HL Deb 19 March 1979 vol 399 cc968-92

7.38 p.m.

Lord CAMPBELL of CROY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what recent reports they have received on oil pollution in the sea area north of the Scottish mainland; and what connection it has, if any with Sullom Voe, in Shetland, where the continuous use of the new oil terminal is of great importance to the economy of the United Kingdom. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I am asking the Government: what recent reports they have received on oil pollution in the sea area north of the Scottish mainland; and what connection it has, if any, with Sullom Voe, in Shetland, where the continuous use of the new oil terminal is of great importance to the economy of the United Kingdom". There is a serious threat to wildlife. Many sea birds have been killed by oil in the area of the Orkney and Shetland Islands. It is not the result of a single sensational incident such as an accident to a tanker. The sources are not, therefore, obvious or yet individually identifiable.

I submit that action is urgently necessary to stop the practices which are causing this pollution, not only to protect the coastlines but also to preclude the possibility of the flow of oil from the British sector of the North Sea being delayed. I declare an interest, as I have done before, in that 1 act as a consultant to an oil company. The company is the operator of a field from which oil is now moving by pipeline to Sullom Voe. Indeed, in a year or two, the new oil terminal there is expected to have passing through it about half of Britain's oil from the North Sea. I have for many years belonged to wildlife conservation bodies in Scotland—in particular, the Scottish Wildlife Trust. I am also Vice-President of the Advisory Committee on Oil Pollution of the Sea, known as ACOPS. I regard these various interests as being credentials for speaking on the disquieting situation which has arisen. I shall describe briefly what has happened.

Three to four weeks ago there were signs of a steady increase in the spread of oil being deposited on beaches in Orkney and Shetland. In the past few days it has been killing birds. In the last week or so it has killed and injured the sheep which customarily graze on seaweed. A letter in the Daily Telegraph of 8th March from the Development Officer of the Scottish Wildlife Trust sounded the general alarm. The letter stated that: reports … from Orkney and Shetland about widespread increases in apparently small-scale oil pollution incidents, causing an insidious build-up of oil on all the beaches", were being received. The letter continued by saying that the oil was not bunker oil—the type which had been spilled during an accident at Sullom Voe at the end of December. It was therefore likely to be the result of ballast tank operations at sea. Indeed, some unscrupulous captains of tankers may have been so tempted because the evidence of their ballast operations would be lost in the results of that accident.

The effects of the accident at Sullom Voe were reasonably well contained. I am drawing attention today to the operational pollution, not accidental pollution. I am drawing attention to the deliberate emptying into the sea of water from ballast tanks—water which contains some oil—and to the washing out of tanks at sea. Some of that, of course, may be perpetrated by tankers passing by which are not connected with Britain or Sullom Voe; indeed, going from one point distant from our shores to another. As they pass through an area where there is some pollution they may be tempted to carry out ballast operations. But it seems likely that most of the pollution has been caused by tankers heading for Sullom Voe, where they were due to load oil.

The terminal at Sullom Voe is designed to have facilities to enable ballast water to be released and treated there. My information is that the first of those facilities will not be available before next month. There will still not be enough capacity for some time to meet the expected demand, and even when all the plant required is available some delays are bound to be caused by its use. Masters of tankers may be tempted not to lose that time, which can be expensive. For example, the recent Atlantic and North Sea weather, which has been very rough, has probably caused tankers to have considerable ballast on their way to Sullom Voe. If the tanker can jettison some of that ballast before it reaches the calmer waters near the Shetland Isles then there is more capacity for oil to be loaded. Indeed, the contract may have been arranged on the basis that a certain quantity of oil will be loaded and the vessel may have started with too much ballast for that to be possible. If this debate does nothing else, I hope that it will impress on shipowners and captains of vessels that they must give overriding instructions that international rules be observed and that no ballast operations be carried out which would cause any oily water to enter these seas.

During debates in your Lordships' House in recent months we have discussed tanker design and methods of operation—for example, segregated ballast tanks, methods of load on top and crude oil washing. I shall not embark on those matters again now, but I simply remind the House that satisfactory arrangements are being made by international agreements, provided that they are observed in future. However, lapses have been occurring now in the seas to the north-east of Scotland, probably for the reasons which I have suggested. They could together add up to disastrous results, if continued. For should the pollution of beaches increase, and should the toll of animal life rise, these could be regarded as intolerable by the general public. There could very well be pressure then to close the terminal at Sullom Voe for a time. But the United Kingdom needs the oil now. Delay would do an injury to our economy.

It is clear that most of the pollution—perhaps all of it—in the area in the past few weeks has been caused by the deliberate discharging by tankers of oily ballast water. International agreements already exist to prevent that. The conventions, protocols and ratifications now prohibit such action. I recognise that there is a gap, that some vessels may be registered with non-signatory countries to those agreements. Monitoring and enforcement are the problems, especially at night when tankers can carry out ballast operations under cover of darkness. It is imperative that the Governments, tanker owners and the oil companies concerned impose strict policing of these international agreements and exercise severe discipline on guilty vessels. Action is, I know, already being taken and it is in their own interests that it should be taken. They would all suffer if the Sullom Voe terminal had to be closed for a period. In particular, the United Kingdom's supplies of oil from the North Sea would be slowed down. I remind your Lordships that there is the Flotta terminal in Orkney, on one of the small islands. That has been functioning for over two years. It will never be on the scale of the Sullom Voe operations of the future. The factors which I have described connect the ballast offences with Sullom Voe rather than with Flotta, but I mention that there is, of course, a terminal there too.

