HL Deb 25 January 1978 vol 388 cc343-62

2.55 p.m.

Lord RITCHIE-CALDER rose to call attention to the forthcoming International Conference on Tanker Safety and Pollution Prevention (6th-14th February 1978); and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful that we are able to have this debate today. I would remind the House that it is a short debate and therefore I recommend all my colleagues who will be taking part to keep their speeches short, and I hope to set a good example.

It is a bit embarrassing, if not unfair, for the Government to be asked in advance of a diplomatic conference to disclose the cards in their hand or maybe up their sleeve, but I am sure I will not abash my noble friend Lord Oram, who knows that my intentions are of the best. If the moment is awkward, it is because some of us in your Lordships' House want to see that Her Majesty's Government do not find themselves in a fortnight's time out on a limb from which they cannot crawl back or, worse still, which is cut off behind them.

There are really two main concerns in this debate and both are crucially important. The first is the question of tanker loading and the second is that of the Hydrographic Service, about which your Lordships have already expressed your alarm and which, in terms of tanker safety, is the subject of the conference and is desperately important. I shall confine myself to tankers and rely on my noble friend Lord Kennet to deploy, much better than I could, the arguments which I would have put for the Hydrographic Service, about which I feel very strongly.

Perhaps I should declare an interest. I am the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Oil Pollution of the Seas, ACOPS. Our credentials are impeccable; the president is my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, and the very active vice-president, as noble Lords will see today, is the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. Your Lordships' House has provided my predecessors as chairmen in the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, my noble friends Lord Shackleton, Lord Kennet and Lady White. I will not recite the list of 23 authorities, important organisations, which are represented on our Committee. That Committee is profoundly concerned about the outcome of the international conference which we are discussing. We are a disinterested body committed to preventing pollution of the seas and the defilement of our shores, with which our local authority members are all too familiar.

I do not have to make a case against pollution; I need only mention the "Torrey Canyon", the "Santa Barbara" oil spill, Ekofisk or any of the dozens of cases of tanker damage and wrecks and of deliberate discharges. Governments, oil companies and shipping companies have acknowledged their responsibilities. The Inter-governmental Maritime Consultative Committee has been explicit in defining those responsibilities, but unfortunately its assembly resolutions, like those of NATO and the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, are not legally binding because the rules of jurisdiction are hung up in the protracted Law of the Sea Conference.

In 1973 the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships was adopted, but has so far received only three ratifications. However, the United States Government, as a result of pollution incidents off the North American coasts, tabled a set of comprehensive proposals at IMCO, backed by an emphatic policy statement by President Carter. This has precipitated the diplomatic conference which will take place on 9th February and which we are discussing today.

At the conference there will be discussions of improved crew standards and that, I imagine, will raise very little controversy; it is like being for motherhood or against sin. Anyway, there will be in June an International Conference on the Training of Seafarers. There will be proposals before the conference to tighten up the frequency and quality of the inspection by which vessels are certified fit to operate. All maritime States support those proposals. Then there are construction and equipment standards—and I want to stress this—on which the outcome of the conference will depend. The items include improved radar and collision-avoidance aids for all tankers; improvement of emergency steering in narrow waters, and so forth, an indispensable provision from our point of view, particularly in places like the English Channel; improvement in the inert gas system for all tankers, to reduce the risk of explosions, of which we have heard quite frequently; double bottoms for all new tankers, to reduce oil pollution resulting from grounding accidents; and, lastly, segregated ballast tanks for all tankers, to reduce pollution from operational practices.

My understanding is that the arguments for ships being double-bottomed will not be effectively sustained. Therefore, the highly controversial issue is segregated ballast. Segregated ballast is, quite simply, the use of separate tanks and piping systems for oil and for water. Some of your Lordships may be surprised that that does not apply now, or some with more insight may think, as every schoolboy (or perhaps I ought to say "every schoolperson") knows, that oil and water do not mix. But they do when it comes to discharging ballast. Anyway, at the 1973 IMCO conference it was agreed that segregated ballast tanks were to be the preferred method of reducing pollution from tankers, and it was laid down that all new tankers must be built with segregated tanks. Now it is being proposed that the system should be fitted to existing tankers.

