Ship-to-ship Oil Transfers (Cromarty and Moray Firths)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 2nd May 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-04581, in the name of John Finnie, on ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Cromarty and Moray Firths. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the lodging of Public Petition PE01637 regarding at-sea ship-to-ship oil transfers in areas such as the Cromarty and Moray firths; considers the Cromarty and Moray firths to be areas of environmental significance, which are completely unsuitable for operations such as at-sea ship-to-ship oil transfers; further considers that even a minimal spillage would have catastrophic effects for marine life, including the iconic pod of bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth, and for coastal communities, threatening the tourism industry, which it believes is the most important employer in the Highlands and Islands; congratulates Cromarty Rising on reaching over 100,000 signatures from people across the region and the world for its petition to the UK Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling; notes the calls for the devolution of powers over licences for at-sea ship-to-ship oil transfers, and further notes the view that any oil transfers that are considered necessary should continue to take place in the relative safety of the Cromarty Port.

Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Green

I thank colleagues for signing the motion, particularly my friend and colleague Claudia Beamish, whose signature ensured that the motion enjoyed cross-party support.

The motion congratulates Cromarty Rising, a number of members of which are in the gallery. It is an outstanding community organisation, as is evidenced by its opposition to the ship-to-ship transfer of oil in the Moray Firth. To my mind, that is real politics. Cromarty Rising has generated more than 100,000 signatures for a petition to the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Transport and has garnered the support of 27 community councils. A number of people are actively involved in the organisation’s campaign—I would like to mention my immediate colleagues Anne Thomas and James MacKessack-Leitch—and it has prompted significant interest. The matter is now the subject of a live petition to the Public Petitions Committee.

I also thank all those who sent briefings. We have received lots of information, some of which is highly technical. As I am not a technical person, I will give members just a small bit of information. We are talking about the pumping of 2 tonnes of oil per second between ships. Therefore, any assessment that is based on a maximum spill volume of 1 tonne is not credible in determining impacts anywhere, least of all in a special area of conservation.

The application that we are talking about was from the Cromarty Firth Port Authority, which is a trust port. I do not fully understand the roles and responsibilities of a trust port, and I have posed a number of questions to the Scottish Government about that. However, we know that trust ports must have regard to the national marine plan and that they must also consult. The CFPA was therefore required to consult beyond the immediate confines of the Cromarty Firth and into the area of the Moray Firth, because the application related to the open sea. However, the CFPA failed spectacularly: it did next to no engagement and 27 community councils opposed the application.

Ship-to-ship transfer of oil has taken place within the confines of the Cromarty Firth for decades, and the motion makes it clear that there is no opposition to that. However, that happens in relative safety, with boats tied to a quay and well-documented back-up. This is a rescheduled debate on the motion; on the day before the debate was originally supposed to take place, I got an email from the CFPA that stated:

The Port is working with Nigg’s owners to bring the terminal back into operation.”

That is good news and I hope that it obviates the need to pursue at-sea transfer.

It is important to note that there is no live application at the moment for at-sea transfer and that the previous application was returned undetermined last summer. However, the proposal was for ship-to-ship transfer to take place on the open seas of the Moray Firth, which is a European Union Natura 2000 special area of conservation for bottlenose dolphins; a Moray Firth special protection area for a wide range of seabirds is also proposed.

Roles and responsibilities are very important. This is not a party-political issue and it would be very unfortunate if it became such, but the minister will understand that my immediate colleagues share the Scottish Government’s wish to have all decision making on the issue take place in Scotland. At the moment, such decisions are for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is a UK body. Of Scottish bodies, Scottish Natural Heritage is the only statutory consultee, but there is clearly a role for Marine Scotland, as well as for the Scottish Government.

Ministers have repeatedly claimed that the Scottish Government was not formally invited to comment on the CFPA’s application. However, the CFPA’s agents sent Marine Scotland and others a copy of the application and a letter explaining how and by when they could make representations to the MCA. The press line subsequently used by the Scottish Government was that it was

“not aware of being directly approached by the UK Government during the consultation.”

That is misleading and disingenuous, minister. The wording appears to have been deliberately chosen so that the statement could be defended as being literally and strictly correct, given that Marine Scotland was not directly approached by the MCA but was approached by the CFPA’s agents and through a letter of formal consultation from the CFPA harbour master. The Scottish Government could and should have brought the serious environmental and non-environmental risks involved to the attention of the MCA. Of course, the Scottish Government must act responsibly within the existing framework for maritime matters, and it has a wider obligation to be a good neighbour.

I asked the cabinet secretary a question about the CFPA’s proposal and

“what assessment of risk to the marine wildlife, including orcas,” the Scottish Government

“has made of the proposed ship-to-ship transfer in the Moray Firth.”

Roseanna Cunningham replied:

“The Scottish Government has no functions in relation to ship to ship oil transfer licenses. This is a matter reserved to the UK Government, and we continue to press for devolution of these powers to Scotland.”—[

Written Answers

, 3 June 2016; S5W-00285.]

That is most certainly an answer, but it is not an answer to the question that was posed, which is disappointing. Saying “It’s nothing to do with us” is no way for the Government to deal with an important issue. Thousands of people in Scotland and around the world have made their views known to the UK Government, and they have not been contacted by the UK Government. However, the campaigners know that a Scottish Government agency was contacted.

