The UK government is looking into whether the emergency towing vessel (ETV) covering the waters around Shetland could be “doing other things” in order to strengthen the economic case for retaining it beyond 2015.
Speaking on a visit to the isles on Tuesday, transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said the importance of the ETV had been made “crystal clear to me by people I’ve met”. The vessels were introduced following the Braer disaster in 1993.
Earlier this year a short-term deal was struck with BP to allow its tug Grampian Frontier, normally stationed at the Schiehallion field west of Shetland, to be used to respond to marine pollution incidents. The state-owned Herakles tug is based in Kirkwall, but also has to cover the Western Isles.
Mr McLoughlin admitted he couldn’t guarantee the ETV’s funding beyond 2015. But he has “heard the case for it, and I want to see how we do manage to ensure that there is a long-term future for the vessel”.
“I think there are other things that we ought to be seeing if the vessel could be doing so we can make a stronger economic case,” he said, “and I will be working with [isles MP] Alistair [Carmichael] to do that over the next 18 months up until 2015 when at the moment its funding ceases.”
The minister said he was not in a position to talk about what those “other things” might be at this stage, but said it might involve industry.
Mr McLoughlin previously visited Shetland when he was shipping minister in the Thatcher government for three years from 1989.
Mr Carmichael, who is deputy chief whip in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, said it had been useful for the minister to travel north and see local issues first-hand.
It had given the community the opportunity to “restate our case on the coastguard station and for the ETV”, and he believes Shetland has a “sympathetic ear” at the heart of government.
“There was a great moment upstairs [at the station] when he was being shown the watch room, and he realised that actually Shetland is closer to Bergen than it is to Aberdeen, never mind London or Southampton. I think that… fixed in his mind just exactly what the challenges of providing search and rescue and coastguard services in a community like this are.”
The MP added that it was essential that the ETV did not keep on lurching from one three-year contract to another, and that a more permanent solution was found.