Apart from the increasing awareness of pollution hazards, identified by the local authorities who are members of our ACOPS Committee as the defiled beaches which their ratepayers have to pay to clean up, the past five years have seen a drastic reduction in the building of new tankers—those tankers which were to be compulsorily fitted with tank-provisions—and the prospect of the continuation in service for an indefinite future of tankers without segregated ballast. A case can certainly be made for what is called "crude oil washing", which a system developed by certain oil companies, to their great credit. It derives its name from the fact that the cargo tanks of all crude oil ships must periodically be cleaned. During crude oil washing, no mixing of oil and water takes place—that is to say, in the system which is used—and the cargo tank residues are discharged with the cargo. I expect that other noble Lords who are to take part in the debate will explain and justify the system, so I will not dwell on it. Above all, I am not disputing the intrinsic merits of the system, but I respectfully suggest that it is a commendable (and, I would hope, eventually, imperative) supplement, but not an alternative, to segregated ballast.

It is no secret that the United Kingdom is opposed to segregated ballast tanks. That opposition means a straight confrontation with the United States, which is proposing that all existing tankers of 20,000 tons and above should be equipped with segregated ballast tanks. As an interim measure, clean ballast tanks would be specified. That means that, without structural change, certain tanks will be allocated to ballast water only, which of course means restriction on the carrying capacity of the oil tankers. New building will not replace the existing tankers—completely, that is—until about 1990, when the present fleet is scrapped through inevitable obsolescence.

The argument against conversion is, of course, cost. The main cost element of segregated ballast is the approximate 15 per cent. reduction in cargo capacity. For example, in a new, ultra-large tanker, that means an additional cost of about £2½ million for providing tacks which will not carry cargo. In addition to the loss of carrying capacity—that is to say, returns on the oil of about 16 per cent.—the cost of conversion of a super-tanker would be about £400,000. That is a movable figure, and I know that the United Kingdom Government put it much higher. The reduction of oil pollution is costly—OECD puts it at a 2 per cent. increase on the landed cost of crude oil—but immeasurably more so is the cost of the destruction of the environment at the expense of present and future generations.

The largest proportion of ship-generated pollution is due to operational practices. It was estimated that, in 1975, 1.8 million tons of oil were discharged from ships, and that accidents accounted for only 300,000 tons, the rest being deliberate. Environmental costs are difficult to estimate. OECD is trying to do so, but they are also highly debatable, under the circumstances. For example, we are told—and when I say "we" I mean ACOPS—by the Marine Division of the Department of Trade that the number of oil spills continues to decrease. That, my Lords, is certainly not borne out by the findings of our ACOPS committee. Our findings were based on questionnaires circulated to Her Majesty's Coastguard, local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland, sea fisheries committees, RSPCA inspectors, port authorities and the Scottish river purification boards. The result of that (I think your Lordships will admit) pretty thorough investigation, with proper loading against overlap or repetition, revealed that the number of incidents in 1976 was 20 per cent. higher than in 1975. The risks are manifestly going to increase.

The washing of ballast tanks takes place when tankers are about to enter loading ports. Britian, as an oil-exporting country of the future, is in that category, and polluted ballast water will be deposited on our doorstep. That can be reduced by proper oil-reception facilities, but not when oil is conveyed to single-buoy moorings, which may be a widespread practice. The provision of separate tanks for unpolluted ballast will significantly reduce the cost of expensive oil-reception facilities.