The environment is a devolved matter, so perhaps the minister can outline the responsibilities that he believes that the Scottish Government should have in relation to the issue. I received an email that said:

“The on-going ping-pong between Scottish Ministers and the Secretary of State around the devolved and reserved parameters of this issue detracts from the underlying obligation under the European Habitats Directive. The Scottish and UK Governments should act to prevent such risky activity in such a sensitive location by ensuring proper implementation of the Habitats Directive.”

I share that view.

I welcome what is an apparent change of tone, with the First Minister recently saying that she was “unconvinced” by the safety of ship-to-ship oil transfer in the Moray Firth.

As the minister will know, we have been here before—in 2007, with transfers in the Forth. My colleague Mark Ruskell will talk about that. At that time, one of Roseanna Cunningham’s predecessors in office said:

“even a scintilla of environmental risk is unacceptable.”—[

Official Report

, 24 May 2007; c 115.]

I hope that the minister will adopt that position now.

The proposal would create no new jobs and it would put at risk marine life of world significance and our most important industry: tourism. On the Moray coast, tourism brings in income of £108 million per annum and employs 2,600 people—one in 10 of the population. As a comparator, perhaps people will reflect on a name that they will know. It took six years to recover from the Braer disaster in Shetland.

There is a comparator that I would like to put to you, minister. Energy is a reserved matter, but everyone knows that there will be no new nuclear power stations in Scotland because the Scottish Government will use the powers that it has under planning legislation to ensure that they do not go ahead. That is the approach that I encourage you to take.

As we have only a short time for this debate, I will move to some final points. I hope, minister, that you will take the opportunity to respond to the various issues that I have raised on behalf of constituents.

Day-to-day operations involving the transfer of crude oil between ships at anchor at this location are highly likely to cause disturbance to bottlenose dolphins and other European protected species. That would equate to an offence under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c) Regulations 1994. For any transfer operation to be undertaken legally, an EPS licence would be required under regulation 44. Scottish ministers, in the shape of Marine Scotland, would issue that licence, but it is evident that the tests for that licence could not be met without breaching the EU habitats directive.

I respectfully ask, minister, that you regain the vigour that the Scottish Government had in 2007 when the Forth was at threat. You have the power to stop this now. Please use the existing powers over the environment to evidence and resist any threat to our precious Moray Firth marine wildlife and to our coastal communities and the thousands of jobs that depend on our wildlife. Please confirm that an EPS licence will not be issued and, thereby, prevent ship-to-ship transfers in the Moray Firth. Our marine wildlife and our coastal communities deserve no less.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I remind all members that during debates—even members’ business debates—they should always speak through the chair and not directly to each other.

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

First, I apologise to the chamber. I have another engagement this evening, so I will not be able to stay and hear all the speeches in what I am sure will be an excellent debate.

I congratulate my colleague John Finnie on securing this debate on ship-to-ship transfers—a subject that is of such interest to so many of our constituents in the Highlands and Islands. All of us, I am sure, have been contacted by constituents from throughout the region. Communities are concerned about the proposal all the way up the east coast, from Moray up to Tain and in all the parts in between, including Nairn, Inverness, the Black Isle and Invergordon.

The potential environmental impact of the venture presents serious concerns and is at the heart of my constituents’ worries about ship-to-ship oil transfers. If the marine environment is damaged as a result of such transfers, local fishing will be harmed and the knock-on effect on tourism in the whole area could be disastrous. Those factors really must be taken into account. On this occasion, the environmentalists are joined in their concerns by many people who live and work in the communities on the coast.

The case against the application has been made by organisations such as Cromarty Rising and local councillors such as Craig Fraser and Liz MacDonald. I cannot be the only politician in the chamber to have received many hundreds of emails and, indeed, personal visits from Craig Fraser. He has done an excellent job in taking the campaign forward on the Black Isle and in the wider area, with support from members of the local communities. I praise them all for their work on the issue.

With regard to the environmental risks, I acknowledge that the chances of something going wrong are small and that, generally speaking, ship-to-ship transfer is a relatively safe process. The issue is that, if something were to go wrong in this particular marine ecosystem, the consequences would be catastrophic.

Many of us cannot understand why ship-to-ship transfer at sea is being proposed at all. Ship-to-ship transfer already happens in the area at Nigg, with the ships tied up at shore. The risks are undoubtedly greater at sea, so why are the communities being asked to take those risks? What would be the benefits?

The firths are already industrialised, which brings millions of pounds to the local economy and supports jobs. We really need that in the Highlands and Islands, and there is little opposition to industrial activity in general in the area.

We all agree that we need to work towards sustainable development, with the contribution of all stakeholders and with marine ecosystems being managed for the benefit of all.

People care passionately about the issue—I see that when I speak about it to people in the Highlands and Islands and the people who have made the long journey down to Edinburgh today to listen to the debate and to demonstrate at the Parliament their opposition to ship-to-ship transfers.

