Ship-to-ship Oil Transfer

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:01 pm on 9th March 2006.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:01 pm, 9th March 2006

The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S2M-4017, in the name of Robin Harper, on ship-to-ship oil transfer. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with concern the application by Forth Ports plc and Melbourne Marine Services to introduce ship-to-ship (STS) transfer of Russian heavy crude oil at swinging anchorage in the Firth of Forth; recognises the unprecedented scale and nature of such operations and the pollution risks posed by their routine operation and possible accidental spillage; notes the very recent identification by the UK Government of marine environment high risk areas around the Scottish coastline, and notably the Forth estuary, as being most sensitive and highly vulnerable to accidents involving merchant shipping and in need of protection; further notes that the Firth of Forth is a Special Protection Area containing numerous conservation sites of national and European importance, and a Ramsar site of international designation; acknowledges the devastating impact on the economy and ecology of areas, such as the Forth, that could occur in the event of a heavy crude oil spill; recognises the opposition to the Forth proposal by Fife Council, the City of Edinburgh Council, East Lothian Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, major environmental groups and agencies and local communities; expresses concern that any such proposal should be considered in the absence of either a UK or EU statutory regulatory framework for the control or monitoring of STS oil transfer operations along the Scottish coastline; notes that the current consultation by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is not a full public consultation about the context or strategic merit of the Forth proposal, but is restricted to a discussion of Forth Ports' oil spill contingency plan, and considers that the Scottish Executive should use its powers, particularly under the EU Habitats Directive, to oppose the application for heavy oil transfer from ship to ship.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 5:11 pm, 9th March 2006

We have a full public gallery. I welcome to Parliament all those from around the Forth who are concerned about the possibility of ship-to-ship transfer of heavy crude oil in the Firth of Forth. That enterprise would involve up to 8 million tonnes a year of the heaviest grade of crude oil being superheated and pumped under high pressure between tankers lying 4 miles out from the Fife coast, and is completely without precedent in the Firth of Forth. No routine shipping activity in those waters has ever reached such a scale, for a very good reason: the risks inherent in such an operation are simply enormous.

Following the Braer disaster in 1993, the late Lord Donaldson identified only three sites in the United Kingdom where ship-to-ship transfer of oil could even be contemplated. None is in deep water; two have been abandoned because of safety issues; and only one—at Scapa Flow—is fully operational. It should be noted that Scapa Flow is under the strict control of the local authority—Orkney Islands Council—and revenue from the STS activity goes into the local economy. In the case of the Firth of Forth bid, all revenue would go to Forth Ports plc; there would be no direct benefit to the local region and no local authority control.

It is the responsibility of the UK Government's Department for Transport to promote commercial shipping activity in the UK. Environmental protection seems to be of secondary importance; nevertheless, the UK still has great responsibilities and legal duties with regard to the marine environment. Incredibly, however, there is no policy framework to guide and regulate STS activity. We note with growing incredulity that the Government's lawyers have reached no view on the implications for the plan of the UK's recent breach of the habitats regulations. Furthermore, it has come to our attention that, following the original Forth bid, legal opinion switched. In the latest opinion, ship-to-ship transfer of oil at sea is excluded from devolved competence. It therefore follows that such activity cannot be regulated even by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

I am sure that members will not need to be reminded that the Firth of Forth is a special protection area that contains numerous conservation sites of national and European importance and a Ramsar wetland site of international designation. Only three weeks ago, the UK Government issued a report that identified marine environment high-risk areas around the Scottish coastline as being most sensitive, highly vulnerable to accidents involving merchant shipping and in need of protection. The highest concentration of the most sensitive sites across the whole of the UK is in the Firth of Forth. They include sites that are world famous for their wildlife: the Bass Rock, the Isle of May and St Abb's Head.

Scotland is part of the UK. We are collectively and completely responsible for upholding the European Union habitats directive, and the Scottish Executive is the licensing authority for any operation that may affect European designated species. Those facts are not open to interpretation—they are part of international law. Even Gordon Brown acknowledged that in a letter to a constituent, of which I have a copy. In it, he wrote that ship-to-ship transfer is a matter for the Scottish Executive.