As I undertand it, segregated ballast tanks are supported by the United States, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Cyprus, France and all the Arab States, with the United States and Kuwait making it clear that they will be prepared to take unilateral measures if necessary. Counsellor Gunnar Boos of the Nordic Union, which is a body similar to ACOPS and affiliated to us, has today informed me that the Nordic Union for the Prevention of Oil Pollution of the Sea is reinforcing the attitudes of its Governments through its national committees. I would ask Her Majesty's Government to consider very seriously the benefits of converting ships to segregated ballast.

I am sorry to say that I find muddled and inadequate the thinking behind the Departmental presentation now; and, if I may say so, there is an inconsistency in the Government's own position. The basic inconsistency is that the United Kingdom accepted segregated ballast for new tankers and are resisting it as a conversion measure when it seems to me that this is the most advantageous time to do it. There is a large tanker surplus. There is crisis in our own shipbuilding industry and, indeed, in the whole world shipbuilding industry. Our shipyards, if it came to this kind of conversion, would get a fair percentage of the United Kingdom fleet conversion—which is 11 per cent. of the world tonnage—and would also get, because they are very competitive, a considerable percentage from other flag States.

OECD have estimated that the conversion of the whole world fleet would mean 90 million man-hours. I say as a conservative estimate that the United Kingdom could pick up 10 per cent. of that world tanker fleet conversion; and that would mean 9 million man-hours or 4,500 man-years. It is also going to prove useful because it will, in the circumstances we are talking about, advance the time for ordering new tankers. I hope that the Department of Employment and the Department of Social Security have been apprised of these important facts. Whatever it costs, even if it comes to the question of subsidies, the fact that we are going over to this type of conversion can greatly help the economy of this country.

We ought also to recognise the political realities. I want to say that I do not regard the United States attitude as the "big clout" but as implementing President Carter's concern for the environment. If other countries—and particularly the ones I have mentioned—by national legislation close their ports to ships which are not equipped with segregated ballast, it will embarrass the United Kingdom as an oil exporter and the United Kingdom will also become the focus for those tankers without segregated ballast which are excluded from parts of the United States and elsewhere.

There are some specific questions that I should like the Minister to answer; and I have given him notice. If the segregated ballast tankers became a requirement for existing tankers as a result of the diplomatic conference, have Her Majesty's Government considered what proportion of the conversions to British flag tankers and to other flag tankers could be done by British shipbuilders? At what price could the conversions be made, involving how many man-hours, and with what reduction of unemployment and savings in public expenditure on social security payments and in other ways? Which Departments and which interest groups were consulted in the formulation of British policy for the February conference? Have the Government considered the implications for the United Kingdom tanker fleet of the move announced by the United States and by the Arab oil exporting countries if they introduce segregated ballast tank regulations for existing ships unilaterally, if the conference fails to do so multilaterally? Have the cost benefits of segregated ballast tankers been considered in relation to the expensive oil-reception facilities which the United Kingdom will have to provide as an oil exporting State, to deal with waste disposal?

My Lords, I am finished. I hope that we are going to re-think, or to think again, or to think forward to that conference with a good deal of imagination and with a little less narrow-mindedness; and I hope that Her Majesty's Government are not going to throw the baby out with the bilge water. I beg to move for Papers.

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, I think that we would all wish to thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, for raising this subject today in this Motion and for the very clear introduction he has given to the debate in his speech. He is, as he has told us, the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Oil Pollution of the Sea, and in that capacity he brings great knowledge and profound concern for the protection of the environment. He has also raised this subject at an appropriate moment before the conference next month in London of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO). It will be concentrating, as he pointed out, on the question of the rules for tankers concerning the pollution of the sea in an operational sense; that is to say, deliberately. That will be the main point although it will, no doubt, be considering other matters, which are less controversial, to avoid accidents and other ways of causing pollution which are not deliberate.

Britain will be greatly affected by whatever decisions are taken at that conference; first, because we have a coastline which is very vulnerable to oil pollution, with a great deal of traffic of tankers through waters near our coast and with a rapidly-developing, new offshore oil industry. But we should be concerned also because of the vital interests of our shipping industry which could be affected by these decisions.