Unfortunately, however, none of us in the chamber has the power to resolve the matter, because it is reserved. Only the UK Government can do that, and its response so far has been extremely disappointing. The process of resolving the issue has taken far too long. As has been mentioned, the Scottish Government does not even need to be consulted on the decision, despite its having responsibility for environmental issues.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am sorry, Mr Finnie, but we have no time.

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

Many of us in the Highlands and Islands believe that the UK Government does not understand the needs of local communities. I support calls to devolve powers in the area. I am glad that the Scottish Government will press the UK Government on the matter, and I hope that the powers are devolved swiftly to ensure that local voices are heard and responded to, and that the transparency that we pride ourselves on in the Parliament can be brought to the matter.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I refer members to my register of interests, and I thank John Finnie for bringing the debate to Parliament and allowing us to discuss the issue.

Oil transfers have taken place safely in the Cromarty Firth for more than 30 years. Those transfers have been undertaken using the jetty at Nigg. The petition relates to a proposal that has, subsequently, been withdrawn. The petition is based on a Cromarty Firth Port Authority application for ship-to-ship transfers in an area of the Moray Firth over which it has jurisdiction. Having read John Finnie’s motion, I am concerned that he has reached a conclusion on ship-to-ship transfers in the Cromarty Firth Port Authority area without having sight of an actual proposal. I remind members that there is no current proposal, that there is not much chance that there will be one before October 2017 at the earliest, and that it is not a given that there will be one.

With my background in land and fisheries management, I always look at proposals with a careful eye, and my natural reaction—surprisingly—is to be conservative. With that in mind, I always adopt the precautionary principle in relation to matters that might affect the environment. Therefore, my default position in respect of ship-to-ship oil transfers is to question the need for them. I also automatically look for evidence of potential negatives. My research has indicated that there are regular ship-to-ship transfers off Shetland and, indeed, that there have been a significant number of such transfers at Nigg. However, they have taken place, and continue to take place, using ships that are anchored to jetties. Therefore, I have to ask whether it is the secure berth that reduces the risks.

I looked for evidence to support the claim that oil spills are a real danger, but my research indicated that oil spills from ship-to-ship transfers have been rare in the past 10 years. I looked around the whole UK, and it seems that transfers are quite common in some areas. However, it seems also that there have been only three recorded spills in the past 10 years. That evidence suggests that ship-to-ship oil transfers are relatively safe.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I am sorry, but I am short of time. If I have time towards the end of my speech, I will see whether I can bring in Mr Finnie.

There is one fact that we should all remember about the Forth replacement crossing. As constructed, it gives me huge concerns. If there was an oil spill on it, that oil would all enter the Firth of Forth, because drainage from the bridge is unfiltered and is discharged directly into the firth. However, let me be clear: I understand that there will always be risks, and it is right that we consider whether those risks are acceptable or unacceptable.

I have been told that other regulations are in place to help to prevent oil spillages. For example, the Merchant Shipping (Ship-to-Ship Transfers) Regulations 2010 were introduced to ensure that ship-to-ship oil transfers are conducted safely. Those regulations gained support from a number of organisations including WWF Scotland, RSPB Scotland and Whale and Dolphin Conservation—to name but a few.

I will turn to the specific application. I remind members that in January 2017 the Maritime and Coastguard Agency asked Cromarty Firth Port Authority to withdraw and resubmit its application. The reason that was given was the lack of evidence on volatile compounds and their potential impact on ecosystems. It was a reasonable and good decision that was based on the precautionary principle. I understand that, since that date, there has been a legal challenge to the existing consent for ship-to-ship transfers at Nigg. I also understand that that consent has been successfully defended by the MCA.

If the CFPA is to submit a new application, I ask that it listens to the local community councils, Cromarty Rising, RSPB Scotland and the dolphinwatch group, and seeks to address their concerns. If the CFPA cannot ensure that those concerns are addressed, it should not resubmit the application.

I do not feel that we have heard sufficient evidence on ship-to-ship transfers. I believe that we, as MSPs, need to wait to hear evidence, once further consultation has taken place; perhaps we can then revisit the debate. Having said that, I make it clear that the current lack of information means that I find the idea of ship-to-ship transfers in the Moray Firth a difficult proposition to support, so I cannot do so.

Photo of Angus MacDonald Angus MacDonald Scottish National Party

I am pleased to contribute to the debate—although members may wonder why an MSP who represents Falkirk East is taking part in a debate on an issue that has arisen 200 miles away. In fact, I have form on the issue. Back in 2006-07, as a councillor representing Grangemouth on Falkirk Council, I, along with others, successfully campaigned to force Forth Ports to reconsider its plans for ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Firth of Forth. At the time, our Scottish National Party-led administration at Falkirk Council was also opposed to the plans, and ship-to-ship transfer became an issue in the 2007 Holyrood election campaign, in which Annabelle Ewing was our SNP candidate. I am thankful that, in the face of significant opposition, Forth Ports saw sense and withdrew its application.

I also have an interest in the issue as deputy convener of the Public Petitions Committee, which is considering a live petition against the current Moray Firth proposal that was submitted by Greg Fullarton on behalf of Cromarty Rising. I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and I thank John Finnie for bringing it to the chamber for discussion.

