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Liquefied Natural Gas (Canvey Island)

Volume 453: debated on Monday 20 November 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watts.]

I am delighted to have such a good Minister on the Treasury Bench to reply to the debate and I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to defend my constituents from a proposal for a liquefied natural gas—LNG—plant on Canvey Island, which puts them at what I believe to be increased and unacceptable risk.

The Canvey gas terminal has been operational since 1964. It was the first such terminal in the world. Calor now operates the site and, with several partners, has submitted a plan to import, store and transfer LNG amounting to 5 per cent. of total UK gas needs. That would be offloaded by boom arm on a new jetty from ships in the Thames. The plans involve storing more than 100,000 tonnes of LNG in two huge tanks, which have yet to be built and are each more than 130 ft high. Plans have also been submitted to lay a new high capacity natural gas pipeline from Canvey to Stanford-le-Hope.

I will explain that the Calor plan will pose a significant increased risk, not just for Canvey people, but for the mainland. I will call for an urgent public inquiry and for that inquiry to be held in our community on Canvey. We must not see our island’s future decided off the island, as happens with so many other issues. Canvey is a strong, close-knit, warm and friendly community of more than 40,000 people. We love our beautiful island, but we have serious longstanding issues that must be resolved, whether or not the LNG proposals go ahead. The island is in part below sea level, protected by a sea wall that needs careful review in the light of changing sea levels and climate change. I have been pushing for that to be completed as quickly as possible. We will never forget the 58 people on Canvey Island who died in the 1953 floods. The site of the proposed LNG plant is susceptible to flooding. It is below sea level, protected by our sea wall. The Environment Agency has tellingly ruled that the site for LNG does not comply with Government guidance on flood protection.

Another major problem is our lack of infrastructure. We need an additional access road for Canvey Island—you have heard me say that many times, Mr. Speaker. It needs to come from a separate point in the Northwick area. At the moment, we have just a single strategic access point at the Waterside Farm roundabout. We need the improved access for environmental and economic reasons, but mostly for important safety reasons. If we ever needed to evacuate the island, we would be in deep trouble. The gas plant proposal exacerbates that problem.

Over the months to come, we will hear evidence on the LNG plans from many experts such as the Health and Safety Executive, and various statutory bodies and external consultants. Let me put their evidence into a chilling, but relevant context. The Buncefield oil storage and transfer depot in Hemel Hempstead was said to be entirely safe and was heavily controlled by the various authorities, but as we know, on 11 December last year, there were explosions and fires at the site—the biggest fires in Europe since world war two. I will show that a similar catastrophe with LNG could make Buncefield look like a village bonfire-night party.

Let me paint a realistic picture of the risk that we face. An escape of LNG would freeze everything in its path. The HSE confirms that there is no way to control such an LNG spill. At atmospheric pressure, LNG would vaporise to form a massive and growing cloud. That cloud would float or blow around in the wind, mixing with air to form an unstable and combustible mixture. Eventually, it would ignite and flash into a high temperature fire. It would then burn and set alight everything in its path, destroying whoever and whatever stood in its way. One estimate has put a 10-mile radius as the danger area. That draws in Basildon; Thurrock; Southend, West; Rayleigh and even Kent.

I have met the fire service and it confirms that there would be no way to fight or to control a vapour cloud moving in the air in whatever direction the wind was blowing that day or night and at whatever speed. That would be quite indeterminate beforehand and the effects would be quite indiscriminate. Unlike Buncefield, where the emergency services could use foam and other tactics to control and contain the fires, there is no firefighting plan for such an LNG incident in this country. It would be a question of watching and following the fire and going in to clear up any carnage after the fire had burned out. The ignition may be on Canvey Island, but it may be on the mainland in Castle Point or one of the surrounding constituencies. This is not just a Canvey issue.

For the sceptical, there is ample evidence of major LNG fire incidents—for instance, in the USA. As a result of their experience, no such plant is allowed in America within miles of residential homes. An American documentary film, “The Risks and Dangers of LNG” by Tim Riley, covers many aspects of the dangers of LNG, including the history of accidents, the environmental impact, spills and vapour clouds, and the terrorist implications in relation to LNG tanks, tankers and pipelines. In 2003, the Oxnard city council, California, did a study that predicated up to 70,000 casualties from a LNG accident. That brings me on to the key issue for Canvey. The Calor LNG proposal would be sited within just a few hundred yards of homes and schools. That would be entirely unacceptable—hence the reason I applied for the debate.