I must again declare an interest as a part-time consultant to the oil industry; and there is another position to which the noble Lord has already referred and which I am proud to occupy and that is vice-president of the Advisory Committee on Oil Pollution of the Sea.

The proposals before the conference, as the noble Lord has reminded us, arise from an initiative taken by the United States. Because over the past two or three years they have had some serious pollution incidents around their shores, the U.S. Government have put these proposals to the world. They have been considered over the last nine months and now are coming to the international organisation which is appropriate to consider them. Everyone who is concerned with keeping the seas clean welcomes this conference and the consideration of the proposals. It is clear that most of them will be generally agreed. But there is this one very important issue which divides the countries who are attending in the attitudes that they hold at the moment. That is the question of new rules for tankers, affecting their construction and their methods of operation.

Oil pollution comes mainly from two sources: first, from accidents, collisions, wrecks or spills; and, secondly, from the operational discharges of oil where tanks are washed out or where, for some other reason connected with the duties of the tanker, oil is deliberately released into the sea. The operational source is a great deal more significant than the accidental source. Accidents are inclined to be sensational and also the pollution is concentrated at areas where they happen. But there is estimated to be about five times more oil released into the sea through the operational methods of tankers than is normally found in slicks as a result of accidents.

The issue, therefore, before the conference is how the operational side can be controlled so as to reduce, and, if possible, eliminate, this pollution. I would remind your Lordships that sea water is used as ballast and that the ballast is usually emptied on approach to a port or terminal. The water discharged into the sea, unless special measures have been taken, usually contains oil residues from the last cargo carried. There are three systems which are under consideration, and in use in different degrees at present, to prevent or reduce operational pollution. They are—and I must burden the House with some initials—the load on top, LOT; crude oil washing, COW; and segregation of ballast tanks, SBT; which the noble Lord spoke of and described in some detail.

The load on top system operates on the principle of oil and water being separated during the course of a voyage. The oily water is collected in a slop tank and can be disposed of later and not emptied into the sea. I understand that the 1969 amendments to the relevant convention have very recently come into effect, and they require this method to be used in certain circumstances. But it cannot be effective on short voyages such as, for example, from one side of the North Sea to the other. Nor is it effective in rough weather.

The crude oil washing system—COW—requires special washing machines and the jets from their nozzles use the cargo itself—that is, the crude oil which is being carried—while it is being unloaded at its destination, to clear away sediment and impurities in the tanks. In this way water is not used at all. Of course the oil companies then have the task of separating off, if they want to, the impurities and sediments; but then the crude oil has to be processed and refined in any case by the companies. I should add that there is a safety requirement that this method must be carried out in an inert gas system to ensure that there is no explosive mixture present.

The noble Lord particularly advocated to us the segregated ballast tanks—SBT—system. Here oil and water are in separate tanks throughout. This is indisputably the most effective system. The 1973 Convention provided that when that Convention enters into force all new tankers over 70,000 tons should have this system. So there has been agreement upon that already. The present American proposals are that all vessels, including ones already built and in use, over 20,000 tons should now be adapted to use this system. The difficulty is that it is exceedingly expensive to adapt vessels that are already built or in operation. In addition, 15 per cent. of the cargo capacity is lost so that the vessel is then operating with reduced cargoes.

We have to ask: Is it really necessary to go that far? Is the crude oil washing system almost as effective? If so, is it necessary to incur the dramatic costs which the SBT system would entail? I am told that the cost of adapting for the SBT system would be about eight times more than for conversion to the COW system. Have the Government an authoritative comparison? It of course makes a great difference if it is going to be eight times, or of that order, more expensive to adapt tankers to the SBT system than for conversion to the COW system.