As I said, the issue of ship-to-ship oil transfer first appeared on my radar in 2006-07, when Melbourne Marine Services proposed to introduce such transfers approximately 3.4 nautical miles south-east of Methil, in the Firth of Forth. At that time, the communities on the Forth coastline and the Scottish Parliament took strong stances opposing the oil transfers, given the negative environmental impacts that such transfers would have on marine life in and around the Forth. That strong stance resulted in Melbourne Marine Services aborting its attempt.

Given that earlier success, I encourage colleagues here and in the Scottish Government to take similar action now to ensure that the necessary powers are in place to provide environmental protection for our seas and to protect the tourism industry, and to ensure that there are independent checks and balances on the operation of our trust ports.

My constituency of Falkirk East is home to some of the Firth of Forth’s most environmentally sensitive shorelines—around Bo’ness, Grangemouth and Airth. From a constituency point of view, my concern is that should ship-to-ship oil transfers be allowed in the Moray Firth, there is no guarantee that discussions about conducting such transfers in the Forth would not be renewed. Ship-to-ship oil transfers would have extremely negative impacts on the environment in those areas, as we have heard, through their emission of carcinogenic volatile organic compounds and the potential for an oil spill, with the possibility of approximately 2 tonnes of oil being spilled every second. That does not bear thinking about. The negative impacts of transfers could result in catastrophic destruction of local marine life, such as the protected bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth.

Additionally, given the geographic layout of the Moray Firth, there is no proper infrastructure for a disaster relief port authority team. However, the site for ship-to-ship oil transfers would be just a kilometre from a rocky coastline. Greg Fullarton referred to that as

“a disaster waiting to happen.”—[

Official Report, Public Petitions Committee,

16 March 2017; c 29.]

When Cromarty Firth Port Authority submitted an application to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for a licence for ship-to-ship oil transfers, no strategic environmental assessment was conducted, which means that there has been no consideration of the special protection for birds and bottlenose dolphins in the area where the environment would be negatively affected, if not entirely destroyed, by an oil spillage.

The Scottish Parliament would better be able to protect the environment in those areas if we were given devolved powers over licence applications for ship-to-ship oil transfers, which we have been requesting since 2014. Instead, the Scottish Government, Marine Scotland and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency are left with only the power to protect the environment to the best of their abilities, in the wake of Westminster’s ill-considered decision.

I also urge the Scottish Government to consider implementing independent oversight of Cromarty Firth Port Authority to ensure that the local community and port stakeholders are given better representation and transparency. There is concern out there that trust ports are policing themselves.

As things stand, as I understand the situation, 27 Highlands and Islands community councils, 7 non-governmental organisations and 100,000 community members have signed a petition against ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Moray Firth, but Cromarty Firth Port Authority seems to have paid no attention. I realise that I am running out of time, but it is worth saying that the port authority receives its funding from, and is owned by, private companies—as is highlighted by the fact that it has refused to attend public meetings and has been to only one privately held meeting, at which recording of meeting minutes was not allowed.

As John Finnie said, ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Moray Firth would bring no new jobs to the Cromarty community—they would bring only environmental risks and uncertainty. I urge the Scottish Government not to support the licence application, but instead to take every step that it can take to protect the Moray Firth’s marine life. I also urge the Scottish Government once again to request that the UK Government consider devolving to Scotland the relevant powers so that we can control environmental impacts in our own country rather than just react to them.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I feel as though I am being taken terrible advantage of—thankfully it has been cross-party. Can we try to pull the times back a wee bit?

Photo of Claudia Beamish Claudia Beamish Labour

I thank John Finnie for bringing the issue to the Scottish Parliament and for his informative speech.

Our coastal and marine environments are globally renowned for their dramatic beauty. Marine tourism is an expanding sector. John Finnie highlighted the local facts about that and I want to highlight a few Scotland-wide facts. It is fantastic that Scotland is able to offer a plethora of options, attracting nature lovers, thrill seekers, families and those who simply want to relax. The sector was valued Scotland-wide at £360 million in 2014, which means a huge boon for coastal communities and economies, especially in the Highlands and Islands. Whatever floats your boat in the marine tourism sector, a clean and diverse marine environment is the lynchpin. Nature-based tourism contributes £127 million per year, but any marine activity would be damaged by a diminished environment, from whatever source.

The Cromarty and Moray Firths are areas of environmental significance. Both play host to a number of protected seabirds such as shags and grebes, and to grey seals and harbour porpoises. A pod of bottlenose dolphins is a favourite for visitors and residents of the Moray Firth. In fact, the two firths are such special places for wildlife that they both fall under a number of environmental protections. Both are designated as EU Natura 2000 special areas of conservation and special protection areas, and the Cromarty Firth is a site of special scientific interest for intertidal mud and sand flats. Research highlights that some of the areas are significant for blue carbon, which the minister and I have been pushing for through the climate change plan


These unique areas are already under pressure from the effects of our changing climate and other recognised threats to marine ecosystems. The additional risk of ship-to-ship oil transfers needs very careful assessment. Even a small accidental oil spill would have a devastating impact on habitats and it would undo the climate change mitigation progress of blue carbon.