Following the planning refusal in September, the Canvey LNG partners say that they will certainly appeal. I expect the appeal to be submitted to the Secretary of State in February. For balance, Calor wishes me to put it on record that the HSE has not yet completed its formal assessment. Its conclusions are expected by the end of December. The Canvey LNG partners still think that their plans would not increase the risks for Canvey, based on the technical information that they have received from the external consultants whom they commissioned. However, they openly say that that does not mean that they are removing the risks from Canvey entirely, because risk results from the existence of liquefied petroleum gas operations. They admit that there is no such thing as a totally safe LPG or LNG operation. They state that many industry experts believe that LPG carries more risks than LNG. No doubt we will debate that in the future, but it does not address the massive increase in volume that would be involved on Canvey.

Calor claims that the proposals would lead to about 40 to 50 long-term operational jobs, but in truth, I can think of few direct local benefits that would come from them. Calor also refers to the safe operation of the plant over many years, which I entirely accept, but the Buncefield operators would have made a similar assertion right up to the day before last year’s fire. The House has heard before that I have asked the HSE to look again at the operation and testing of the early-spill warning alarms for Calor’s existing operations, in an attempt to get maximum safety for my constituents.

Every one of the authorities thought that Buncefield was safe, but it was not. A key consideration now is that some of the authorities think that the Canvey site is not sufficiently safe to merit approval for the LNG plans, which brings me on to the views of the various authorities. The Environment Agency has objected due to the flood risk at the site, as I said earlier. We also need further investigations of the possible contamination of land on the site. I understand that Essex county council now objects to the proposal, and I am grateful for its support. However, the Port of London Authority has approved the site jetty works and says that it is minded to approve the river works. The associated pipeline application is progressing and I expect it to go before the local council in early December. I most strongly urge councillors to reject the application on environmental grounds and owing to its impact on wildlife, among many other reasons, including the terrorist threat.

Meanwhile, Calor has engaged specialist consultants to prepare a marine risk assessment for the shipping movements, which brings me on to another related issue. I refer the Minister to the Thames Gateway port development, which will entail 32 million tonnes of aggregate being cut from the estuary to make a deep channel right across the front of Canvey’s sea defence wall and the Calor operation. That will also bring massive extra shipping movements across the sensitive gas plant site. As we saw at the time of the New Orleans disaster, sea defences that are built on sand or earth can be washed away in seconds by extreme weather events. Extreme weather events are coming more frequently and becoming more extreme with every year that passes, as we heard in the previous debate.

Of course, the sand and gravel on which Canvey’s sea defences are built are likely to be made less stable by the massive quarter-mile-wide and very deep dredging across the front of the sea wall that is required by the Thames Gateway port development. Land slip is already a serious problem along the banks of the Thames estuary, even without the new deep-cut channel running right along it. This is not rocket science, and it is why even before the LNG proposals were known about, I gave 25 pages of evidence against the new Thames Gateway port and dredging plans. Sadly, Castle Point borough council failed to give any evidence at all to that inquiry to protect residents and our environment.

Another important consideration is terrorism. Installations surrounding the Canvey site suffered a terrorist attack when a bomb was planted early one night in the early 1980s. With sea, land and air approaches all available, and given the volatility of 100,000 tonnes of LNG in such proximity to homes and schools, the additional security requirement would be onerous and costly.

There must be alternative sites in the UK that are better protected than the site on Canvey Island. We all know of the current terrorist threat, but it would not be appropriate for me to go into ongoing security issues too deeply tonight; I simply reassure local people that I am on the case. Let me quote Osama bin Laden after 9/11:

“We are in love with death. The West is in love with life. That is the difference between us.”

I pay warm tribute to everyone who has helped People Against Methane, which is chaired by George Whatley and led by Irene Willis, Peter Jolly, Bill Deal, Roy Kimpton, Chris Ball, Chris McLaughlin, Nicola Marshall and Bob Gregory. They are all non-political, and they are all stars. I am working closely with PAM on a referendum and on a strong campaign, which includes visits to Westminster and to No.10 Downing street, but I do not want to give away too much about our tactics.

I wish to congratulate other stars, including Castle Point borough council planning officers, led by Ian Burchill, who put together a superb case to reject the application, and who are dealing very professionally with the complex measures involved. I pay tribute, too, to Dave Blackwell and his team of Canvey Island Independent party councillors, who have collected a huge petition. It is the biggest ever for Canvey Island, amounting to many thousands of signatures, and it has helped enormously. I thank all councillors who have supported us in various ways, some speaking out against the plan and some voting down the first application. They all made valuable contributions to our initial fight.

I am sorry that the local fight against the gas plant was damaged by ill advised and counter-productive attempts to politicise the campaign to stop the LNG plant. In particular, attacks on the Canvey Island Independent party were out of order. Councillors should not fight each other, or criticise decent, local people who are working for their community. Canvey people are shrewd, and they will not be taken in by such bad behaviour, or by the foolish and improper assertions of council bosses who have yet to learn to keep out of politics and focus on serving the people. The fight against the plans for a LNG plant should, from now on, be a matter on which councillors and senior council officers put politics aside and work together with all of us for the public good.