Then of course there is the question of the extra costs of losing 15 per cent. of the cargo. I do not believe that at present that poses a quantity problem, because so many tankers are laid up, and some of them could be brought into use. But because the expense seems so prohibitive, I understand that the British shipping industry favour the COW system for tankers which are already built. They consider that there is little difference regarding the effect. But if there was very little difference in cost, those who were concerned primarily with guarding against pollution—and, I am sure, everyone else concerned with preventing pollution—would adopt the segregated ballast tanks system, as the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, has told us. There is no doubt about that. But there is here a real dilemma as to what decisions should be taken on these systems arising from the very high costs of the conversion to that system.

The United Kingdom shipping industry, as distinct from the shipbuilding industry, is a large and thriving one. I am very glad to see that my noble friend Lord Inchcape and the noble Lord, Lord Inverforth, are to take part in this debate today, speaking as they do from great experience of the industry. I will simply say something about its size and value to this country. It can be measured of course in different ways. In the year 1976 the number of vessels registered as British made us third in the world league table. There are not many world industry league tables in which we are as high as that. I should mention that one of those ahead of us in that year was Liberia; and it can definitely be said that the United Kingdom is not a country with a flag of convenience.

Measured another way, I should point out that in the same year, 1976, the United Kingdom shipping industry earned a net surplus of about £1,000 million in invisible exports. The views of this large and successful British industry must be carefully considered, and its interests protected. There are negotiations ahead in which the Government will be engaged. I do not ask the noble Lord, Lord Oram, to display any cards today, beforehand, which the Government will need to have in reserve; but we would welcome the Government's assessment of the issue which has been outlined. In improving safeguards against oil pollution, is it really necessary to go so far or as expensively as the Americans are now suggesting?

Then there is the point that if the IMCO conference does not make SBT compulsory for vessels over 20,000 tons, the United States of America may, none the less, pass their own domestic legislation and so restrict the entry of tankers into their own waters to those which have the SBT system. No doubt the Government will consider that possibility as part of their preparation for the conference. It may be that they would not wish to say anything today about what they would do in those circumstances; but it certainly must be taken into account.

I should like to end by saying a few words on oil pollution arising from accidents and navigational hazards. Charting of sea routes round our own coasts is still incomplete. The hydro-graphic surveys needed are being held up by a lack of resources. This has been discussed in this House before now, and in order to obviate the dangers of large tankers being holed it is important to press ahead with the programme. There are also opportunities abroad for similar services and the United Kingdom has been invited to provide the resources; and indeed can earn income from so doing.

This week I received a letter, in reply to one of mine, from the Secretary of State for Energy, Mr. Benn, in which he said that, although the Department has been contributing to the hydrographic surveys for the year 1977–78, they could not now go beyond that because they could not see further needs related to energy. I entirely understand that point. I would remind the Government that there are several other Departments involved and that it is an internal Government matter how the necessary money should be raised.

I hope that this kind of surveying will not go by default simply because of internal arguments about how the money should be raised. I know that other speakers are going to dwell on the question of hydrographic surveys, so I will not say more than that. I look forward to hearing a statement from the Government today which is being made possible at an appropriate moment before the IMCO conference, thanks to the initiative which has been taken by the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder.

3.30 p.m.

Viscount SIMON

My Lords, even in a short debate like this I hope I may be allowed to spend a minute in joining with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, in offering our thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, for bringing this very important matter to the notice of the House. The noble Lord has such a wide knowledge of the subject and such a deep interest in it that we always listen with great attention to anything he has to say. This is not, of course, a Party matter and I would not wish any noble Lord to think that, because I have been put down, in this position on the list and am speaking from these Benches, I am necessarily reflecting the views of my noble friends. We shall find out later on whether they agree with me.

Since the oceans cover more than half the surface of this planet, it is self-evident that any permanent damage to the marine environment, from whatever cause could have catastrophic effects. I am sure that we all join in wanting to reduce, so far as is practicable, any pollution caused by the discharge of oil into the sea. I think I can safely start from that common ground. Of course, the Motion is rather wider because it refers to other forms of pollution from tankers, and that, I suppose, includes chemical tankers; but that is a very difficult question on which I would not venture to speak to your Lordships. It is certainly a much smaller problem at present than that relating to oil discharges.