Today’s debate is a valuable way of highlighting the range of concerns and some opposing community views. Cromarty Rising has worked hard in defence of the habitats, and the campaign has the support of 27 community councils. The testament of the journey that people have made today also speaks volumes. There is a listening ear as a result of the petition to the UK Secretary of State for Transport, and there is also a petition before our own Parliament.

The community groups feel they have not been consulted, and that questions surrounding the proposal remain unanswered. They highlight the insufficient assessments of the firths’ biodiversity, habitats and people in relation to spills, volatile organic compounds and the economic impact. While the licences for the transfers remain reserved, we rely on the Secretary of State for Transport to consider the environmental impacts and not to proceed if there will be adverse impacts.

RSPB Scotland has highlighted to me that in its view, the Cromarty Firth Port Authority’s proposal fails to meet the statutory habitats directive tests as there is insufficient information available to enable the decision to be taken and to ensure the integrity of wildlife sites.

I also understand that the port authority argues that it has worked to address issues of concern and that there are concerns from it and from some residents in the locality that the port authority’s proposal should be considered in the light of the local economy. However, that does not detract from the fact that the decision, although it is of course reserved, must be fully assessed. It has not been fully assessed yet; under a new application, it must be fully assessed.

John Finnie highlighted—I did not know this until I heard his speech—that the port authority is working with Nigg to see whether there is a possibility of a jetty transfer, which would make much more sense and give better protection. My view is that the application, if resubmitted, would be a risk too far.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

There has been a mixture of members speaking for too long and my forgetting to set the clock for Ms Beamish’s speech—

Photo of Claudia Beamish Claudia Beamish Labour

I was trying to check the clock—I thought that it was the slowest minute I have ever had while speaking.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I apologise for that. I am therefore minded to accept a motion without notice to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[

John Finnie


Motion agreed to.

Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

I thank John Finnie for securing this important debate. I support my constituents on the Black Isle, many of whom are in the public gallery seeking to represent their concerns in opposing ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Moray and Cromarty Firths. This is an area of key significance, with a rich wildlife and marine environment; indeed, it is a European Union designated area for bottlenose dolphins. Villages such as Cromarty—at the end of the road, as it were, on the Black Isle—rely on tourism, particularly ecotourism. Such places draw in visitors and residents alike because of the riches and wealth of the natural environment.

As Maree Todd highlighted, there is one big question at the heart of this debate—why? Why risk it? Are there really any benefits that are worth the significant risks of allowing ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Moray and Cromarty Firths?

Although I did not don a dolphin costume, I was pleased to join the Cromarty Rising rally outside Parliament in January, and I was also pleased to support members of the group as they presented their petition on ship-to-ship oil transfers and trust port accountability to the Public Petitions Committee in March. It is clear that this is a complex subject and the expertise among those in Cromarty Rising has really helped to bring that to the fore and raise the profile of the issue. Many legitimate issues have been raised. The Public Petitions Committee has written to the Scottish Government and other relevant stakeholders such as Marine Scotland, and I look forward to reading their responses to the petitioners’ pertinent questions. I hope that some answers will be given when the committee picks up the petition again later this month.

It is clear that the initial application did not meet the standards that were expected, and there is no current application. John Finnie has already alluded to it, but there was a mathematical conundrum at the heart of the application. When Briggs Marine—a reputable and respected marine services company—conducted an assessment of a ship-to-ship proposal in another part of Scotland, it stated that the maximum oil spill would be the ship’s entire load. For the Moray and Cromarty Firths, we are talking about 180,000 tonnes of crude oil. However, at the stroke of a pen, that figure was reduced to 1 tonne in the application.

That is no doubt partly what prompted the First Minister to say a few months ago that on the basis of the evidence so far,

“the Scottish Government is unconvinced that ship-to-ship oil transfers can, or should, take place” without causing risk to the environment, particularly to bottlenose dolphins. She added that

“the Scottish Government ... hears” the concerns of those communities and

“will ... do everything we can to make sure that they are heard by”—[

Official Report

, 12 January 2017; c 17-18.]

the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, while campaigning for the issue to be devolved.

Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Green

Kate Forbes will be aware of her constituents’ concerns about the unexploded munitions that recently washed up at Rosemarkie. I understand that that is the proposed anchorage point, given its naval background. Does she share my concerns and think that that should, at the very least, be part of the assessment, which should be formally carried out by the appropriate people?

Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

I understand where John Finnie is coming from and I am aware of those issues. The key is for all the facts to be on the table when those issues are considered—nothing should be sneaked through without proper consultation. That means a formal consultation that asks for the Scottish

Government’s view on all the issues, in order that the issues and concerns of local communities are listened to by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, as Nicola Sturgeon clearly asked for.

I finish with a word of advice to any prospective developers out there, on a principle that can apply equally to other planning applications, be they for projects in the middle of the water or on dry land. As the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, I am passionate about small Highland communities having a voice when it comes to decisions that are taken on their doorsteps. Cromarty Rising has certainly made its voice heard loud and clear. It is incredible that over 100,000 people have signed a petition on the 38 Degrees website, and the number keeps rising. Whatever the issue, and whatever the outcome, developers, planners and decision makers must not neglect to engage with and listen to local communities.