As regards the action that is being taken by the part of the industry about which I know, BP is the operator of the terminal at Sullom Voe. The Sullom Voe Association has been formed. It is a partnership representing the local authority, the Shetland Islands Council, and companies with an interest in the Sullom Voe terminal. I know that the association has arranged that all ships calling at Sullom Voe be instructed that no cargo tank ballast shall be discharged on either the inward or outward voyage. At the terminal the operator, BP, will hand any available evidence to the United Kingdom authorities and reserves the right to refuse to load vessels which have offended. I also understand that the Sullom Voe Association has recently required that tankers in waters around Orkney and Shetland en route to Sullom Voe should advise the terminal of their exact position and route when north of a certain latitude. So far as the Government are concerned, I am informed that the Department of Trade has decided to maintain a continuous presence in the area by appointing a permanent surveyor at Lerwick in the Shetland Isles.

Those are examples of actions which are being taken by the authorities and companies concerned. In addition, ships' logs and oil record books are being inspected to detect any illegal discharge of ballast. There is a case, at present, where a tanker, which is suspected, has mislaid its records. I understand that it is still on the high seas. It will be interesting to see whether its records turn up at its next port of call.

The companies concerned have also asked all their aircraft—which work for them in different respects, whether they are ferrying men to oil rigs and platforms or doing other work—to keep a constant surveillance of shipping in order to report any incidents of oil pollution. The owners and operators of ships are being advised that these and other steps are being taken, and that any evidence obtained will be handed over immediately to the United Kingdom authorities. I know that the companies concerned are also considering further action, including new provisions in contracts where necessary.

I hope that in reply the Government, for their part, will say that they are taking the situation seriously and that they are lending their authority to further action in concert with the local authorities and industry. In particular, the Government are best placed to pursue action against substandard tankers. I know that the whole question of jurisdiction beyond the three-mile limit—which Britain still observes—is one which creates doubt and difficulty. Again, that is a matter for the Government. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, who will be following me, is an expert on this aspect and no doubt will comment on it, so I shall not pursue that matter.

As Secretary of State for Scotland, the Minister in Scotland for local authorities and planning, among a host of many other things, I was involved in the early 1970s in the choice of both Sullom Voe and Flotta as terminals. At that time the aim was to achieve terminals and pipeline landfalls at sensible places—sensible from every point of view: economic and environmental. It was also an aim to obtain adequate control to protect the community as a whole and the local environment from any adverse effects. We aimed too to avoid unnecessary delay, as the construction of those terminals was urgently needed. The oil is now flowing through the terminals. It is helping our economy and our balance of payments. We now need that oil perhaps more than we thought, especially with the closedown, for a period, of oil from Iran. It has proved a blessing for Britain that, after expeditious examination, permission was given for the two terminals in Shetland and Orkney. Their construction was started in good time. Therefore, the House will understand my personal concern that this wilful oil pollution should be arrested immediately, and that the sources of it be traced and eliminated with vigour and determination.

7.53 p.m.


My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for drawing this problem to our attention at this time. In raising this Question he has brought his knowledge and experience to bear on it and put forward some very useful and constructive suggestions. In this respect I am not as qualified as the noble Lord, but in my view oil pollution is not simply about dead birds on the beach, but about spillages at sea. I believe that any efforts that we make in this House, together with any efforts that are made by conservationists and other members of what could be described as "anti-pollution lobbies", must concentrate on the cause rather than the effects of this problem of oil pollution.

It is quite a problem because the present estimated world oil pollution from all sources comes to a depressing total of 4,897,000 tonnes per year. That figure excludes spillages and pollutions from the North Sea. Once the North Sea wells begin to operate at full production, they will no doubt make their contribution to this total, just as every other oil well has done in other parts of the world. Therefore, I am afraid we can expect annually 5 million tonnes of oil pollution.

This Question raises the point: what efforts should be made at this stage to try to foresee the problems that we shall face when the North Sea is working flat out? Is it that we must wait until there is a major disaster at Sullom Voe before we put forward frantic and swift legislation to rectify it? Could we not foresee the inevitable? Or at least do something to prevent it? My right honourable friend in another place, Mr. Grimond, has been in the forefront of recommending measures to protect the environment and the inhabitants of the Shetland Islands from just the kind of pollution problems that we have today at Sullom Voe. It would seem that in the past all the warnings of my right honourable friend have been ignored and I hope that now at last some, if not all, of his recommendations will be noted by the Government—more precisely, those which he has identified as the delay in operating the shore terminal facilities for ballast cleaning and the lack of a full number of inspectors to monitor the discharge of oil at sea.