The Firth of Forth supports a thriving economy that is dependent on its environmental integrity. Its coastline and islands are extremely sensitive. They are vulnerable to pollution, and any oil spill in the wrong place at the wrong time would have a devastating impact on the economy and ecology of the area. We are talking about livelihoods and about the long-term needs of both nature and people.

There is total opposition to the Forth proposal from Fife Council, the City of Edinburgh Council, East Lothian Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, SEPA, RSPB Scotland, other environmental groups and agencies and local communities. Those voices represent expert opinion. They know the Forth estuary, its environment and economy in exquisite detail. They know about the tragic consequences that would follow a major accident and the bankrupting magnitude of resourcing a response. They know how insecure the insurance and funds are for clear-up costs. They know that those pressures are being controlled by outside agencies and that the motive behind the proposal is driven by simple corporate greed and geographical expediency. Using the firth is a quick and dirty solution to the perceived need to transship oil through the North sea at maximum profit to the shipping companies.

The proposal is being considered legitimate in the absence of any UK or EU statutory regulatory framework for the control or monitoring of STS oil transfer operations along the Scottish coastline. The Forth Ports plan requires an oil spill contingency licence from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, but it is not subject to further ordinary planning law. Why not? As a port authority, Forth Ports has statutory duties, but the public interest is clearly not being served. Given the high level of concern, we are now being offered a so-called public consultation by the MCA. Will the consultation address the context or the strategic merit of the Forth proposal? It is restricted to a discussion of Forth Ports' oil spill contingency plan and nothing more. Furthermore, the consultation has no statutory role in the ultimate decision, and it has failed to meet the Government's own criteria for public consultations.

Let me read to members the five principles of sustainable development, which underpin the Executive's new marine and coastal strategy. They are:

"to secure a vision of clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse marine and coastal environments, managed to meet the long term needs of nature and people."

In the light of all those issues, I ask the Deputy Minister for Environment and Rural Development to ensure that the Scottish Executive uses its powers, particularly those under the EU habitats directive, to oppose the application for heavy oil transfer from ship to ship. I ask her to give reassurance tonight to communities around the Forth that the Executive will stand up and protect the environment, on which so much depends.

[Applause.]

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I remind members of the public that it is not appropriate to applaud.

Photo of Christine May Christine May Labour 5:19 pm, 9th March 2006

I welcome this opportunity to discuss a matter that is of considerable importance for my constituency, and I am grateful to Robin Harper for securing the debate.

The proposal by Melbourne Marine Services and Forth Ports has caused huge concern on both sides of the Forth. I know that all my Labour colleagues, and indeed my other constituency and list colleagues, share that concern for the places where their constituencies and regions border the Forth. A number of those members are here tonight, and a number of them who could not be here have expressed that concern to me.

Labour constituency members in Fife raised concerns about the proposal as soon as Fife Council made us aware of it. Notification of the proposal was given extremely late in the day to those of us who, I would argue, had a legitimate interest in it on behalf of our communities. Fife Council was consulted at almost the last moment. The impression was that the proposal was a fait accompli on which people almost did not need to be consulted.

The proposed anchorages are situated off Methil in my constituency. As Robin Harper pointed out, any income from the activity would accrue to Forth Ports, which is the port authority. I have no wish to see one of Scotland's major companies lose income, but it is unacceptable that a fortune should be made by risking the Fife and Lothians environment and perhaps the livelihoods of my constituents and of many others who live around the Forth.

My Westminster colleague John MacDougall MP, who was previously member for Central Fife but is now member for Glenrothes, and I marshalled our arguments and concerns in a meeting that we secured with Stephen Ladyman MP, who is Minister of State for Transport. We were grateful to Dr Ladyman for at least buying us extra time by providing an additional 12 weeks of consultation as a result of that meeting.

Both my Westminster colleague and I share the concerns about the potential dangers involved, especially given the amount of money that has been spent on improving the environment of the Forth. We also have concerns about changing the social and economic uses of the land around the Forth and the clean-up that would be required in the event of a spill, which is almost unthinkable.