I am not against ship-to-ship oil transfers per se, but they must be in the right place, with the right scientific evidence. On both counts I feel that the application for the Cromarty and Moray Firths has not met the high standards that we should impose on any development in an area of national environmental importance.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

I thank John Finnie for securing this topical and important debate. On average, 20 ship-to-ship oil transfer operations occur at various places around the world each day. In Scotland, they take place at Scapa Flow in Orkney, Nigg in the Cromarty Firth and Sullom Voe in Shetland and have done so for many years.

The Cromarty Firth Port Authority applied for a licence to do such transfers in five new locations in its harbour area, and a group called Cromarty Rising presented to Chris Grayling a petition that has more than 100,000 signatures from people across the region and the world in opposition to the application. Like others, I welcome the group to the chamber. As the motion—and, just now, Kate Forbes—said, getting so many signatures is an extraordinary achievement.

The motion suggests that the proposed locations are “completely unsuitable” for such operations. That is predicated on an environmental analysis in which something goes wrong. The locations might well be logistically suitable, although I note that the withdrawn proposals showed that the sea was quite shallow at the proposed anchorages, so the suitability for bigger ships, which I presume are the only ones that would make the process viable, is questionable. I also note that there is a war grave under the proposed site, to which I think John Finnie alluded in his intervention.

Since the 1980s, the Cromarty Firth Port Authority has been involved in the safe handling of oil tankers, and an estimated 250 ship-to-ship oil transfers have been made in its area. That is 175 million barrels of oil equivalent safely transferred into tankers and shipped to global markets. It does not involve new technology or new processes, but it is good for the economy.

However, accidents can occur and we must consider what the impact of any ballast water being discharged and any potential oil spills would be if ships were to collide during transfer. The Braer incident in 1993, which was referred to, and the two Sullom Voe spills in 2009, show that that can happen. Following the Braer incident, a UK Government inquiry made a number of key recommendations that were aimed at improving safety and minimising pollution, the thrust of which was subsequently adopted.

The Merchant Shipping (Ship-to-Ship Transfers) Regulations 2010 were introduced to ensure that transfers are carefully monitored and well regulated. The regulations were supported by a number of significant NGOs, including RSPB Scotland, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and the Marine Conservation Society.

Robust operational procedures and mitigation measures are in place to prevent accidental spills during ship-to-ship transfers. They include checking weather conditions, following safety checklists for all equipment, having pre-meetings with all relevant parties to agree a transfer plan, using a qualified STS superintendent to oversee the transfer and using industry-standard certified hoses for the transfer between ships. Only when all procedures have been followed does a transfer take place. In the unlikely event of an oil spill, an oil spill contingency plan that is approved by the MCA is in place, which militates against environmental impact.

According to the International Maritime Organization, ship-to-ship transfers are low risk and can be carried out safely when due regard is paid to the various regulations that are in place. However, the Cromarty Firth and the Moray Firth are beautiful and vital parts of Scotland and I accept the motion’s reference to environmental significance. They are home to rare species and habitats and, particularly in relation to tourism, they are an extremely valuable part of the Scottish economy. None of that must be adversely impacted by any actions, including ship-to-ship transfers.

If another licence application is submitted, the views and concerns of stakeholders and local residents must be valued and communities must be fully consulted. It will be imperative to fully involve the MCA and SEPA so that we strike the right balance between economic growth and job creation for the Highlands and maintaining the highest standards of environmental protection and sustainability.

Photo of Gail Ross Gail Ross Scottish National Party

I welcome the people in the gallery who have travelled such a long way—including some of my former colleagues from Highland Council—and pay tribute to them and the people watching at home for running a focused and passionate campaign. I thank them for all their correspondence and information. I also thank John Finnie for bringing the debate to the Scottish Parliament.

After so many speakers, I do not need to go into why we are here, because we know that. It has been said that ship-to-ship oil transfers happen every day, perfectly safely, all over the world. We know that and it is not in dispute. However, ship-to-ship oil transfers in an area of such great environmental significance are extremely controversial, and the prospective application has raised concerns among communities on all sides of the Cromarty Firth. That is the focus of the motion.

Oil transfers have been carried out in the Cromarty Firth for a number of years at the relative safety of the Nigg jetty, with ships tied up. Unfortunately, that is no longer feasible, but I, too, got the email to say that the Cromarty Firth Port Authority is exploring that option further, which is to be welcomed.

The difference is that the proposed operation would involve a transfer of crude oil in open waters, with ships at anchor close to the shore, right on the breeding ground of a pod of bottlenose dolphins in an area of significant environmental importance. That area of my constituency holds a hugely valuable ecosystem and I cannot impress enough on members the importance of that environment to the local community and its significance in marine science and to Scotland—not just the local economy—as a tourist destination.

In December, hundreds of people gathered on the beach at Nairn to protest at the plans, and 27 community councils from all around the firth have opposed the proposal. Businesses, residents and organisations have all voiced their concerns about the proposed application and feel that they are not being listened to, despite the port authority insisting that it is listening, consulting and engaging.