The first point I want to make is simply this. If all the oil now released into the sea, which is estimated at 6 million tons a year, could be evenly spread over the whole of the ocean, no real problem would be created. Oil is biodegradable in sea water: indeed, if it were not, the oil from natural seepage, which is estimated at 600,000 tons a year and which has been going on probably for millions of years, would obviously by now have swamped the oceans. The real problem we have to face is that of large oil discharges in one place—at least, that is most of the problem we have to face—and I feel myself that what we want the conference to do is to look at how to protect the sea from these major discharges and how to mitigate such effects as arise. Such major discharges may arise in the course of operating under-sea oilfields, as a result of collisions or of the strandings of tankers. Indeed, some problems can arise from the collisions and strandings of non-tankers, which may release bunker fuel.

Such happenings, in the nature of things, occur relatively close to land and consequently their effects are much greater than would be the case if they happened in the middle of the ocean. So although the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, and I think also the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, said that a far greater proportion of the incidents arose from tank washings and the like than from those major incidents, I would suspect that really far more damage is done from the major incidents than from tank washings. Indeed, we have been reminded that our friends across the Atlantic, the United States, have taken the initiative in the light of alarming incidents that have occurred in recent years; and I suspect that those alarming incidents were all related to strandings and collisions and have nothing at all to do with tank washings. I shall come back to those later, but I want just to make the point that the most serious incidence of damage arising from the spillage of oil comes from these major spills, and it is to that field that I hope the conference will devote a great deal of time.

As regards safety measures on oil rigs, obviously it is of major importance that everything possible should be done. We are rather new in this field and are still learning—I am afraid we may be learning for some years—by experience. But I would hope that a tremendous amount of effort is being put by the Government into research into the various methods of protecting the oil rigs from the risks of blow-outs and the loss of a lot of oil into the sea.

So far as collisions are concerned, we know of traffic regulation schemes in narrow waters, and in particular the scheme now operating in the Strait of Dover. I wonder whether I might ask the noble Lord who is to reply whether that scheme has been running long enough for any estimate to be made of its effectiveness, because it seems to me that it should reduce substantially the risks of collisions and therefore, in due course, the happening of collisions. If that is borne out by the facts, there is a great deal to be said for making similar arrangements in other parts of the world where there is a concentration of shipping in narrow waters. Perhaps the noble Lord could also tell us whether anything of this kind is being done on the East Coast of the United States, where we know there have been some unfortunate accidents.

In addition, of course, we support strongly—and indeed, I am sure that everyone in this House would support strongly—the proposal that navigational aids in ships should be kept up to the best possible level, as also should the training of crews, to which the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, referred. The standards of navigation in the British Fleet are, I believe, as high as they have ever been and the Fleet generally is well supplied with navigational aids; but it is true that from time to time one hears of such aids which are not adequately utilised.

I do not think we can hope to avoid occasional major spills arising from these conditions, and the next step is to contain as far as practicable the oil which is released into the sea. Here again a great deal has been done, but I believe there is much more still to be done. Your Lordships will remember that at the time of the "Torrey Canyon" accident it was thought that a lot could be done by dispersing the oil by means of certain chemicals, but it was later discovered that those dispersants did more harm to the environment than the oil they were meant to disperse. I am sure that a great deal of further research is needed in this field. I have heard tell of some experiments of chemicals being added to crude oil and, I think, to furnace oil as well, which have had the effect of solidifying the products. The solid matter is lighter than water, so that it floats upon the surface. I would have thought it would be worthwhile pursuing vigorously any idea of that kind because I cannot think of any more effective way of collecting together at any rate a moderate-sized oil spill.

