Yesterday John led a member’s debate in the Parliament on the proposals for ship to ship oil transfers to be carried out in the Moray and Cromarty Firths*.
Amongst those observing the debate were members of Cromarty Rising who travelled down from the Highlands and Moray. Cromarty Rising’s petition against these proposals has so far reached over 103,500 signatures so far.
You can watch John’s speech below or you can read his speech underneath the video.
“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 debate was original scheduled for the 22nd of March. However, due to the terrorist attack in Westminster, the Parliament cancelled its business for the remainder of that day.