Let me quote from the extremely good RSPB Scotland briefing:

"The DfT position is that ship-to-ship transfers are legal and that the UK government has no authority to prevent them on principle. This is at odds with the requirements of the EU 'Habitats' Directive".

That means that we are, in effect, caught between two competing pieces of legislation. The briefing continues:

"There is currently no national mechanism to reject ship-to-ship proposals outright".

Therefore, it seems that the only argument available is the very strong environmental argument.

I ask the minister to agree to an urgent meeting with those of us whose constituencies include the Forth so that we can discuss the environmental arguments that we might use both in our response to the consultation and with the Department for Transport. I believe that the Department for Transport shares our concerns about the complete inadequacy of the current marine legislation that is in force and is implemented by the department. I will look for that assurance from the minister at the end of the debate.

I apologise to members that, as I have a previously arranged meeting, I will not be able to stay for the whole debate. I hope that members will forgive me any discourtesy if I need to leave early.

Photo of Mr Andrew Arbuckle Mr Andrew Arbuckle Liberal Democrat 5:23 pm, 9th March 2006

I thank Robin Harper for proposing this debate. Having first become involved in the issue during Fife Council's debate on it, I should correct Christine May by clarifying that the council's view was unanimous across the political spectrum. Among Liberal Democrat, Conservative, independent, Scottish National Party and Labour members, there was universal opposition to the proposal.

About 3,000 oil or gas ships already come into the Forth estuary each year, but the proposal would mean, as Robin Harper said, a massive increase in the tonnage of oil that is handled within the Forth. The proposed system would involve transfers of oil from one moving vessel to another moving vessel operating alongside it, with the rate of movement being dependent on the weather and the tides.

Anyone who wants to be really scared about the proposal should look at Aquatera's environmental assessment of the proposal. The potential dangers include spillage due to hoses breaking and valves staying open. The report refers time and again to the potential for small spills and large spills, and defines a small spill as one that involves less than 10 tonnes. We know that 1 tonne of crude oil can pollute 1 km2 of water, so there is potential for enormous damage even if there is a small spill. It is easy to say, "Oops—we've had an accident," but the resulting damage could be massive. The report also shows that, if there is a spill, we will have only a few hours to react before the pollution hits the shoreline. As Robin Harper said, the Forth is one of our most sensitive environments and its unique topography and geology will magnify any accidental damage.

Last summer, with friends, I walked a large chunk of the Fife coastal path on the north shore of the Forth. As we marched or trudged—depending on the time of day and the level of hospitality—we saw the wide variety of the shoreline. It was painful, but not difficult, to imagine the rocks, the sandy bays and the much-painted east neuk harbours covered in a gooey, oily slime, or bedraggled seabirds coated in oil.

Who will benefit from the proposal? As has been said, there will be only one beneficiary. Why should we have to put up with ship-to-ship oil transfers when they have so much more potential to be dangerous to the environment than other options? I do not want oil companies to take advantage of the lack of legislation and to be given permission by bodies that are not responsible for the direct consequences of those companies' actions. I do not want ship-to-ship transfers in the Forth.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 5:27 pm, 9th March 2006

I welcome the opportunity that Robin Harper's motion presents to debate ship-to-ship transfers of oil in the Forth, which is a matter that has been raised many times in the Parliament by me and the other Fife MSPs.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency's consultation is bogus. The MCA is not consulting on the principle of ship-to-ship transfers in the Forth but only on whether the contingency plans will be adequate if there is a spill of oil. Local MSPs, local authorities, community councils and individuals who live around the Forth are all clear that we oppose ship-to-ship oil transfer in principle because of the risk to our marine and natural habitats. The only way to ensure that there are no oil spills is to refuse to allow ship-to-ship transfers of oil in the Forth. We believe that no contingency plan will be sufficient to protect our environment and special places in the Firth of Forth.