It is that last point on which I wish to dwell for a few moments. As I understand it—and it was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy—the onus of pumping out ballast tanks remains firmly the responsibility of the master of the ship as he approaches any terminal, including the one at Sullom Voe. Masters of these vessels are under considerable pressures when they approach an oil terminal in any part of the world. Some of those pressures are commercial, as was mentioned by the noble Lord—namely, that the vessel should have the fastest turn-around possible in order to save the company money. The second pressure is the unmanageability of these very large vessels at slow speeds and often in turbulent weather. Therefore, the safety of the ship is obviously of paramount importance.

I regret that the third pressure of emptying his ballast tanks in such a way as, to protect birds on the beach comes very low down on the list of a master's considerations as he approaches an oil terminal. Therefore, as has been mentioned and as we all know, he is tempted to discharge oil in any form—bilge oil or ballast tank oil—usually under the cover of darkness, and it does not seem to make much difference whether it is inside or outside territorial waters. The most obvious answer would be to extend our territorial waters to, say, 200 miles. That could alleviate some of the problem, provided that the territorial waters were monitored and properly inspected in order to prevent this problem. I believe that the temptation to discharge would be that much less if there was adequate inspection in a much wider area than our present three-mile limit.

Another point, which the noble Lord did not raise—although I am not familiar with the technicalities of discharging ballast at sea—is that there are available on the market commercially successful dispersants, such as SeaWash and others of that variety, which could be carried on board all oil tankers and which could be used when pumping out the ballast tanks. I believe that to a certain degree this is covered in the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1971, Section 4 of which says: For the purpose of preventing or reducing discharges of oil and mixtures containing oil into the sea, the Secretary of State may make regulations requiring ships registered in the United Kingdom to be fitted with such equipment and to comply with other such requirements as may be specified in the regulations". In reply, I wonder whether the Minister can give some indication whether or not vessels must carry under this Act adequate equipment to use a dispersant for the purpose of ballast discharge. I feel that this could be an area which we might be able to concentrate on, in that the master of the vessel would still be able to discharge his tanks at sea but be able to do so responsibly and with a proper chemical that could make the oil disperse before he entered the environment of any nation-State, and more especially when he approaches Sullom Voe.

There is one final point I wish to make, and I think to merely extend one which was made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. If this kind of pollution continues at this rate and creates this form of public concern, the Shetland County Council will have to consider closing the port, which they can do simply by withdrawing the tugs. I do not think that this will be the correct measure. It can only be a temporary measure. It will affect the whole economy of this country if such a closure is forced by public concern—and it would be for the wrong reasons; the wrong reasons being that we have not got adequate protection, or legislation, to ensure that masters behave responsibly in the area of Sullom Voe. I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, makes his contribution he will be able to cover some of the points I have mentioned, and perhaps advise the House whether they could be practically applied in the conditions we have at the moment.

8.2 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the Vice-President of the Advisory Committee on Oil Pollution of the Sea for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. I want to underline all that he said, and thank him for the constructively useful way in which he presented it. All that has happened illustrates a difficult situation. When we look at the cost benefit of great enterprises they do not seem to take into account that something like the "Esso Bernicia" incident can in fact trip up the whole operation. Putting in the precautionary measures is an essential of the operation itself, and not just an additional convenience.

It seems to me that that was where this particular discussion of the last few weeks started, because the "Esso Bernicia" was acknowledged as an accident. You cannot really say "an accident in the best sense of the word," but you know what I mean. The fact that the safety precautionary measures did not operate effectively (but still contained a considerable amount of the damage), as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, pointed out, has now been used as a pretext, a device, to cover the disposal of ballast waste at sea.

I have said in your Lordships' House before that pollution is a felony compounded of avarice and ignorance. We do not pretend for one moment that ships' masters are ignorant of what they are doing. They may not have taken into account the considerations that Lord Tanlaw raised, but they know what they are doing. They know that it is now against international law. However far the obligation has been accepted by whatever flag of convenience they may be flying, or whoever the owners are, is another matter, but the fact is that it is now an offence.

I want to say to my noble friend the Minister that we cannot be satisfied with a recurring situation in which we wait for something to happen and then decide how to act. There is no reason why each disaster should be treated ad hoc, which is what we are doing now. One of the considerations at Sullom Voe was that the ballast reception facilities were not available, and are not yet available. I gather that although some facilities are expected to come into operation within a few weeks, it will be some time before the full capacity of ballast waste disposal can be effective.

This is in an area in which load on top—that is the other device for containing waste ballast—cannot function because it is a short voyage. The oil and the water can settle. What we are suffering from, even on the scale of giant tankers today, is the old schooldays' illusion that oil and water do not mix. I can assure you in terms of ballast that they do. When the ballast water is ejected—and it may be for purposes of rigging or perfectly legitimate purposes; there may have been very bad weather and the safety of the ship may be involved—it is adding to the whole of our problem.