I have said all this because it seems to me that reducing the likelihood of major spills and dealing with them when they arise is really much more important than any discussion about tank washings. But of course that does not mean that tank washings are unimportant. I shall leave it to the noble Lords who are familiar with the shipping industry to explain their attitudes about these matters, but I must say it does not seem to me altogether reasonable to require the fitting of segregated ballast systems in existing ships. After all, it is not so very long ago-1973, when the Convention was being negotiated—that it was agreed this provision should apply to new ships. I am not clear that anything has happened in the last four years to make us want to change that. Again, we hear about the experience in the United States, but we do not know—or at least I do not know—whether the experience in the United States has any relationship with tank washing. No doubt, the question whether crude oil washing is as good or nearly as good as the separate segregated ballast tanks is a technical matter on which I am not qualified to speak. But it seems that it must be nearly as good and, considering the enormous difference in cost, I should have thought that there was a case for studying this very carefully. Perhaps we shall hear from the noble Lord, Lord Oram, what view the Government take.

I think we can understand the impatience of the United States. International agreement is always slow to get and we ourselves are sometimes rather impatient. I would suggest to your Lordships that the more exacting the requirements the more difficult and the slower it is to get international agreement, so that I wonder whether it is wise, even from the point of view of the United States itself, to press for segregated ballast tanks to be fitted in existing ships.

I want to say just one word about the argument on unemployment. Of course it is attractive to think that one can do something which will give employment to the shipbuilding industry at this difficult time, but surely we ought not to decide our policy on what is just a short-term position. If I heard aright, the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, said that this might bring forward orders for new tankers. I confess I do not follow that. I should have thought that, if anybody had to pay £400,000 or £900,000 to put segregated ballast into an old tanker, he would not immediately start building a new one. He would want to get full value out of the old tanker. We must remember that very few ships with segregated ballast have yet been built and that if the others are going to be taken away we will have an acute shortage for a time.

With great diffidence I find myself not in full agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, whom I usually regard as my prophet in these matters. But we shall hear from the Government shortly what attitude they take and I look forward to that with keen anticipation.

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad to participate in this debate and would compliment the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, on the expert way in which he has introduced this complex topic. I am afraid that I may not be able to agree with everything he said, but that may help to roll the debate along. I must declare a partial interest. I am chairman of the Bank Line. Although my company has no tankers in its fleet at the present moment, and is not directly affected by most of the issues to be discussed at the forthcoming IMCO Conference, developments in one sector of the shipping industry inevitably have some effect on other sections, and in common with other non-tanker owner members of the General Council of British Shipping, I have been taking an active interest in the recent discussions at IMCO in preparation for the conference.

I should like first to comment about the nature of the shipping industry and the importance which British owners attach to the work of IMCO. It has often been said that shipping is international. Most ships need the flexibility to be able to trade freely wherever in the world there is a demand for them. This in turn means that regulations affecting the design and construction of vessels must be such that ships which meet accepted international standards are regarded as satisfactory wherever they trade. IMCO—the only United Nations agency based in London—is the body which determines these international standards. It is a most dedicated and efficient organisation.

In recent years, the United States has developed a tendency to adopt standards which exceed or differ from those agreed by IMCO, not only for its own ships but also for foreign vessels trading in its waters. There was very real concern that this trend would increase after the deplorable series of tanker accidents off the coast of the United States last winter. It was a source of considerable relief to the industry—and indeed to maritime Governments—when President Carter announced last March that he intended to put forward proposals for discussion at IMCO aimed at improving tanker safety and preventing pollution.

In presenting details of these proposals to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, the United States Secretary of Transportation, Mr. Brock Adams, specifically said: We will urge that IMCO move forward on these measures, so that the United States will not find it necessary to take independent action". IMCO has certainly taken this request to heart. In the space of 11 months, a remarkably short time in the field of international negotiations, a whole series of preliminary meetings has been fitted into an already crowded schedule and the conference opens in ten days' time with a view to adopting these regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, has mentioned some of the United States proposals—carriage of second radar, et cetera—and I do not think I need dwell on those. But I must talk, if I may, about the most important and controversial one and the only one which I need deal with in detail. This is the proposal that all tankers of 20,000 deadweight tonnes and above should be fitted with segregated ballast. The purpose of this proposal is to ensure that, under normal circumstances, no ballast water—which tankers need to make them seaworthy—is put into dirty tanks which have previously been used for oil cargo. This is a sound environmental principle, and there are already regulations which are fully supported by British tanker owners to require new tankers to be so constructed. What is at issue, however, as we heard earlier, is whether the existing world tanker fleet should be converted to meet these same requirements.