The proposal from Melbourne Marine Services and Forth Ports must be rejected. Both organisations stand to make a lot of money if the proposal goes ahead, but the oil clean-up costs will have to be met by the public authorities and the cost to our marine and natural heritage will be incalculable. I understand that ship-to-ship transfer is a matter that is reserved to Westminster, but Scottish ministers have a duty to have regard to the European Union habitats directive. That directive empowers Scottish ministers to make it clear to the MCA that, in the words of Scottish Natural Heritage, the effect of the proposal on the designated areas is "likely to be significant" and to rule it out on that ground.

Now is the time for the Executive to stand with the communities of the Forth. It is time for the Executive to take responsibility and to make it clear to the MCA that ship-to-ship transfers should not be approved. Members have been asking ministers to do that for months. I hope that the Deputy Minister for Environment and Rural Development will take the opportunity that is afforded to her this evening to do so.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 5:29 pm, 9th March 2006

I take the opportunity to congratulate Robin Harper on securing tonight's debate. I do not represent Fife or the Lothians but I have spoken to Conservative members from both areas at some length and they have made their views on the proposal clear.

I qualify my remarks by saying that I know how important the oil and gas industry is to Scotland. In addition to our domestic production, Scotland is now involved in the oil industry throughout the world. As a consequence, we sometimes have to make difficult decisions about what we should do in particular areas. Sometimes, those decisions are based on the balance of probabilities as much as on environmental priorities.

However, the proposal to undertake ship-to-ship transfer of oil in the Forth appears to offer no benefit to our oil industry. The Forth is one of the busiest shipping areas in Scotland for heavy tankers. Anyone who travels by rail between Edinburgh and Aberdeen will frequently see large ships passing close by each other in the Forth. As Robin Harper said, some of Scotland's most environmentally sensitive and important areas are in the Forth and the islands there. Consequently, we must balance all the considerations before we take a view. Arguments might justify ship-to-ship transfer of oil within our oil industry at other times and in other places, but there is no justification for proceeding with that activity in so sensitive an area as the Forth. Consequently, the Conservatives support the position that every other member has taken.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green 5:31 pm, 9th March 2006

I thank my colleague Robin Harper for providing the opportunity to talk about ship-to-ship oil transfer and to support the many councils, agencies and communities that have opposed the proposal from the outset. I gather that this is only Robin's second members' business debate since 1999, so I am grateful to him for allowing us to use the opportunity to talk about the issues.

The proposal affects three parliamentary regions and numerous constituencies that border the Forth. As a Fife MSP, I have spent much time in the past couple of months travelling along the east neuk of Fife and going into west Fife to talk to communities and businesses that rely on a clean environment in the Forth for their livelihoods. I have spoken to people who run bed and breakfasts, people who use the Fife coastal path for their business, people who are involved in the fishing industry and people who are involved in other tourism-related industries, and I have not found a single person who is in favour of the proposal.

It is clear that nobody in Fife will benefit from the proposal; the only bodies that will benefit are Melbourne Marine Services and Forth Ports. To be frank, the attitude of Forth Ports is incredible. The organisation is pretty much unaccountable, undemocratic and riddled with potential conflicts of interest. It is a private company that will benefit from up to £9 million per annum from the ship-to-ship process, but it has a statutory duty to protect the environment and maintain an oil-spill contingency plan and—remarkably—it has a role in deciding whether ship-to-ship transfer should proceed. I cannot see how a conflict of interest cannot exist.

The situation is incredible and presents a story that we would expect to see on the pages of Private Eye magazine. Interestingly enough, such a story was published in Private Eye in autumn last year. In that series of articles, if the references to Cornwall are changed to Scotland and the references to Falmouth harbour authority are changed to Forth Ports, we find that we are dealing with pretty much the same issue all over again.

To be frank, the law is an ass. We have transport regulations that permit only consultation on an oil-spill contingency plan. We need to have a way to say no to the proposal and we need to ensure that the minister stays within the law and can fulfil her responsibility to protect the environment. That means that we need to stop the process progressing until new regulations are in place that comply with the habitats directive and to which options are attached that allow ministers to say no to such proposals. Westminster is on the brink of consulting on such regulations. We should put such a process in place and use it to sink this flawed proposal once and for all.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat 5:34 pm, 9th March 2006

Robin Harper is to be congratulated on lodging a motion that has, understandably, generated a considerable amount of passion. It is evident that I have no geographical constituency interest in the Firth of Forth, but I do not take issue with the points that members who have such an interest have made. As Robin Harper said, my constituency interest is in the ship-to-ship oil transfers in Scapa Flow in Orkney, which Lord Donaldson identified as one of the very few places where such an activity could be countenanced.