The tragedy and in fact the scandal—and that is why I stressed the word "avarice", even though I am limiting it in this case to the returns to the master of the ship himself—is that at this moment the North Sea and the pretext of the "Esso Bernicia" are being used as a public convenience. It is in fact the ship masters going behind the hedge. They are discharging their waste, and we know it beyond any question. This is not the oil of the North Sea wells. It is not the oil of the "Esso Bernicia". It is in fact the oil from ships' discharges. There is no difficulty about identifying it. You cannot identify the source, but you can certainly discover that this is not the kind of oil traceable, for example, to an accident or a collision.

As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, pointed out, this is a very vulnerable environment in the Orkneys and Shetlands, not only in terms of wildlife—and the effects have been pretty bad—but regarding the livelihood of people like the Shetland shepherds whose sheep have died from eating the oiled seaweed and whose wool has been ruined by the oil on the fleeces. This has affected again the cottage industries of the Shetlands. This brings up the question of the whole mechanism. This is where I am entitled to address myself to my noble friend on the Front Bench in terms of what is, or is not, the Government's responsibility. I want to welcome in the first instance something which, although it was initiated and stimulated by Government, has not been simply a matter of Government intervention. I welcome the No-go area agreed by the Department of Trade Working Party in Aberdeen last Thursday. This was an initiative of the Shetland Association. This is a partnership of the Shetland Islands Council and BP, who are the operators of the terminal. It has been agreed (and it is a very sensible arrangement) that the zone in which the ships will not navigate is in the region of the 10 to 12-mile limit. The routeing of tankers offshore will in fact reduce the risk of damage. This is a difficult area, as everybody knows. We are told about the terrific storms in the Pentland Firth, and so on, but the risk of tankers grounding is even more possible in this region.

This particular zone is the kind of thing which should be reinforced generally by the proper specification of a 12 mile limit. I am glad to see, as we on the Advisory Committee have been advocating and have been supported by the Trade and Industry Sub-Committee, that in addition to advocating a 12-mile limit, they say: We advocate giving the coastal State wider powers to prevent pollution within its exclusive 8-mile economic zone [and] we recommend the extension of United Kingdom territorial waters to 12 nautical miles". I know, because I am heavily involved with it, what the difficulties and delays are in relation to the Conference on the Law of the Sea, but I assure noble Lords that we cannot wait even for the outcome of that. We cannot wait because we are, in our own enclosed seas, running into all the hazards which in the long run the Conference on the Law of the Sea might multilaterally, internationally, control.

In respect of the kind of problem we are discussing—the indiscriminate disposal of waste in the North Sea, on our doorstep as it were—I suggest that we should, for this purpose at least, assume, first, a 12-mile limit in order to intervene when we see pollution taking place. Secondly, by agreement will all concerned (it does not matter whose 200-mile zone it is, Norway's, Holland's or anybody else's in the North Sea) wherever, within the 200-mile limit of any country, action which creates pollution is spotted, this power to intervene should be available.

That brings me to a point which I hope the Government will effectively reinforce, namely, that we want to get the authority of the port States to bring to book those who cause this pollution. Cannot Her Majesty's Government agree to enforce a port State jurisdiction and bring to our own courts offences committed anywhere in the contingent seas, offences which are against the common interest and against internationally agreed rules?

What can we do at present? If somebody is seen disposing of waste at sea—say, a Greek tanker under a Panama flag—what can people invigilating this sort of abuse do? All we can do is to get in touch with the Panama Ambassador or Embassy or Liberian Embassy and say, "One of your people is being very naughty. Would you mind slapping them over the wrist?" That sort of thing is not tolerable these days. What is occurring is becoming a total abuse. We should therefore have power, in terms of our service to the world, not just in our own interest, to bring these people to book and deal with them summarily, in a way that I hope would be commensurate with the offences being committed.

We have the recent development of a quite useful contribution by the admirable county council, if I may call it that, in Shetland. The whole approach of the Shetland Council has not been obstructive or totally mercenary, although it has agreed to a considerable expansion. It has now set up an invigilating system and is watching, even by aircraft, and by alerting in the way Lord Campbell said, all ships of good intent in the area asking them to notify any abuses at sea. They are also using infra-red at night. These developments are all to the good. I hope Her Majesty's Government will by any means—I have stressed this many times add have communicated it to the Secretary of State for Scotland—back up this demonstrably sound type of intervention.

Two things are critically important. I cannot repeat often enough in this House that we need an increase in our hydrographic survey. There is no question about that; this is a need and is in no way special pleading. Above all, in the region of Orkney and Shetland we are now bringing 200,000-ton tankers into areas which are practically unsurveyed. I believe I am right in saying that we do not even now have a survey of the bottom of Scapa Flow, although the Germans sank their First World War ships there. The ships, even the great warships that were sunk, are there, and they are at less a depth than is required by the great supertankers now in use, so we must face up to that problem. The Trade and Industry Expenditure Sub-Committee justifies what I am saying.