Let me give a sample of comments from Canvey people. Heather Wilkins said:

“I am just fed up of Canvey being used as a dumping ground”.

A caring grandmother, Sheree Lee, said:

“I’m concerned about the safety of people on the Island. And if there was a problem, how could we evacuate the Island?”

Canvey youths, Chris Cork, Paul Miller, Stuart Willson and Dave Burt said:

“Canvey young people care and recognise that we don’t want this terminal”.

A constituent, NW, e-mailed me today:

“I thank you for the work you are doing but…there is no guarantee to the safety of Canvey Island and Benfleet.”

He was referring to my attempt to reassure local people, and prevent Canvey from being blighted, by saying that an accident was very unlikely—and I still believe that to be true. He continues:

“These proposed terminals are too close to the mass population and, as you stated, an explosion would be an absolutely horrendous occurrence…all political parties must be involved as one unit of solidarity to fight against these proposals. I believe you truly to be an honest MP but Councillors”—

and he identifies the political party involved—

“still have a lot to learn about the democratic process and to stop treating the people of Canvey Island with contempt.”

He expresses views that are widely held on Canvey Island, and which politicians ignore at their peril.

I must balance all the arguments on important issues such as flood defences, infrastructure and development. I cannot please everyone all the time—no MP can—but I work hard for my patch, and I do so independently of the various, and sometimes sinister, vested interests and political pressures that have operated in Castle Point for many years—hence the instability of the local council. People have come to know me over the years, and they trust me to do my job with absolute integrity. PAM and I will show that there is an overwhelming safety case on which to reject the LNG plans. In addition, there is clear evidence of the existence of safer and better alternative sites across the UK, and that deals with the “national interest” argument.

I respectfully ask the Minister for Science and Innovation, a caring man who is a good listener and an understanding guy, to ensure that the Government call in any possible appeal and hold a public inquiry with the minimum possible delay, to reduce blight and uncertainty for my constituents. I would urge that that inquiry be held on Canvey Island.

Could the Minister please write to me to confirm that under the LNG proposals the Canvey site would become one of six UK top tier COMAH—control of major accident hazard—sites? Will he acknowledge that there is currently no Government policy on the location of such sites? Will he also comment in that letter on the proposition of George Whatley of PAM that in the absence of such a policy, no inspector could possibly allow an appeal for a new COMAH site? Will the Minister acknowledge in his letter that the Canvey site would put two of the UK’s top six COMAH sites within a few miles of each other, since the Isle of Grain just across the Thames is only a few miles away and is also one of the UK’s top COMAH sites? Will he confirm that Buncefield was only a low tier COMAH site? How scary is that!

My aim is to allow my constituents to feel safer in their beds and to know that their children are safer in their schools. I will therefore do all I can to ensure that the Canvey LNG application is refused. The human and environmental consequences are totally unacceptable.

I start in the traditional but sincere way by congratulating the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink)—indeed, the hon. Member for Canvey Island—on securing this topical and timely debate. The main thrust of his comments were about safety and I shall spend most of my time addressing those. However, we should put the matter in a wider context.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned, albeit fleetingly because of the time, the national interest. I need to comment on that. People from Canvey Island are shrewd, and they are shrewd enough to know that the energy must come from somewhere. We all expect energy, so we all have a duty not just to say no, but occasionally to say yes in relation to where our diverse energy supply will come from, for Canvey Island and for the rest of our country.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the history. It is interesting to note that some 47 years ago in 1959, long before North sea gas was discovered, the Methane Pioneer—I think that I have the name right—safely carried liquefied natural gas from Lake Charles in the United States of America to Canvey Island. That initiated commercial shipping. Some 900 cargoes of LNG were safely imported. I understand that it was used in the process of manufacturing what we used to call town gas in Romford. That came to an end with North sea gas, although we heard that LPG continued in that part of the country.

It is useful to remind ourselves of the importance of gas for the United Kingdom’s economy and the people of our country. Our consumption is more or less split three ways. About one third is used by householders for cooking and to keep warm in winter. One third is used by industry for process heat and also as a feed stock for much of the chemical industry, for example. One third is used in power generation, where it has a vital role in keeping our lights on. So we do need gas.

The flow of gas from the North sea is in decline. At present only about 10 per cent. of our annual gas demand is imported, but pretty soon, by 2020, that figure will rise to 80 or 90 per cent., hence my point about where our energy will come from in the future. Part of the mix will have to be LNG, wherever it arrives. We heard about the Isle of Grain, and a major development of Qatari LNG will come in, perhaps to Milford Haven in the future, possible supplying as much as one fifth of our gas requirement. LNG is extremely important in the global market, and if we want to keep warm and keep the lights on, LNG will be part of the mix for the foreseeable future.

