The Scottish Government has been challenged to “get off the fence” and publicly ban controversial ship-to-ship oil transfers in environmentally sensitive waters such as the Moray Firth.
Holyrood ministers were urged last night to use their existing powers to introduce a moratorium on new applications for the process.
The call was made by campaigners against the Port of Cromarty Firth’s bid to shift up to 180,000 tonnes of oil, four times a month, between ships anchored in the dolphin-populated waters near the South and North Sutors.
And it emerged amid growing local speculation that ministers have been exerting behind-the-scenes pressure on the port authority to abandon the plan.
Amid a storm of protests and a 100,000-signature petition opposing the plans, the Scottish Government has said it believes the scheme would present an “unacceptable risk” to the environment.
But ministers have publicly insisted that their hands are tied, with the final decision on such applications resting with the UK Government’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).
A spokesman for the Cromarty Rising campaign group argued last night that there were other ways to block the “environmentally devastating” plans, however.
He said: “Over 100,000 people have now signed a petition against their plans – how can they ignore that?
“Indeed, less people responded to the Scottish Government’s consultation on fracking which has resulted in a moratorium
“We call on the Scottish Government to get off the fence and an announce a moratorium on new ship-to-ship transfers in Scottish coastal waters designated for European Protected Species (EPS) such as bottlenose dolphins.”
“Although the power to award ship-to-ship licences is reserved, the Scottish Government are responsible for issuing licences to allow disturbance of marine EPS and have the power to refuse to issue such a licence thereby creating an effective moratorium on ship-to-ship.
“If they really do think there is an ‘unacceptable risk’ then it is time to get their head out the sand and use the powers they have at their disposal.”
The port’s revised application for such transfers was due to be lodged before the end of last year but has still not progressed.
A port spokeswoman said: “The Port remains committed to attracting oil transfers back into the safety of the firth.
“Discussions are ongoing with the owners and operators of Nigg Oil Terminal to bring it back into use, and work continues on refining the application for ship-to-ship oil transfers at anchor.
“We still don’t have a definitive date for the resubmission of the refined application.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The powers over the licensing of ship-to-ship oil transfers are currently reserved to the UK Government.
“The waters of the Cromarty Firth are a haven for seals and dolphins. Scottish ministers are far from convinced that oil transfers could take place there in open waters without presenting an unacceptable risk to the marine environment, given that there is potential – albeit low risk – for a significant impact on the marine environment should an incident occur.
“We are not aware of any current application to the UK Government for a new ship to ship oil transfer licence, either in the Cromarty and Moray firths, or in any of Scotland’s waters, but we would expect the UK Government to invite Scottish ministers and local communities to respond to any future applications and we continue to argue that powers in respect of determining applications for activities in Scottish waters should be devolved to Scottish ministers.”