There have been ship-to-ship transfers of oil and hydrocarbons in Scapa Flow since around 1980. However, it is important to emphasise that people have recognised that the highest pilotage, towage and risk-assessment standards must be observed, and that there must be regard to sea conditions, the need for good holding grounds for vessels and the highest equipment standards, as specified by the Oil Companies International Marine Forum. Scapa Flow has good holding grounds, which, in itself, helps to reduce risks. However, we cannot overemphasise the importance of minimising risks and ensuring that robust and regular testing and inspection regimes are in place.

Robin Harper identified a crucial difference between ship-to-ship oil transfer in the Forth and operations in Scapa Flow. As I see it, Forth Ports will receive all the revenue, but the responsibilities relating to oil spillages, contingencies and clean-ups will rest with the local authorities whose areas border the Forth. By contrast, Orkney Islands Council is the one supervising port authority at Scapa Flow. The council provides pilotage, tugs and vessel traffic systems and has important environmental responsibilities. Orkney, like the Forth estuary area, depends on a clean environment, and responsibility for, and benefits from, ship-to-ship transfer of oil rest with its council. I would like an assurance that that situation will not be undercut perhaps by Forth Ports being able to offer a cheaper service as a result of its not having responsibilities that Orkney Islands Council has.

Business may not be lost to Scotland, if the Forth does not want it, provided that there are stringent standards. Another part of Scotland—where there were ship-to-ship transfers of 1.7 million tonnes of oil last year and 2.6 million tonnes in 2004—has a record, but such work should be undertaken only if the highest safety and risk-assessment standards are met.

Photo of Chris Ballance Chris Ballance Green 5:37 pm, 9th March 2006

I, too, congratulate Robin Harper on securing this debate, which is on an important issue. I represent the South of Scotland, which includes two council areas—East Lothian Council and Scottish Borders Council—that are affected by the proposals.

The Firth of Forth hosts more than 300,000 pairs of breeding birds each year. Most of East Lothian's coast is classified as a site of special scientific interest and the coast around Dunbar has been designated a marine environment high-risk area.

Scottish Natural Heritage has estimated that a 700-tonne oil spillage could result in tens of thousands of birds being covered in oil. Seven hundred tonnes of oil—which is the amount that flows in a ship-to-ship transfer every 15 minutes—is a lot of oil. In a worst-cast scenario, a fully laden oil tanker that is transferring oil would be carrying 350,000 tonnes of crude oil.

The proposal represents a real threat to the East Lothian and Berwickshire coastlines and economies. There are nine designated bathing waters in East Lothian. The coast attracts 2.5 million visitors each year. It has been estimated that around £130 million is generated to the local economy as a result of those visitors. Tourism employs around 3,500 people in the region, which is 14 per cent of the region's workforce. That is a considerably higher figure than the average for regions elsewhere in Scotland. The East Lothian tourism industry depends heavily on the East Lothian coast and its beautiful beaches.

There are European Community-designated shellfish harvesting areas around the coastline, from Dunbar to North Berwick. Oil pollution could destroy that industry and seriously damage the local fishing industry. I am therefore delighted that East Lothian Council has supported the Greens' campaign against the oil transfer proposals. On the other hand, I am disappointed that Scottish Borders Council has not even considered the proposals or formulated a response. The region's council tax payers will have to pay for any clean-ups. Jim Wallace made strong points about that.

Clearing up after the Sea Empress oil spill cost £28 million. The Russian crude oil that would be transferred would be much heavier and more persistent than the light oil that the Sea Empress spilled.