The port authority must take on board all the concerns of the community, the RSPB and Whale and Dolphin Conservation. The concerns are not only about an oil spill. The Scottish Wildlife Trust, SNH and SEPA have raised concerns about biosecurity, ballast discharge, the recovery of beached oil and tidal flows. The Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland is also worried about the environment and tourism. All those organisations are concerned about contingency measures and the consequences of spills or fumes, which could harm the area’s fragile ecosystem. I do not want cetaceans to be euthanised because of an accidental spill. That would be devastating.

As it stands, we await the new application to see how—or whether—it addresses the concerns of communities. I feel strongly that the port authority and the communities have to work together on the matter. There has to be an appropriate assessment under the European habitats directive—that is a vital part of the application that was lacking the first time round.

A letter that the Department for Transport sent in response to a letter that Kate Forbes and I sent in January clearly states:

The Scottish Government will be informed of the final decision before it is made public.”

We are debating a reserved matter, and the decision is made by the MCA and the UK Government. I fully support the call for the Scottish Government to have fully devolved powers over all at-sea oil transfer licences, which remain a reserved matter, as I said. We need that power and we need it now.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

I thank my colleague John Finnie for bringing the topic for debate. It brings back memories from 2006, when we had our first members’ business debate about ship-to-ship oil transfers, on a motion in the name of Robin Harper. There are, of course, some differences and similarities between the issues and the members but, at that time, ship-to-ship oil transfers were the biggest environmental threat facing Scotland, with communities on both sides of the Forth rising up against the threat to their environment and their livelihoods.

However, it was not just communities around the Forth that voiced concerns; communities around Scotland—including, ironically, around the Moray Firth—recognised the Forth proposal as a Trojan horse for a surge in oil transfers in open water around our coasts. There was a concern about harbour authorities having deep conflicts of interest between their profit-making desires and their environmental duties, there was confusion about the fuzzy boundary between Westminster and Holyrood powers, and there was frustration about the lack of action on the part of the then Scottish Executive, when it had clear devolved responsibilities to defend our environment. The question is, what exactly has changed since then? Very little, it seems. The Smith commission failed to resolve the Scottish Parliament’s clear devolved powers on the environment with the ones on marine transport, which are reserved, so the fuzzy boundary remains. Further, we still have no planned approach across the British Isles to the question of where—if anywhere—it is appropriate to carry out transfers in open water rather than in the protected confines of a harbour.

Meanwhile, the failure of the Westminster Government to even consult the Scottish Government on the live review of the ship-to-ship oil transfer regulations makes an absolute mockery of the shared governance arrangements that we have. Who knows? Maybe the Secretary of State for Transport took Marine Scotland out of his address book when it failed to respond to the original licence application for the Cromarty transfers in 2015, which was a grave error, in my view.

What is clear is that, under any constitutional settlement that we could think of in this chamber, there has to be a better way to manage our shared seas and the economic opportunities and environmental responsibilities that come with that.

In response to the Forth debacle, in 2007, the fresh Scottish Government, with the then Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, Richard Lochhead—who I think is not here tonight—amended regulations to ensure that ministers are able to direct competent authorities to assess properly the wide-ranging risks to protected habitats. Some members might remember that law change being much heralded by the Scottish Government at the time. However, now, when I ask a written question on use of those beefed-up powers, the answer is that the Scottish Government cannot use them. In that case, why bring them in in the first place—especially under the argument that the change would be used to get a grip on an ambitious oil-transfer industry? I wonder now what other powers are apparently redundant. Is it the case that the Scottish Government is no longer required, when a dolphin that is protected under EU law is going to be disturbed by oil transfers, to apply sanctions to that? Are we retreating from our hard-won protections for nature?

Many questions are still to be answered, especially around the role of SNH. I wish the Public Petitions Committee well in exploring them, and hope that the current petition will be passed to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee for further forensic examination.

Cromarty Rising and its communities should be applauded. They are Scotland’s Standing Rock, and we in Parliament must now rise to their challenge and find a way to protect our environment. If we do not, we will be back at square 1 in this chamber in another decade.

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

I thank John Finnie for bringing the matter of ship-to-ship oil transfers to the chamber, and for providing me with the opportunity to congratulate Cromarty Rising—as he did—on getting more than 100,000 signatures on its petition to the Secretary of State for Transport. That is a significant achievement in its own right, and I agree with members who have highlighted that point.

I take to heart the very real concern of communities who live around the Moray and Cromarty firths over the application from Cromarty Firth Port Authority to undertake ship-to-ship transfers of crude oil at sea in the inner Moray Firth. As a number of members have said, the issue that has raised concerns is not the ship-to-ship transfers themselves but the manner in which it is proposed that they be done, in open water.

As both John Finnie and Kate Forbes stated, the First Minister made our position clear on 12 January: that has not changed. Based on current information, we remain unconvinced that ship-to-ship oil transfers can take place at anchor in the inner Moray Firth without unacceptable risk to the marine environment—in particular, to the special area of conservation for bottlenose dolphins. However, I have to make it absolutely clear that, as a number of members have highlighted, the Scottish Government has no powers over the decision-making process for applications for oil-transfer licences. I will set out some of the background to that.

