The offshore industry has pledged to help tackle maritime emergencies as part of plans to find a replacement for the Highlands and islands’ coastguard tugs.
Scotland Secretary Michael Moore announced yesterday that the oil and gas sector had offered to send its chartered vessels to join efforts to deal with oil spills, groundings or other major incidents.
It comes amid ongoing talks to secure the long-term future of a service currently provided by tugs based at Shetland and Stornoway, which were granted another three-month contract extension by the UK Government.
But while the progress was welcomed last night, a fresh row was brewing between the Westminster coalition and Scotland’s SNP ministers.
Northern Isles Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael accused the Scottish Government of ducking its responsibilities.
Mr Carmichael, deputy chief whip for the Westminster government, said: “I am disappointed that the SNP government, which has never been slow off the mark with press releases about the importance of the tugs, has failed to come up with any contribution to the debate.
“Ministers at Holyrood have responsibility for marine conservation in Scotland so have a benefit from the presence of the tugs.
“They have completely failed, however, to put their money where their mouth is and have chosen instead to play politics.”
Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy – MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber – also questioned the Scottish Government’s commitment.
He said: “The coalition, local councils and the North Sea oil and gas industries are involved in negotiations, and I call on the Scottish Government to put politics aside and come round the table with Lib Dem ministers.
“It’s vital both governments work with industry to reach a deal on the tugs. We can’t afford to let them slip away.”
But Scottish Rural Affairs and Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said the Holyrood agency Marine Scotland has been closely involved in the working group seeking a solution.
He added: “It is good news for Scotland’s maritime workers and our marine environment this invaluable service will be kept in place for a further three months.
“The original contract extension for three months was always likely to be insufficient time to organise a replacement and it is crucial our coastline and our marine environment are not exposed to unnecessary risk due to a gap in service provision.
“Ensuring safety is more important than cutting costs and, as a reserved issue, the UK Government has the responsibility to continue to fund this key service.”
The provision of the tugs was recommended by Lord Donaldson in his report on the 1993 major oil spill when the tanker Braer ran aground off Shetland while carrying 85,000 tonnes of light crude.
The government granted the emergency towing vessels (ETVs) a three-month rep-rieve in September amid anger at plans to withdraw funding for them. Ministers yesterday extended the contract until the end of March.
Mr Moore, who set up an ETV working group, said: “I am pleased to confirm that the North Sea oil industry, led by Oil and Gas UK and its member companies, has indicated its willingness to offer support by establishing a call-off arrangement for their chartered vessels to be deployed in support of HM Coastguard in the event of an emergency.
“Detailed work is underway between operators, vessel owners and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on working practices and necessary protocols governing the arrangements.”
Western Isles SNP MP Angus MacNeil said: “While I am happy to see the extension we will need something concrete from the UK Government in the next three months. I would hate to be in this position again at the end of March 2012.”
Highland Council leader Michael Foxley said: “I very much appreciate the work being done by Scottish Secretary Michael Moore to achieve a long-term solution and welcome the involvement of Oil and Gas UK which has real promise for Shetland and the northern waters of Orkney.
“However, it remains essential that an ETV is permanently available for the Minches and the southern waters of Orkney, including the Pentland Firth.”
Paul Dymond, operations director at Oil and Gas UK, said: “We are pleased to be able to offer assistance. Oil and Gas UK recognised there was a concern over the withdrawal of this service and the industry agreed to help find a solution. Discussions will now continue to put in place the finer details.”