SIC councillors vented their spleens today at UK shipping minister Mike Penning over the “madness”, “total ignorance” and “arrogant attitude” shown by the coalition government in its decision to axe the provision of emergency tug vessels in waters around Shetland and Orkney.
There was uniform and undisguised rage from members at the government’s “foolish and unnecessary” move as they discussed a report on the matter from SIC harbour master Roger Moore during the Full Council meeting.
The government estimates that axing the four tugs stationed around the UK would save the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) £32 million over four and a half years. But having listened to Mr Penning’s defence of the decision this week councillor Rick Nickerson, who has been an environmental campaigner for over two decades, was in no mood to mince his words.
“I’ve never heard a minister speak such drivel. This is a safety issue for people who earn their living at sea. What is the cost of a person’s life?” he asked, before saying he was relieved the government “does not have its mitts on the RNLI or it would probably be cutting it as well”.
Mr Penning has claimed that there is sufficient capacity in the private sector to provide emergency assistance, but dozens of people have pointed out that is contrary to Shetland’s experience during the Braer oil spill, which was the spur for the tugs being introduced in the first place.
The importance of the emergency tugs was highlighted less than a week ago when the Stornoway-based Anglian Prince was called to assist in pulling the £1.2 billion nuclear submarine HMS Astute off the Skye shingle banks it had grounded on.
Defending the decision this week, Mr Penning said: “We need to look at the industry which is making its money out of the gas and oil fields. They need to come up with a tug because they are the ones making all the profits and putting the environment at risk, not the UK government.”
But the Shetland community is far from alone in expressing its disgust at the decision, with support coming from other affected areas like Orkney and the Western Isles, as well as the Scottish government and environmental body Kimo.
It was agreed during Wednesday’s meeting that the council’s leadership, convener Sandy Cluness and vice-convener Josie Simpson, will take the campaign to maintain the tugs – which are set to be axed from next September – directly to the UK government and the European Commission.
Councillor for Lerwick South Jonathan Wills said the tugs were “an essential asset in the event of any accident” and he was appalled that not even Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael, who is deputy chief whip for the government, had been consulted over the decision. “To cut this away is just madness,” he said.
Central ward member Iris Hawkins said the decision had come as “a complete surprise for everybody” and that she could “scarcely believe what I was hearing”. She decried the “arrogant attitude” being shown by the UK government and said the community was facing a real struggle to get the decision reversed.
Suggestions that the private sector could step in for salvage operations showed “total ignorance” of the nature of the shipping industry, pointed out Gussie Angus – echoing former council director Captain George Sutherland’s remarks in last week’s Shetland Times.
Mr Angus said ships were often registered, owned, crewed and operated by a number of businesses from several different countries around the globe, which made it nigh-on impossible to pursue the responsible company.
Capt Moore’s report stressed the importance of coastal waters around Shetland to its economy, with fishing and aquaculture generating more than £200 million a year and the oil and gas industries, along with tourism, providing a further £76 million.
It noted that the Fair Isle Channel is the main northern route around the UK and many large oil, chemical and gas tankers, bulk carriers, cruise ships, container ships and general cargo ships use the route.
Capt Moore said the fleet of four tugs at Sullom Voe’s harbour was only suited to providing “first aid” to a large ship in trouble while waiting for a more powerful tug to arrive. His report stated: “The removal of the ETV [emergency tow vessel] from Shetland waters will much reduce the capacity to successfully salve a vessel in poor weather and will be largely reliant on the hope that a suitable sea-going tug is in the area.”
Quoting UK energy minister Chris Huhne’s remark that “there is every reason to increase our vigilance” in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico, Capt Moore noted that exploration and development of oil and gas to the west and north of Shetland will increase “the likelihood of an incident”.
Councillor Betty Fullerton picked up on that, saying she felt Mr Penning had been talking “absolute nonsense” this week. No matter how much the government increased its vigilance, she said, you could never guarantee that there would be no accidents.