The regulations under which such applications are considered are currently reserved to the Secretary of State for Transport. As Angus MacDonald said, there were concerns in 2007 about the risk to the environment from a similar plan for the Firth of Forth. At that time, a regulatory regime for ship-to-ship oil transfers was lacking entirely. As a consequence of our action, the UK Government implemented the Merchant Shipping (Ship-to-Ship Transfers) Regulations 2010. The introduction of those regulations put in place a process that was designed to ensure that consideration of future applications would be publicly accountable. It also created provisions to ensure compliance with environmental impact assessment requirements and with the EU habitats directive.

Although we pressed for action and succeeded in getting better regulation of the activity, the UK Government failed to devolve responsibility for Scottish territorial waters to the Scottish Government. To be absolutely clear, I say that the regulations do not currently provide for any formal role for Scottish ministers—even for applications in our own waters. We are not even recognised as a consultation body under regulation 2 of the 2010 regulations.

Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Green

Would the minister care to comment on my analogy about nuclear power stations? Is he saying that there is absolutely nothing that SEPA, SNH or Marine Scotland can do, and that the marine plan has no relevance to ship-to-ship transfers? Is that the position? If so, it is a dereliction of duty.

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

I take Mr Finnie’s point, but when there is planning consent for new nuclear power stations the local authority and the Scottish Government ultimately are the planning authority in such cases. However, the Scottish Government does not have planning powers in relation to ship-to-ship transfers: the MCA does. I want to explain the situation further, which I hope will help Mr Finnie.

As I said, the decision on whether to issue a ship-to-ship oil-transfer licence in Scottish territorial waters is currently reserved to the Secretary of State for Transport, as several members have acknowledged. The Scottish Government will, of course, continue to press the UK Government for devolution of that important function in relation to Scottish waters. Broader consideration of whether the function should be devolved does not resolve the current issue in the Moray Firth, but some things can be done to ensure that the Secretary of State for Transport is held fully to account in the decision-making process.

First, we can insist that the Secretary of State for Transport take full account of the statutory advice that is given by Scottish Natural Heritage, which is the only Scottish body currently that is recognised by the regulations. I am aware that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has also provided advice, and I hope that that will also be taken into account by the Secretary of State for Transport.

Secondly, we can continue to press the Secretary of State for Transport at the very least to formally invite the Scottish Government to respond to a revised application. That would enable us to provide our view regarding the extent to which relevant environmental legislation has been complied with.

Thirdly, we can call on the Secretary of State for Transport to listen to the concerns that are raised in the petition, as well as to the heartfelt protests of local people, who are represented here today in the gallery, and who have been making their opposition known here and on the beaches of the Moray Firth.

It has also become apparent that the Secretary of State for Transport has recently undertaken a light-touch review of the regulations. I am sorry to say that, remarkably, given the well-documented interest in such matters on the part of the Scottish Government, the UK Government did not think it necessary to inform or even consult the Scottish Government. Needless to say, we are very disappointed by the mystifying omission by the Secretary of State for Transport and our feelings on the matter have been made absolutely clear to him.

Photo of Gail Ross Gail Ross Scottish National Party

Can the minister outline whether local authorities have any say in the proposed application?

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

As far as I am aware, SNH is the only formal consultation body in the legislation as it stands, but I am sure that local authorities have expressed views on the proposals. I hope that the secretary of state will take on board the legitimate views of local stakeholders.

With regard to governance of trust ports, which has been mentioned, the trust port model is held in high regard by ministers, the industry and members of this Parliament, and that support was clearly demonstrated through approval of the Aberdeen Harbour Revision Order 2016 and the Harbours (Scotland) Act 2015.

Trust ports are statutory bodies in their own right and their constitution requires them to ensure that harbour facilities are fit for purpose and secured for future generations. There are no shareholders, and any profits that are made must be returned to the harbour for those purposes. Trust ports operate within a commercial and often competitive environment, and it is for their boards to ensure that they operate effectively in that way, and that they comply with the powers that are set out in the legislation.

Although there are no shareholders, there are a wide range of stakeholders and we expect trust ports to take their views into account. Those stakeholders vary from port to port, but they certainly include the port users, the local authority and the local communities.

I have made it clear that the responsibility for that reserved matter rests—regrettably—with the Secretary of State for Transport, and not with Scottish ministers. However, I assure members that we will continue to make best efforts to ensure that the secretary of state is held to account in the decision-making process, and I suggest that all stakeholders do the same.

I will ensure that any Scottish Government response to a future application highlights the need to comply with environmental legislation and echoes the many concerns that have been raised by members from parties across the chamber, by Scottish Natural Heritage and by the local communities.

I trust that the Secretary of State for Transport will listen and determine the matter for the good of Scotland, its vibrant coastal communities and the precious marine environment on which we all rely. During the debate, members could not have been clearer about the importance of wildlife tourism to local economies, their concerns about Scottish statutory instruments—as set out by Claudia Beamish—and their concerns about potentially creating a precedent for other estuaries around the coast of Scotland, including the Firth of Forth, as was mentioned by my colleague Angus MacDonald.

I hope that the secretary of state listens to the points that have been raised today by members from all parties across the chamber, and thinks very carefully about the application, when it is submitted.

Meeting closed at 17:57.