HC Deb 28 June 1995 vol 262 cc941-3
Mr. Dafis

I beg to move amendment No. 257, in page 10, line 42, at end insert— (6A) It shall be the duty of the Agency to provide and publish advice to the Minister of the Agriculture Fisheries and Food, the President of the Board of Trade, and the Secretary of State for Scotland, concerning the discharge of pollutants at sea.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 84.

Mr. Dafis

Amendment No. 257 has been prompted by the Brent Spar episode and the unsatisfactory state of affairs that were brought to light. It addresses that position in two connected but different ways. My amendment would ensure that the agency would provide advice to Ministers, and especially to the Department of Trade and Industry, concerning the discharge of pollutants at sea. That would, of course, encompass the disposal of oil rigs, which inevitably involves discharge of pollutants at some point. That would be consistent with the agency's role, inherited from the National Rivers Authority, of regulating discharges to seas and rivers.

All businesses wishing to dispose of any effluent to the river or sea must obtain a discharge consent from the NRA, which has acquired a reputation for considerable rigour in this matter, and we presume that that rigour will be inherited by the new agencies.

Currently, only the Ministry of Agriculture provides advice, and the DTI then provides a licence for disposal of an oil rig, as for its being brought into operation in the first place—the DTI has both those functions. The Brent Spar episode illustrates the need for consideration of the question of disposal at the time of licensing commissioning of the rig in the first place, just as the decommissioning of nuclear power stations should be considered before construction and commissioning. The question whether disposal on land was an even worse environmental option than at sea would not then arise.

The amendment is especially relevant in Wales, where we have the possibility of oil and gas exploration, existing exploration and exploitation in Cardigan bay and the Irish sea. Clearly, people there do not want to see another Brent Spar.

The second way in which the amendment would deal with the issue is that it provides for the advice from the agency to Ministers to be published. That is absolutely essential. It is vital that the public are aware of such matters right from the outset, just as they should be aware of the grounds for rejecting or allocating certain blocks for oil exploration under current rounds. The public and the consulting bodies are not always aware of the grounds on which blocks are awarded or refused permission to explore.

It is crucial that, if the Department of Trade and Industry overrules the advice of the Environment Agency, just as it might currently overrule the advice from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, that should be public knowledge. We would not then have the sort of uncertainty that has occurred over the advice that the Ministry of Agriculture gave to the Department of Trade and Industry about Brent Spar. That was not made clear for some time.

A major piece of environmental legislation should have something to say about the marine environment.

Mr. Wallace

The hon. Gentleman's amendment refers simply to "the discharge of pollutants". Is it the hon. Gentleman's intention that that should cover unintended, accidental or negligent discharges, which might be relevant when considering environmental aspects of the debate between offshore loading and laying pipelines in some of the new oil developments in the west Atlantic?

6.30 pm
Mr. Dafis

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that kind intervention. The amendment deals with advice provided by the agency in relation to a deliberate intention to discharge, not to an accidental discharge. I am sure that that point has been well made.

There is a need to respond to the tremendous public concern and alarm about the state of the seas and the oceans, and the role that pollution plays in the deterioration that is occurring. My amendment would provide for that, and, although the agency was not designed for that purpose, the Bill has picked up additional functions as it has proceeded, and it would seem reasonable to add to the agency this important function.

Mr. Ainger

In Committee, the Government announced that they were accepting EU directive 85\337, which meant that environmental impact assessments for new offshore developments would be required from April 1996. We debated that issue in Committee, when it was clear that the Government had a closely defined concept of developments. It related to new production facilities, pipelines, production rigs and so on. It did not cover exploration, which is an issue of which the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) and I are well aware, bearing in mind the developments currently taking place in Cardigan bay and the Celtic sea.

I was disappointed in Committee because, when the Minister was pressed, he refused to accept that the Government should extend the concept of development to include exploration and that is unfortunate. However, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North so ably said, even the new rules relating to environmental impact assessments will not cover existing developments. In other words, all the rigs that may have to be scrapped in the next 10, 20 or even 30 years will not he covered by an environmental impact assessment.

This is a serious issue, and I wonder whether the Minister can give us any indication of whether the Government intend to introduce any new regulations, particularly in relation to environmental impact assessments, to deal with any developments that will not be covered by directive 85\337. What will we do with all the other developments put in place before April 1996?

Mr. Atkins

Government amendment No. 84 is a deregulatory amendment to remove an overlap which currently exists between the provisions of the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1971 and part I of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. It would prevent the need for an operator to apply for an exemption under section 23 of the 1971 Act where certain discharges or escapes are already covered by an integrated pollution control authorization. This will not in any way weaken protection of the environment.

Amendment No. 257 is wholly unnecessary. The Scottish Office Agriculture and Fisheries Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are the Government's advisers on marine pollution, as the expertise rests with them. Information on the discharge of pollutants is already published. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Dafis

Naturally, I am not particularly pleased with that response. I should like strongly to endorse the points made by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger), particularly his comment about the need for oil exploration, not just extraction, to be subject to an environmental impact assessment. I do not intend to press the amendment to a Division. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Back to
Forward to