Scottish Natural Heritage has deemed the risk analysis both inadequate and misleading. The environmental impact assessment is not independent. As the RSPB pointed out, the consultation does not meet the requirements of the EU habitats directive, as it is not a consultation on the project. The Scottish Government is responsible for implementing the habitats directive, which gives us the power to act in this matter. I call on the minister to listen to the cross-party appeal that has come from so many members in the chamber today. Members from all parties except the Scottish Socialist Party have come here to express their horror at the proposals, which are also opposed by local councils. I ask the minister to use the responsibility that she has as strongly and as wisely as possible.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour 5:41 pm, 9th March 2006

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate on a very important subject. We can always depend on Chris Ballance to cite the worst-case scenario, because he trades in that sort of thing. He was taking a bit of a liberty in suggesting that East Lothian Council supports the Green Party on this issue.

However, let us try to be consensual on the matter, about which all of us are genuinely concerned. That is the spirit in which we should move forward. I endorse the comments of my colleague Christine May and others from the north side of the Firth of Forth. As various members have said, the coastline of East Lothian is a precious environmental and economic asset for the people of my constituency and for the tourism industry. Reference has been made to the Bass Rock. Members have spoken about the Scottish Seabird Centre, which nowadays is one of the most important tourist attractions in the whole of Scotland. Anything that could put at risk or jeopardise that attraction should be resisted.

I agree with Alex Johnstone that there are circumstances in which ship-to-ship transfer is necessary. In those cases, it should be managed and subjected to the most rigorous controls possible. I understand that that happens in Scapa Flow and that, mercifully, there have been no problems there. However, there is no rational or reasonable case for such business to be transacted in the Firth of Forth. Geographically, it does not make sense, and it makes economic sense only for one company. For that reason, there is a case for resisting the proposal.

I agree with East Lothian Council and others that there is no case for permitting such activity in these circumstances. I am glad that I had an opportunity to make representations to Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Transport, who will, I imagine, have the final say on the issue. I am sure that, as a Lothian MP, he does not need to be told by anyone about the importance of the Firth of Forth. I am confident that he will take full account of all relevant considerations and will do what he can to safeguard our coastline. I hope that he will take that line and that the minister will respond positively to the debate.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour 5:43 pm, 9th March 2006

This has been a valuable debate, for several reasons. It has given members the opportunity to place on record their understandable anxieties about the proposed transfer operation in the Forth. Nobody, least of all I, would seek to play down in any way the strength of those concerns. I welcome to the Hub those who have taken the trouble to travel from different areas around the Firth of Forth to register their concern.

I do not have only a ministerial interest in the matter, because I live alongside the Forth, as do all the members of my family. I am aware of the scale of the concerns that many members, local authorities and individuals have expressed. I am also acutely aware of the importance of the Firth of Forth in both environmental and economic terms. Several members have referred to that.

The debate has given the Parliament the opportunity to respond collectively to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's consultation. I welcome that and will ensure that the Official Report of the debate is drawn to the attention of the agency and of UK transport ministers. I am sure that others will reply to the consultation as individuals.

The debate has given me the opportunity to tease out a difficult matter that goes to the heart of the tough issues that we all have a responsibility to consider in the context of sustainable development. As many members have pointed out, the matter straddles a complicated devolved-reserved boundary.

As one of the Scottish ministers with responsibility for the environment, I recognise the concern about the protection of the environment that lies behind Robin Harper's motion and members' speeches. I will meet members; I will ask my office to take that forward as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I have no doubt that the minister recognises her environmental responsibilities, but does she also accept that she has a duty, under the EU directive, to ensure that account is taken of the environment?

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I will cover that issue in some detail later in my speech; I thank the member for raising it.

Of course, there are sensitive and potentially vulnerable environmental sites along the Firth of Forth and it is right for us all to be concerned about potential oil spills and the pollution risks associated with them. We should recognise the concerns that have been raised by local authorities and others and we should, of course, provide a framework to guard against pollution risks, from whatever source.

That is precisely why some areas attract special status; why three of the recently announced marine environmental high-risk areas are in the Forth—that signals clearly the environmental sensitivities in the area; why a range of shipping legislation and other legislation sets the framework for the proposed transfer; and why the MCA has embarked upon a public consultation.

