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Oil Pollution

Volume 932: debated on Monday 16 May 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on his discussions with the Offshore Oil Producers Association concerning methods of preventing and controlling oil pollution in the North Sea.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what lessons have been learned by his Department, following his inspection of the scene of the recent blow-out in the Ekofisk oilfield.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he is satisfied that adequate arrangements exist for the protection of British economic and environmental interests in the event of accidents in connection with offshore operations.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what plans he has for improving oil pollution control in the North Sea.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what further action is proposed for safety improvement and to stem pollution in the North Sea following the Ekofisk blow-out.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will outline the steps being taken to prevent a blow-out in British North Sea oilfields and the action required to be taken if one should occur.

The Ekofisk blow-out has demonstrated the hazards associated with offshore oil and gas production, and the Government are urgently valuating the lessons and implications for our national interests offshore. I discussed the risks involved with the Norwegian Minister in London and Oslo before and after the blow-out and have held two meetings with the United Kingdom Offshore Operators' Association. An interdepartmental study group has been set up and has reported on the immediate departmental responses to the blow out. As to the precise cause, we must await the findings of the Norwegian inquiry. We are reviewing the capacity of United Kingdom offshore operators to deal with any similar incidents on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf.

I shall call first those hon. Members whose Questions are being answered. Mr. Biffen.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the responsibility for oil pollution must primarily rest with the oil companies themselves? Secondly, does he agree that the oil companies should be permitted pricing policies that would enable them to generate the resources to execute the high standards of environmental protection that are generally required?

I do not think that anybody could really argue that the Government are, by their pricing policy for North Sea oil, preventing the oil companies from having proper security arrangements. We do not control the price. In fact, North Sea oil is commanding a premium price on world markets because of its low sulphur content.

With regard to the first part of the question, from examination of the matter in greater detail it would appear that the oil companies can charge the costs as operating costs and reduce the revenue to the Exchequer. I have taken this point up with them and intend to pursue it.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he did not use the services of Bristow Helicopters when he visited the scene of the Ekofisk blow out? Will he condemn those oil producers who use the services of a company that is so hostile to the trade union movement?

As the helicopters dispute is now affecting the BP refinery at Grangemouth, will he tell BP, of all people—because we still have a majority public stake in that company—that it should not be using the services of a company that attempts to use jackboot tactics against the trade union movement?

I did not go to Norway, or to see the blow-out, using helicopters from that company. I made a very clear public reference to the dispute when I spoke at the Scottish Trades Union Congress. I have called in all the oil companies to discuss with me the possible implications of the dispute. My view on this is known.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that prior to Bravo there were substantial claims that the precautionary arrangements in Norwegian waters were superior to those in any other waters? Does he agree that while jingoism in this area might be entirely inappropriate he must demonstrate that the good work that has so far been done by his Department and by the oil companies is thoroughly maintained and adequately and vigilantly supervised?

I cannot confirm my hon. Friend's suggestion that the Norwegian preparations were better advanced than ours, because, fortunately, we have not had the opportunity of testing how our reactions would have developed. But I think that there are clearly important lessons to be learned from this event. I intend to see that those lessons are learned and that necessary actions are taken in a whole range of areas, which I have already discussed twice with the operators and intend to pursue most vigorously with them.

Will the Government have full co-operation with Norway and other countries in order that they should be able to deal with such a situation if another blow-out occurred. Will the Government ensure that there is the maximum of public participation of the ownership of the oilfields in the area? Will the Minister look again at the sale of the BP shares?

As I said in my earlier answer, I discussed this matter with the Norwegian Minister in London in September. There were also discussions before the blow-out in April. On the Sunday following the blow-out I went over to discuss the matter with the Norwegians and they have proposed that a conference should be held in June, at which time there would be a further opportunity to discuss it.

Clearly, we must see that the risk is minimised and that should such a thing occur again our resources will be adequate. I am not entirely satisfied now that that is so.

Is the Minister aware that the Central Unit of Environmental Polution forecast that the East Coast of Scotland was at great risk and that the blow-out that occurred has increased the unease that exists over this? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, regardless of cost either to the companies or through lost revenue to the Government, all safety precautions will be taken to ensure that such a catastrophe will not spoil the natural and economic coastal environment of Scotland?

Not only the East Coast of Scotland but all coastlines around the North Sea could be affected. In fact, the prevailing wind drove the slick towards Norwegian waters, and that caused the greatest concern. We had not forecast what would occur, but we had anticipated a risk. I am therefore determined that the oil companies, together with the Government, should take the necessary precautions to minimise what must be a continuing risk, because no one can guarantee against human or technical accidents.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what proportion of their expenditure the oil companies devote to measures for the prevention and control of oil pollution?

I cannot answer that question without notice, but if I were to ask the oil companies about the extent of their preparations they would argue that much of their equipment that is used for general purposes, such as supply vessels and barges, would be available for dealing with a blow-out. It would be difficult to identify a particular amount and separate it from the rest of their expenditure.

In view of the vital part played by divers in the inspection of pipelines in order to avoid spillage, will the right hon. Gentleman join with me and my colleagues in trying to persuade the Treasury to reconsider its policy of no longer allowing divers to be self-employed, because that could lead to industrial action?

That is a wholly different question. I am aware of it and I have received representations about it. It is a matter for the Treasury. However, I am concerned about the loss of life among divers and about blow-outs. The most important single thing that we can now do to maintain safety standards is to ensure that there is full trade union representation on the platforms and rigs, so that safety regulations are fully carried out.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what responsibility for North Sea oil pollution will be assumed by the British National Oil Corporation in return for its interest in the oil.

The BNOC is responsible, as a licensee, in the same way as the other companies, for any liability arising from offshore oil pollution. In the case of participation oil, however, the companies have agreed to indemnify the Corporation for its liability under the various licences until such time as the Corporation may take possession of the oil.

Does that not seem a strange arrangement? Since BNOC owns 51 per cent. of the oil and since, as we have seen recently, pollution comes first and arguments start afterwards, is the right hon. Gentleman entirely satisfied that if we had a disaster there would not be arguments that would continue while pollution was spreading? Can he give us a categoric assurance that the arrangements that he has outlined really will stand?

In the event of an accident, there will be no arguments that will deflect us from getting on with stopping the trouble and clearing up the consequences. The BNOC is negotiating to become a member of the Offshore Pollution Liability Association. There are obviously commercial insurance propositions that will be attractive not only to individual private sector companies but to the BNOC itself. It is important to distinguish between the BNOC's owning 51 per cent. and intending to exercise its option, and this is a matter to be dealt with by the Corporation at the appropriate time. We have an agreement, and I think that we shall get along very well with that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Ekofisk blow-out seems to point to the desirability of establishing an organisation comprising all countries with seaboards on the North Sea? Does he further agree that if an emergency arose on any drilling rig, irrespective of who owns it, immediate emergency operations should be put into effect, and that this would require the co-operation of all nations bordering the North Sea? What direction have his inquiries taken?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The action of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in going immediately to see the Norwegian Minister after the Ekofisk blow-out is proof of our cohesion, at least with our Norwegian friends, in dealing with these matters. Other countries are less immediately involved, except with the consequences of any incident, but we hope to try to get an understanding at the June conference that was mentioned earlier by my right hon. Friend. It is arguable whether there should be a North Sea riparian agreement with a system of inter-governmental control or a system under which the companies police themselves and the States inspect the policing, but Governments and the companies all agree that we cannot allow these incidents to happen.