Leading Article: Why oil firms should save our coasts

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The Independent Online
As the slicks ooze onwards around the Welsh coast, the recriminations have begun. The usual government agencies will be wheeled out to establish how and why the Sea Empress ran aground in calm weather, spilling 70,000 tonnes of oil into the sea. It seems that once aground the salvage operation was itself beset by difficulties, some of them avoidable. The larger national debate will focus on what should have been done to avoid jeopardising so much beautiful coastline and protected wildlife, and what needs to be done to stop this happening in future.

It seems incredible that we should be debating this issue once more, 30 years after the Torrey Canyon disaster and only two years after Lord Donaldson produced a detailed report on the future of oil haulage in the light of the Braer disaster in the Shetlands. Most, but not all, of Lord Donaldson's 103 recommendations were implemented. One unfortunate omission, as far as the Sea Empress is concerned, was the Government's failure to establish strong emergency tug boats in all areas with a serious risk of oil spillage and pollution. Salvage experts may quibble over whether a strong tug could have saved the day for the Sea Empress or not. But either way, the fact remains that these kinds of heavy-duty back-ups have the potential to make a big difference to pollution problems by pulling a leaking oil tanker well away from sensitive areas.

To be fair to the Government, strong tugs have been established at Stornoway and Dover - the two priority areas identified by Lord Donaldson - at a cost of pounds 2m a year. But this isn't good enough. Other areas need access to emergency tugs, too. Milford Haven, where one of the largest oil terminals in the country sits alongside important nature reserves, is an obvious candidate for strong tugs of its own. Additional protective measures should include insisting that tankers have double rather than single hulls to reduce the risk of leakage once the ship is on the rocks. The quality of the radar in the Milford Haven area may also bear some inspection.

But even if proper environmental protection should prove expensive, there is no need for the taxpayer to wince. The extra resources that ports and the coast guard may need in order to reduce the risk of future disasters should not be provided by the Treasury. The North Sea fields produce around 2.6 million barrels of oil a day generating huge profits for the industry. Maintaining a certain level of emergency environmental protection is an unavoidable part of supporting a lucrative industry. And the costs should be borne by those who make the profits.

The principle that the polluter should pay is not new to the oil industry. It is already responsible for paying to clean up after oil disasters. But we should take the principle further to cover prevention measures too. When recommendations emerge from future reports to reduce the risk of environmental damage from oil spills, they should be implemented at the expense of the oil companies. If the end result is that we all have to pay somewhat higher prices for our oil, so be it. Oil prices are already at a very low level and it is only fair that the price we pay for our oil reflects the risk to the environment of producing it.