Obviously, the Government appreciate the point because they have said their report, and I will underline only this part of it: hydrographic survey effort beyond that needed for defence"— because at the moment the hydrographic survey is still nominally under the Ministry of Defence or is a Naval concern— is required for the safety of merchant shipping and the prevention of pollution accidents in waters around the United Kingdom and should, to the extent that it cannot be met by increasing the price of charts or by subvention from industry, be met by the Department of Trade". We in ACOPS have been saying that for a long time; that this is a civil matter of great importance which should at least be recognised by the Department of Trade The report says: To the extent that it cannot be reasonably found at the expense of that Department's existing programmes, the necessary money should be released from the contingency reserve". I call that evidence in aid. I respect, as your Lordships will, the fact that this Government, like other British Governments, are extremely conscientious about international obligations. We do not "jump the gun" or take advantage of international agreements; we wait and co-operate. Here, however, I urge my noble friend, is something which calls for emergency action—unilateral, if you like—by the British Government to ensure that pollution from these ships is not allowed to go on.

8.19 p.m.


My Lords, I need not detain the House unduly because my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy provided a great wealth of valuable and helpful information which I need not repeat. Clearly, the continuous use of the new oil terminal at Sullom Voe is absolutely vital to the economy, either now or in due course. The question that matters is this: Did economic or political considerations in this case overwhelm proper concern for the marine environment and, if so, who did the arm-twisting?

It certainly looks to me as if the opening of Sullom Voe was premature. Deballasting reception facilities were not available and, until two weeks ago, they were not operating, and I do not know whether they are operating yet. In those circumstances I cannot understand how anybody could claim that the terminal should have opened when it did. Either the Departments concerned were responsible for egging on the opening of Sullom Voe, for motives of short-term economic advantage, which we can all understand; or if they were not, then they were responsible for allowing the terminal to be opened before all the facilities were ready.

Proper standards of control are universally accepted in the case of land traffic, and more expressly with air traffic, including continuous supervision and enforcement and severe penalties for errors and offences. Whereas in the case of land and air traffic the purpose of this whole spectrum of surveillance is simply to save a handful of human lives, albeit a very worthy aim, the absence of the necessary standards of control in the case of the seas will certainly result in the steady degradation of the natural, and therefore the human, environment. It will be the next generation who will suffer.

For the sake of future generations, therefore, we cannot rush in and just grab what we seem to need today, particularly as the resource will still be there tomorrow if we move with more responsibility. It seems to me that, on the one hand, there is a lack of urgency regarding the preservation and conservation of the seas around our shores, while, on the other hand, there is a mad sense of urgency in order to exploit the oil and other resources. As we all know, efforts are being made to get international agreement on laws for the sea. Here I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, is right in saying that we should not jump the gun. My feeling is that, on a universal basis, international agreement is yet a long time away, and in the end will come only through example, by a nation, or perhaps a group of nations, courageously jumping the gun, taking the lead, and risking the hazards. Waiting for international agreement and ultimate signatures could mean that nothing will evolve for decades.

Failure to initiate and enforce the necessary disciplines at sea, perhaps unilaterally, has up to now been due to a number of factors. First, as I mentioned in the previous debate last year, up until a few years ago, when I was on the Royal Commission dealing with pollution, there used to be a kind of Drake/Vasco da Gama complex about the freedom of the seas. But the tanker disasters seem to have shaken us out of that. Next, we are apparently fearful of imposing disciplines and penalties on foreigners in the North Sea for fear of retribution to our vessels in other parts of the world. Is any foreign nation really going to retaliate on the grounds that it is in favour of polluting the sea? If so, we should now bring it under international scrutiny; the sooner, the better.

Today we have a third new factor with which to contend: the political and economic impulse to exploit all our oil resources at the first possible moment, regardless of the consequences. I fear that the result of this short-sighted opportunism in the case of Sullom Voe—unless I am much mistaken—is that somebody in power now has oil all over his face, while thousands of seabirds, Shetland sheep, otters, and marine life have it all over them.

I remember saying many years ago, when 1 first became aware of the prospect of this country joining Europe, "Thank God; now we shall he able to do something about pollution of our rivers and estuaries, and about the conservation of the North Sea before it's too late". Surely we can recognise the huge advantages of a united Europe to the human environment and to the generations of the future. Surely, instead of being solely preoccupied with farm prices and the current profit and loss account of the EEC, we should also courageously take the lead in the world with our European partners in enforcing vital disciplines on the mariners and sea captains around us; in my view not in territorial limits but, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, suggested, throughout the North Sea and further.

How can this be done. I know that I am accused of being an idealist, reaching for the moon. But there are available today the most sophisticated forms of photographic and radar equipment—used primarily by the super-Powers for defence—which are capable of watching and monitoring from the air (both from aircraft and satellites) the conduct of all ships at sea, especially oil tankers. I am not an expert on these matters, and so I do not know whether this can be done at night. An aircraft was sent out recently from Shetland as a matter of urgency; but the surveillance must be continuous and permanent. Without being disparaging, I should say that this recent action was merely a pittance in the context of what is permanently required.

Secondly, I should like to propose that all ships using the North Sea be required by countries bordering the North Sea to have their names and country of origin painted on top, clearly legible from the sky. There are no aesthetic arguments against this because people do not usually look at ships from the top. If this were not done within a reasonable period, those operating the ships would have to be penalised. These measures in themselves, including a captain's awareness that he is probably being watched, might go a long way towards acting as a deterrent.

