Early in the ongoing round of major cuts to the Coastguard Service, the combo of the Department for Transport [DfT] and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency [MCA] blithely chopped out of the service provision both of the Emergency Towing Vehicles [ETVs] stationed in the Western and Northern Isles.
Their job was to stand by to assist in any maritime incident in the Minches, the Pentland Firth, the waters around the Orkney and Shetland Isles and the Atlantic approaches.
The furore following the announcement of the cutting of the service drove an eventual reluctant retreat from the decision – but only partially. The service of a single ETV was retained, to be stationed between Stornoway and the Orkneys, and contracted on a year by year basis until 2015, when the government says it will no longer support it.
The government asked the shipping and oil industries to help to support this particular service and today BP stepped up in response to this need.
The Emergency Response and Rescue Vessel [ERRV], Grampian Frontier, a doughty maritime battler chartered by BP, is to be made available in response to any environmental emergency around the Northern Isles. Its owner, North Star Shipping, is working with the MCA to ensure that the vessel’s crew and equipment are able to respond as needed.
The plan is that, should such an incident arise, the Grampian Frontier will be freed from her duties in the oil industry and head for the site of the emergency.
The announcement was made today, appropriately, in Aberdeen harbour, the heart of the North Sea oil industry and home to types of vessels not seen elsewhere.
Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, was accompanied by BP’s President, Trevor Garlick, who said that the major risk to the marine environment is from transient vessels rather than those from the domestic oil and gas industry but that, since: ‘BP has had a major presence in the Shetland region for many decades and is investing significantly to develop its business there, we are prepared to help in the interests of the wider community.’
Michael Moore said: ‘This is the first agreement of its kind in the UK, and I would like to thank BP and North Star for their commitment and enthusiasm for this work. The legacy of the Braer disaster has great resonance in Scotland and beyond. Today’s agreement shows a clear commitment and leadership by BP and North Star to support efforts to protect the environment.’
The initial DfT/MCA decision was so fundamentally reckless it was stunning. These are the most dangerous waters in the UK, with tidal rips, rocky coastlines and the unforgiving Atlantic, fearsome in storm conditions. This is also the area through which cargo ships, chemicals and aggregates bulk carriers and oil tankers are on passage all the time.
The area is the focus too of the oil and gas industry in UK waters – not only in the traditional waters off Shetland but with new exploration licenses granted for the Clair Ridge and other deeper areas west of Shetland – which is exactly where Grampian Frontier operates.
The agreement reached and coming to fruition today is a logical partnership between government and a relevant industry.
The next battle is to ensure that one partner stays onboard this deal for the safety of mariners and shipping and for the environmental security of our dramtic coastlines.
That partner is the UK government which should now announce its permanent commitment to retaining the first ETV for the Minches area.