HL Deb 11 July 1995 vol 565 cc1468-70

2.55 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are prepared to reconsider their view of the proposed sinking of the "Brent Spar" in the Atlantic in view of European and worldwide reaction.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, Shell UK announced on 20th June that it would not be proceeding with deep-sea disposal of the "Brent Spar".

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. Is he aware that when I raised the matter on 12th June 1995 (Hansard, cols. 1537 to 1538) the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, answered on behalf of the Government and listed a number of conventions which the Government arc pledged to uphold? They are being amalgamated into the OSPAR Convention, which will cover the whole issue. Will the Minister give an undertaking that when the convention is signed it will be honoured in order to maintain a rationale on the disposal of such drilling apparatus? Will each case be decided by the Government on its merits?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dean, for his welcome. It is correct that the United Kingdom's decision was fully consistent with the requirements of international law and, in particular, the provisions of the London and Oslo conventions of 1972. Furthermore, it was in line with the provisions of the Oslo convention's guidelines on the disposal of offshore installations. We shall certainly adhere to those conventions and, as indicated, we shall treat each case on its merits.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there are two worrying aspects to the "Brent Spar" episode? First, there was the sudden decision by Shell, an independent company, to change its policy purely as a result of pressure from people who are becoming increasingly irresponsible in their demonstrations, contrary to what it believed to he the right policy and with the complicity of the German Government. The second and more worrying aspect is that offshore rigs have operated in the North Sea for more than 30 years and there are more than 100 in European waters and thousands around the world. Is there an agreed policy within the international community for the inevitable disposal of those rigs?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, as regards the first issue, it remains the view of the Government that in the case of "Brent Spar" a deep-water disposal was the best option. I believe that Shell still adheres to that view. However, the European companies of the Royal Dutch Shell Group found themselves in a difficult position. I understand that for that reason a reversal of the original decision was made and that Shell is taking some time to reconsider the options.

It is difficult to assess how many rigs might be appropriately disposed of in deep water. As I indicated, our policy is that it is correct to do so on a case-by-case basis. However, an Answer given in another place yesterday indicated that of approximately 32 fixed offshore installations in United Kingdom waters 19 are in water less than 75 metres deep and therefore will have to be entirely removed. It should not be assumed that all of them will be appropriately disposed of in deep water. It is more likely that they will be returned to the shore for breaking up.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, will the Minister answer the question? Is there an agreed international policy?

Noble Lords

Order, order!

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is it not a fact that the polluting effects of the "Brent Spar" would have been negligible compared with those of a large number of ships which have sunk in the same waters? Is it not ironical that the Germans of all people should be making trouble about the issue when one recalls that U-boats littered these waters with sunken ships?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, there is more metal at the bottom of the Atlantic than in the "Brent Spar" installation. Certainly, the North Atlantic is not to be regarded as a garbage dump of infinite capacity. However, on a case-by-case basis, some rigs may be suitable for disposal. Perhaps the noble Lord noticed with interest, as did I, that Nature magazine of 29th June indicated: Far from finding heavy metal residues lethal or mildly unappetising, the bacteria on the ocean floor would have greeted the arrival of the Brent Spar as if all their Christmases had come at once".

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the short answer to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, to say that two wrongs do not make a right?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am not aware of any scientific evidence or argument which indicates that the decision taken by the United Kingdom following the application by Shell was wrong. While there have been a number of reactions from Europe, so far as I am aware no one has come forward with a serious scientific basis on which to reject the proposal to which the United Kingdom agreed.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, in view of the global implication placed before us so effectively by the Minister, to what extent is the matter now being discussed by the United Nations?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the decision that we took was in accordance with international law and the conventions to which we are signatories. They apply on a global basis. The noble Lord may be aware that recently a number of European countries suggested that there might be a moratorium on the disposal of such installations in deep water. Those who proposed it did not have offshore installations. Both the United Kingdom and Norway, which clearly have to deal with a difficult problem often in complicated circumstances, declined to reach that decision. There is a set of guidance notes in which we are indicating that as we review the matter we shall act in accordance with the International Maritime Organisation guidelines which apply on a worldwide basis.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that "Brent Spar" is not a rig or a platform but is unusual in that it is a loading container buoy? Its disposal on land will produce more environmental problems. Has he noted the reported comments of a technically qualified member of the Advisory Committee on the Protection of the Sea, which has international membership and which I chaired for four years, to the effect that to aim for publicity only at the expense of facts and sensible decisions is a disservice to the whole environmental movement?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I strongly endorse that. My understanding is that it may be six times more dangerous to try to dispose of "Brent Spar" on land. It is of such a size that it cannot be brought into United Kingdom coastal waters in a vertical position. If it is to be disposed of on land, a clever engineering solution will have to be found to the problem of getting it onto a horizontal plane.