Next, fines and penalties for oil offences in the Channel, and North Sea, and the Western Approaches should be punitive, including in serious cases, refusal of access to ports, or impounding of ships in port. Again, the mere prospect of this could well induce significant results.

I was interested to hear about the new Sullom Voe Association. I find it somewhat remarkable that some action has now had to be taken by a consortium of the Shetland Council and the oil industry, both being parties with a vested interest. That is not to say that that is not a very welcome and an admirable initiative. However, apparently the best that the Government have been able to do, according to what I have read, is to be kept informed. So where does the leadership lie?

When it comes to daily control, monitoring and surveillance from the air (on the lines that I have suggested) and many other methods, no doubt the subject of costs will be raised; but again we in this country must get our priorities right. For example, each year we spend millions on the arts, so how can we fail to spare whatever is required to ensure the future survival of our marine environment, which for these islands implies our whole environment?

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy has dealt with questions regarding birds and wildlife, and so I shall pass over those points and conclude where I started I believe that opportunism, reckless haste, for quick result, and political or economic arguments overriding prudence are all tendencies which will prove to be no service to the future generations in Britain. Primarily we should combine with our partners in Europe and demonstrate the basic long-term benefits to the North Sea environment of the European Economic Community, and not allow opportunist decisions to undermine an aggressive policy of North Sea control. All Departments of Government are doing a great deal, but it all tends to be somewhat defensive and is concerned with what should be done after a spill. We must impose fearlessly tough and continuous surveillance and control over those mariners and ship captains who, by illegal discharges of tank waste and dirty ballast water, are not in my view going behind the hedge, but are quite brazen in giving a Harvey Smith sign to all the codes and disciplines that should apply.

8.28 p.m.


My Lords, I fully endorse every word so far spoken in this debate and my sole purpose in rising at this late stage is to commend the Government, particularly the Department of Trade and the Department of the Environment, on having organised a seminar on emergency arrangements for combating oil pollution. The seminar was held today, from 9 o'clock in the morning until after five in the afternoon at the London Press Centre. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend and I must say that I was tremendously impressed not only by the authority of those who contributed to the discussions but also by the wide range of questions which followed. The seminar was attended by some 400 delegates from a wide range of public authorities; many of them were sent along by their respective county councils, particularly those county councils whose borders include part of the coastline; and the contributions included many from people who, as I said, spoke with the highest authority.

Curiously enough, this seminar was held under the title of "SEACOP", the letters representing "Seminar for Combating Oil Pollution". If one is willing to accept as a colloquialism the word "cop" for policeman, perhaps no happier title might have been chosen. But what impressed me enormously about this conference was how everyone who participated in the discussion was deeply concerned, not only about the need to keep our beaches clean, and not only about the urgency of the problem of preserving wildlife, but also simply about preserving our coastline for its sheer intrinsic beauty. That in itself is something quite regardless of any economic advantage which might accrue: maintaining the beauty of our countryside, particularly this incomparable coastline which we are fortunate enough to possess.

In the discussions, of course, the question turned again and again on the washing out of ballast tanks by irresponsible ships' commanders, especially the commanders of those ships registered at ports of convenience. I speak now as a layman and in almost complete ignorance of the subject, but the question was raised whether there could not be used for the washing out of these ballast tanks some kind of material that would prevent the oil from floating on the surface; whether some research should not be carried out into the use of some detergent which would enable the oil to sink, and not pollute the surface of the sea. Of course, arising out of that there was the wider question whether any ship's captain should be permitted to indulge in the washing out of tanks within a certain limit, certainly within 50 miles of our coastline and, if possible, even the 200-mile limit which was tried to be imposed as the limit for our own fishing industry. But surely it ought be prohibited, under the severest penalty, for any ship's captain to attempt the washing out of his tanks within sight, and certainly within the near approaches, of our own coastline.

Again, the question arose—and this has been referred to by several speakers already—as to the urgent importance of maintaining a constant survey of these ships, as they approach our oil terminals; and whether here not only aerial surveys by means of aeroplanes, or perhaps helicopters, should not be maintained, but even whether, if necessary, during the night time, helicopters with powerful headlights, whenever they see a ship or the shadow of a ship, should not switch on their headlights and track the pathway of the ship as it approaches close to our own coastline. Matters were also discussed as to the responsibility of our local county councils in maintaining the cleanliness of their beaches, certainly after cases of pollution. A very instructive paper was read by the county oil pollution officer of the Suffolk County Council, which was involved in a recent instance of severe oil pollution off Lowestoft, telling of how other instances had occurred of dirty tanks being washed out within the approaches of the Stour, affecting Ipswich and Harwich ports in his area.

