentleman touches on a relevant point. It was at 11.30 am that the supply vessel commenced pumping and it was at 3 pm that those responsible became concerned that stocks were not building up as expected, exactly as the hon. Gentleman has said. It is important that we should find out exactly why the isolation system failed. Shell is making immediate inquiries and both the Scottish Office and the Department of Energy expect to be kept closely informed. I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman made.