Conversion of ships to segregated ballast is extremely expensive. There is no dispute about that. In the United Kingdom, we have calculated that the cost of converting our fleet of some 110 large tankers would be in the region of £150 million—an average of over £1 million per ship. Furthermore, one has to sacrifice a certain number of the tanks at present used for the carriage of oil. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, said that it would be 15 per cent. My figures suggest that 15 to 18 per cent. would be needed for this. Segregated ballast is therefore a very expensive way of achieving an undoubtedly real but limited environmental advantage. In the United Kingdom we have already been gaining experience with a method of achieving the same environmental benefit at a much lower cost by crude oil washing. This is a technique developed by the oil companies whereby cargo tanks are cleaned of their residues by using the oil being discharged. This has the effect of cleaning tanks extremely efficiently and, coupled with the procedure already operated by the tanker industry for some years and known as "load-on-top" which has already been referred to, means that the possibility of oil discharge into the sea from tank cleansing operations is greatly minimised.

The British Government, with the full support of the tanker industry, have taken the lead in promoting the idea that, for existing tankers, crude oil washing should be regarded as a fully acceptable alternative to segregated ballast, in the firm belief that it will achieve equivalent environmental benefits at a fraction of the cost. I feel that we can all take justifiable pride in this highly practical and positive initiative, which our Government have proposed. It is estimated that to equip the entire British fleet for crude oil washing—and many British ships are already using this technique—would cost around £15 million to £20 million; in other words, perhaps one-tenth of the cost of conversion to segregated ballast.

It is tempting to assume that the cheaper something is, the more inferior it must be. Furthermore, there is a natural tendency to believe that measures which an industry has adopted of its own volition are deficient in some respects. All industries have interests to protect, and it is right that they should. In the case of crude oil washing, the British tanker fleet owners have a firm commitment to it, convinced that it is unnecessary and unwise to demand an expensive solution such as segregated ballast, when a much cheaper one will have an equivalent environmental effect. It is surely in the interest not only of the United Kingdom to avoid the waste of resources, but indeed, of all countries including, especially, the developing countries.

Yet despite the belief of British tanker owners in crude oil washing, perhaps our greatest concern is to achieve some international agreement which will really work. Whatever the outcome of the conference next month, we hope that Governments will be prepared to accept the majority view and will then return home intent on adopting the new measures as soon as practicable. The United States claim, with some justification, that the reason why they have so often introduced their own rules is that the internationally agreed rules take so long to come into effect. I would emphasise that such delays are in no way the fault of IMCO which achieves excellent results in securing international agreement to adopt approved standards. It is the very slow pace at which the necessary number of Member Governments—including, quite frequently, the USA—ratify these agreements that causes the delay. We must all hope that there will be an improvement in this field, and I am sure that our own Government will not be found wanting in giving us their customary lead.

I would only add that United Kingdom owners are very conscious that, in taking measures to safefuard the environment and to increase the safe operation of ships, it is essential to take into account the human element. Ships must be manned by competent crews, operating under systems designed to avoid operational errors. I would draw your Lordships' attention to the Convention of Minimum Standards in Merchant Ships, unanimously adopted at the 1976 International Labour Organisation Maritime Conference, and the Convention on Standards of Training and Watchkeeping, to be formulated at a diplomatic conference in London in June or July 1978. United Kingdom owners have undertaken to comply with the former, and fully support the 1978 endeavour. I apologise for detaining your Lordships so long. Thank you very much for listening to my remarks.