He was followed by the Under-Secretary at the Department of the Environment speaking on the Government's role in assisting the local authorities in keeping their beaches clean. He spoke of the question of stockpiling in cases of severe emergency, when a local authority had insufficient facilities to cope with the immensity of a problem suddenly facing it. The question also arose as to where the stockpiling should take place; and why, in particular, it should be in Bristol. What about the reaches of Scotland and the other parts of our shores, and particularly Sullom Voe, in Shetland, which has been referred to constantly in tonight's debate? And it was asked whether the stockpiling should not be distributed among certain other regions.

Of course, looming large especially was the question of financial assistance to local authorities from the Government. Although the culpability must rest ultimately on the owners of the tankers, the owners of the cargoes and the captains of the ships responsible for any obvious breaches of ordinary maritime and amenity considerations, in the short-term, it was said, the Government had a very important responsibility to bear. The immediate responsibility, of course, was on the local authorities, but where the problem is too large for them to deal with and is a matter of extreme urgency, the Government should not hesitate to give aid, financial assistance and certainly technical expertise, although as a result of trial and error many of the local authorities are already extremely expert at coping with these problems—except, of course, a problem of such severe magnitude as occurred in the case of the "Amoco Cadiz", which, fortunately, this country has not quite had to face. Nevertheless, the problems which have arisen from tanker mishaps which have involved our shores have been severe enough.

So I think it would be only right to say a word of commendation to the Government for having this matter discussed so widely; and to ask them to face up to the financial responsibilities which are inevitably involved in dealing with this problem—and there could be no limit to the financial demands of an extreme, severe emergency. It is also right, I think, to ask the Government to maintain through the Warren Spring Laboratory and other means at their disposal continuous research into dealing with the various aspects of this problem. Research must go on endlessly so long as oil remains a major source of this nation's energy.

8.38 p.m.


My Lords, this has been an important short debate, and I very much welcome the contributions made by the noble Lord. Lord Campbell of Croy, and other noble Lords, all of whom, I think, have a particular knowledge, and different aspects of knowledge, of this important subject. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for initiating this debate; and I am very glad that my noble friend Lord Segal has taken part and has given your Lordships an instant report about the important seminar held today, which he attended.

Much has been said and written about the damage done to bird life by the spill, resulting from an accident to the "Esso Bernicia", as my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder has said, of heavy fuel oil at Sullom Voe, and by other incidents at sea reported since December, which have been referred to today. I regret to have to inform your Lordships that these reports are not exaggerated. The damage done to bird life referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, is the worst at any time since the "Torrey Canyon". All told about 6,500 birds from about 50 different species have perished. Some of these have been important species whose European presence is concentrated in Scotland and whose numbers are not great at the best of times. Surveying has been difficult and it is likely that total casualties will turn out to be greater than those reported up to now. Representatives of the Nature Conservancy Council and the RSPB, as well as volunteers, have been working to alleviate the suffering.

The "Esso Bernicia" incident was our first experience of an oil spill which killed species other than birds. Some 11 dead otters have been found and others have been sighted with oil on their coats. Some of these will die. The contamination of seaweed and of the foreshore has been particularly worrying for farmers and crofters whose sheep take much of their sustenance there, as my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder has said. It is reported that some 50 sheep have died either from drowning or from eating contaminated seaweed and some 2,000 more have oiled fleeces. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland is liaising with the Shetland Islands Council on the provision of fences to prevent sheep from getting to oiled beaches and on the provision of feed-stuffs, at no costs to farmers and crofters, to entice sheep away from the shore. It is clear that the oil and the oiled seabirds on Orkney, Shetland and Caithness are the result of some tankers discharging illegally oily ballast water. Her Majesty's Government utterly condemn this filthy practice and I might add that the great majority of tanker captains and tanker companies who are concerned to behave properly and responsibly, wholeheartedly share this view—as I know does the general public.

I may remind your Lordships and those outside this House that this practice is prohibited by international law. Under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil of 1954, as amended in 1969, ships may not discharge oil anywhere at sea unless the ship is moving and the instantaneous rate of discharge of oil content does not exceed 60 litres per mile. As an additional protection, oil tankers may not discharge oil from their cargo tanks within 50 miles of the nearest land and may not discharge on any ballast voyage a total of more than 1/15,000th of their cargo capacity. Discharges from other ships and from tanker bilges must be made as far from land as practicable: in addition, these discharges must have an oil content of less than 100 parts per million.

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships 1973 will further strengthen these standards by limiting the amount of oil that may be discharged by a new tanker on a ballast voyage to 1/30,000th of the cargo carried on the previous laden voyage. For other ships (and tanker bilges) the discharge well have to take place more than 12 miles from land—instead of "as far as practicable" which was the wording previously.