Let me move on to the safety issues. Notwithstanding our national requirement for energy, including gas and, I would argue, including LNG, safety must be paramount, as the hon. Gentleman says. I assure him that comprehensive arrangements are in place to ensure the safety of the LNG supply chain. I am talking generally, and not about the particular project that he has raised.

First, onshore, prime responsibility lies with the terminals themselves, subject to the regulatory oversight of the Health and Safety Executive. The terminals need planning permission from the local planning authorities for “storage of hazardous substances”. Secondly, in regard to ship safety when docked at the jetty, once alongside the terminal, ship operators are responsible for cargo safety, and the HSE has regulatory oversight over the offloading of the cargo. Thirdly, when in harbour waters, ship safety is the responsibility of the master of the vessel and the harbour authority.

Fourthly, the navigational safety of a ship at sea is the responsibility of the master of the vessel. The ship is regulated by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to internationally approved standards. Fifthly, the construction and manning of LNG tankers has to be approved to internationally agreed International Maritime Organisation standards. I am advised that the IMO has an excellent safety record. I say all this to reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is a sophisticated safety framework in place, although I cannot talk about the particular project that he has described.

As the subject is likely to be uppermost in the minds of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, let me elaborate on the first of those points—the safety of the terminals. That is addressed through the Control of Major Accident Hazard Regulations 1999. Luckily, that is known as COMAH, otherwise we should spend much of our debate having to recite its full title. The competent authority for COMAH in England and Wales is formed by the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency, acting jointly. Where the specified threshold levels of hazardous substances are reached—as they would be at LNG import terminals—COMAH applies. In these cases, it applies before construction, when operators who plan to build new LNG terminals must submit a pre-construction safety report three to six months in advance of construction. The regulator will look for a demonstration that adequate safety and reliability have been incorporated into the design, for the application of good practice and for concepts that reduce the risks.

COMAH also applies before dangerous substances are introduced. The operator must submit a pre-operations safety report, which must demonstrate that the operator has taken all measures necessary to prevent major accidents and to limit the consequences to people and to the environment of any that do occur. It also applies before operations commence, when operators must produce an on-site emergency plan, and provide information to the local authority to assist it in its production of an off-site emergency plan. There are also appropriate powers if the regulator—the HSE and the Environment Agency—is not satisfied. In short, we have a well developed regulatory framework for ensuring the safety of LNG import terminals.

Let me now say a few words about the HSE’s advisory role in the land use planning system. All establishments wishing to hold stocks of hazardous substances must apply to the Hazardous Substances Authority—the HSA—for a hazardous substances consent under the Planning (Hazardous Substances) Regulations 1992. The HSE is one of a number of organisations that the HSA must consult. The HSE assesses the risks, using a well established methodology, and advises the local planning authority accordingly. I am advised that, in formulating this advice, the HSE takes into account the potential societal risk to existing surrounding populations and developments—that is, the chance of a single incident that could harm many people. However, the decision whether to grant planning permission for the storage of hazardous substances rests with the local planning authority, unless the Secretary of State determines the application.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment in detail at this stage—or perhaps at any stage—on the particular project that he has raised. I understand that a planning application for the proposed LNG terminal at Canvey Island was submitted to the local planning authority under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. The application was refused, I think in September. I am advised that any subsequent appeal against the refusal will be heard at a public inquiry, and would fall to be determined by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. It would not be determined by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Because the hon. Gentleman attaches importance to the point, I add that inquiries are usually held in a suitable venue locally. I hope that that gives him some reassurance.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Buncefield, which of course we all have in mind. I would be cautious in that respect. I am advised that LNG is quite different from petrol, so there is no easy read-across from last year’s incident at Buncefield to a hypothetical leak of LNG. LNG and petrol are contained differently and behave differently. For his information, Japan has been importing large quantities of LNG for nearly 40 years—since 1969—without a major safety incident. While one brings fears to debates on such issues, one must also bring some proportionality.

I conclude by reiterating that it is perfectly appropriate to voice local concerns, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on doing so in relation to this project or, indeed, any other. However, I would argue that we have a duty in this House to consider the energy security needs of our nation in light of the arguments on climate change and that we need to come forward with ideas about how we will secure energy resources in future. Not too many of us must say no to projects and more of us must argue for the variation and diversity of energy supply that in rapidly changing times—with the North sea in decline, for example—will raise interesting questions as the geopolitics of energy security in the 21st century loom ever larger.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o’clock.