My responsibility, as a minister with responsibility for the environment, is to understand whether the proposed operation poses a significant threat to the environment, to understand the nature and scale of any such threat and to ensure that appropriate action is taken to deal with it. I know that members understand that all that requires due processes to be followed.

As they form the backdrop to some of the issues that have been raised in the debate, it might be helpful if I briefly set out the respective responsibilities of the Executive, the UK Government and the relevant port authority in respect of the proposed transfer. First and foremost is the fact that shipping-related activity, and activity that is covered primarily by merchant shipping legislation, is fully reserved. The specific regulatory regime that surrounds the proposed oil spill contingency plan is therefore a matter for the UK Government.

It is for the relevant port authority to regulate any specific oil transfer operation in its area. In order for it to do that, an appropriate oil spill contingency plan, approved by the MCA, must first be in place. There is no direct provision for the agency or the Department for Transport to approve or reject a specific oil transfer operation. However, the relevant port authority cannot allow specific operations to go ahead until the contingency plan has been drafted in a way that satisfies the relevant authorities that it fully addresses potential environmental consequences.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

May I finish this point? I need to set out the position on the matter.

That is why the MCA's wider public consultation, which is now under way, focuses on the implications of the proposed contingency plan rather than on the specific transfer operation. Enforcement of the contingency plan and any mitigation measures that it might contain is similarly a matter for the MCA under the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation Convention) Regulations 1998.

Whether that regulatory regime should be amended specifically to cover ship-to-ship oil transfer operations—this touches on the point that Mark Ruskell made—is a matter for the Secretary of State for Transport. I have no doubt that he will be interested in this debate and I will ensure that he is made aware of it and of the points that have been made about the regulations.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I am struggling to make my speech in the time that I have been given; I am happy to meet Mark Ruskell to discuss the issue.

The Scottish Executive's interest in ship-to-ship oil transfer therefore relates to our responsibilities for environmental protection within Scotland, particularly in respect of fisheries management and our responsibility for the application of the directives on birds and habitats. As part of those responsibilities, the Executive is one of the named consultees in the normal UK-led statutory process of approving oil spill contingency plans. SNH and SEPA are separately named consultees in their own right. Each of us responded to the initial consultation on the contingency plan for the transfer operation in question. At that stage, SNH rightly drew to the Executive's attention its concerns about environmental sensitivities.

The Executive consequently opened up a new dialogue with the Department for Transport and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Partly in response to the issues that were raised in that dialogue on the earlier draft of the relevant contingency plan and its supporting documentation, the MCA launched the wider public consultation, which includes consultation on an environmental impact assessment and which extends beyond the normal list of named consultees. I am sure that all parties welcome that.

The Executive will make a further response to that wider consultation exercise. We will take into account the potential impacts on Scottish fishing activity and on the sites that we have designated in Scotland for special protection under the birds and habitats directives. We will also take into account our responsibilities under those directives to ensure the protection of identified European protected species. We are taking further advice on that matter from SNH.

Forth Ports plc and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency are regarded as competent authorities under the terms of the birds and habitats directives. The former organisation will therefore have to have regard to those directives in its consideration of any oil transfer operation that might ultimately be permitted if the relevant contingency plan is approved; the latter organisation must do likewise for consideration of the contingency plan.

Under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c) Regulations 1994, the Scottish Executive may grant licences in respect of activities that are likely to disturb a European protected species, or damage or destroy its breeding sites or resting places, whether or not the species is present at the time. We take advice on such matters from SNH and will do so in respect of the current public consultation exercise to determine whether any such licence might be necessary in respect of the proposed oil transfer operation. I do not wish to prejudge the outcome of that further consideration, but I assure members that I will take my responsibilities for licensing very seriously.

Several interrelated layers and roles are involved here—from approval of the contingency plan to approval of the operation and compliance with the habitats and birds directives—and it is important that due process is followed for each of them. At each level, environmental considerations will have to be at the forefront of the minds of all the relevant regulatory authorities. It is absolutely right that they should also be an important consideration for this Parliament and the debate has reinforced that point. Members' contributions will, I know, be taken fully into account in the consultation exercise. I assure members that I take my role in that process very seriously indeed.

Meeting closed at 17:52.