The relevant United Kingdom legislation—the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1971—provides heavy penalties: a fine of up to£50,000 on the owner and/or the master on summary conviction and an unlimited fine when convicted on indictment. The Government therefore are taking this very seriously. This should be clearly understood by everyone. Given the proper evidence, the Department of Trade will prosecute and the courts, I am sure, will make full use of their powers. And in the case of foreign ships discharging outside our territorial waters, we shall bring this to the notice of the flag State concerned to take similar firm action. These problems are not being treated on an ad hoc basis, as my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder supposes.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, I would also say that before work on the Sullom Voe terminal was begun, extensive environmental studies were carried out by a body known as the Sullom Voe Environmental Advisory Group set up on the joint initiative of the then-Zetland County Council and the oil industry. In addition to the industry and the local authority, the Group had representatives from the Nature Conservancy Council, the Countryside Commission for Scotland, the Natural Environmental Research Council and the Scottish universities. The Group set in hand some important studies of different shore lines to act as the baseline for future monitoring studies. It also did valuable work in identifying where treated ballast water could be safely discharged into the Voe and on recommendations about the type of oil spill clean-up equipment which should be made available at Sullom Voe. Since 1977 the important task of environmental monitoring and advisory work has been in the hands of the Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group—a body with a wider platform of opinion and a greater Shetland representation than its predecessor.

As I think the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has said, there has been mention of the fact that the ballast water treatment facilities at Sullom Voe are not yet ready. But these should be in use by the summer. Let us be clear that this does not justify discharging oily ballast at sea. It is perfectly possible to avoid this by proper operating procedures: clean cargo tanks can, for example, be set aside for carrying ballast, even if this reduction in cargo capacity involves a commercial penalty. The lack of deballasting facilities is not the cause of pollution. Pollution is caused by the inexcusable action of some unscrupulous tanker masters. It is this that Her Majesty's Government, the local authorities and the oil industry are determined to stop. The international oil companies and BNOC, who are loading oil at Sullom Voe, are considering what sanctions they can invoke against individual ships' masters who will not co-operate.

The Sullom Voe terminal operator and the Sullom Voe Association, a partnership representing the Shetland Islands Council and companies with an interest in the terminal, are also taking steps to prevent these foul and unnecessary discharges. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has said, tankers en route to Sullom Voe are being required to advise the terminal of their exact position and route when north of latitude 58°20' North. Aerial surveillance is being maintained over the route and any oil pollution observed will be fully investigated. Ships seen to be causing oil pollution will be reported to the authorities. Measures are in hand to ensure that tanker owners make sure that crews are advised of these measures. Her Majesty's Government warmly welcome this action.

Much is being done, therefore, and talk of a closure of the Port of Sullom Voe is exaggerated and would be wrong, as the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, has said. Rear-Admiral Stacey, Director of the Department of Trade's Marine Pollution Controlled Unit, spent the week beginning 5th March in Scotland. He visited both the Orkneys and the Shetlands and held a number of useful and constructive meetings. He will be reporting to the Department of Trade and to the Scottish Office. The Department of Trade also sent one of their marine surveyors to the Shetlands at the end of that week. A surveyor will continue to be available in the area to inspect tankers and advise on any anti- pollution work that may be necessary until the end of April when a surveyor—who has already been chosen—will take up a permanent appointment.

At the meeting held in Aberdeen last Thursday between officials of the Department of Trade and other Departments, and attended by representatives from the Shetlands and Orkney Islands Councils and the oil industry, great concern was expressed about the recent oil pollution at Shetland. The oil industry emphasised their determination to take all practical steps against offenders. Those present recognised the advantages of routeing tankers further offshore, and it was decided that the Shetland Islands Council and the oil industry should formulate an improved routeing scheme for consideration at a further meeting.

The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, asked about the extension of territorial limits. It is true that an extension of our territorial seas to 12 miles would allow us to prosecute foreign ships which subsequently call at our ports for deliberate discharges up to 12 miles from our coasts instead of up to three miles as at present. This is one of the factors being weighed by Ministers in their current consideration of the problem. I might add also that the Informal Composite Negotiating Text currently under consideration at the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference would authorise any State to prosecute foreign ships for discharges in contravention of applicable international discharge standards on the high seas.

Very large crude carriers and indeed any large tankers, are unsuitable for use as dispersant spraying vessels. They are too large and too unmanoeuvrable. They should certainly not follow oil as it is carried closer inshore and into shallower waters by the wind and waves. Section 4 of the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1971, to which the noble Lord referred, relates to equipment for preventing or reducing discharges of oil and not to equipment for dealing with oil once spilled.

My noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder asked about enforcement. We believe that the prime responsibility for enforcing international conventions should remain with flag States; only they can generally enforce standards on a particular ship consistently over a period of time. We accept an increasing role for the port State—that is, the State at whose port a ship calls—and recent IMCO Conventions include port State control provisions. We are doubtful about enforcement by the coastal State; that is, a state whose coasts a ship is passing. If this right means anything, it means a right to arrest a ship at sea, and that can lead only too easily to accidents, loss of life and pollution, particularly if action is taken by ill-equipped and impetuous régimes.

My noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder also asked about hydrography. The Government accept that our civil hydrographic requirements call for some provision over and above that made for purely defence reasons. I am glad to say in answer to my noble friend that the Government are actively considering how this provision should best be met. My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are therefore greatly concerned about the worrying and, I repeat, wholly unnecessary pollution problems that have arisen in the area. They and others concerned have taken immediate action and will continue to keep a close watch on the situation as it develops. A report on the efficacy of the new measures which have been introduced has been requested by the end of the month.