The Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) is consulting on a draft National Contingency Plan for Marine Pollution from Shipping and Offshore Installations (NCP). The draft NCP updates the current version published in 2006. The main changes are recognised responsibilities for offshore oil and gas operators, a more streamlined, transparent approach to lines of communication and the transfer of authority from DTI (dissolved in 2007) to DECC. The MCA invite comments from interested parties on the content, length and presentation of the draft by 12 November 2012.

Offshore Oil and Gas Response

The inclusion of offshore oil and gas operators’ responsibilities in the NCP is a response to a European Parliament and Council proposal for a Regulation or Directive requiring operators to have an Oil Pollution Emergency Plan (OPEP). The requirement for the OPEP is already in place in respect of offshore activities in the UK. However, the consultation document now acknowledges these requirements. The consultation document outlines the required contents of an OPEP:

  • “Worst case scenario” – the quantity of hydrocarbons that could potentially be released based on:
    • Well and reservoir information;
    • Well flow characteristics;
    • Potential daily release rate; and
    • The total quantity of hydrocarbons that could be released during the maximum time it could take to stop the release.
  • A credible containment and recovery strategy. Operators must maintain and have sufficient equipment to allow an effective response in the worst case scenario;
  • Where a capping device is suggested as a control option, operators must have suitable arrangements in place to implement such a response. Operators must plan for the time taken to transport the equipment to site, assemble, test and deploy the cap to stop the flow from the well.

The existing three tiered approach used for oil pollution from shipping casualties is not deemed appropriate for offshore installations. Still, three levels of oil spill, each requiring a different level of response are identified:

  • Minor spill – a localised release, where the operator must monitor and evaluate the spill. They may also need to obtain samples and conduct a test spray with an approved dispersant;
  • Larger spills – are outside the capability of operators. Additional resources should be provided by an accredited oil spill response contractor. The contractor and the operator liaise to take action, which can include aerial surveillance, vessel and aerial chemical dispersant spraying, mechanical recovery equipment, a capping device and personnel.
  • A spill of major significance – a request for national MCA and/or international support is made to compensate for lack of equipment and resources. In this scenario, the NCP will be activated.

As soon as an operator suspects that an incident could cause significant pollution they must activate their Emergency Response Centre (as detailed within the OPEP). A DECC Environmental Inspector will attend the ERC to act as a point of contact between the operators, DECC and the Secretary of State’s Representative (SOSREP). Where the operator is dealing adequately with a pollution incident the SOSREP will defer to the operator. The SOSREP can establish an Operations Control Unit, so that the operator can present their strategy. The SOSREP can give directions if they disagree with the operator’s proposed strategy.

Lines of communication and incident management

The draft NCP clarifies the roles of various bodies. In general, the consultation document clarifies reporting lines making incident management both more transparent and efficient.

Of particular note is the expanded role for the SOSREP. The SOSREP is now named as taking the lead in the response in general and in reporting to UK Government Ministers. The SOSREP acts as the main point of contact and is expected to remain up to date on developments of the pollution incident. Response centres update the SOSREP via Situation Reports (SITREPs). The SOSREP ultimately consolidates all of the SITREPs into his own SITREP. Additionally, the SOSREP now has greater powers of intervention in salvage and offshore operations. In the current NCP, the MCA Coastguard Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC – now Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) has the responsibility to decide whether the salvor has the capability to carry out the necessary salvage operations. Where the incident is offshore, the SOSREP may exercise power of intervention if it is in the public interest.

The establishment of a Marine Response Centre as part of a national response is at the most appropriate location under the draft NCP, rather than at the nearest RCC. This is a more pragmatic approach than the current NCP, as it allows the MRC to be established where is will be most useful. The draft NCP now includes a clear definition of who does what in the MRC, giving clear guidance as to the best point of contact.

Responsibility for approving the use of oil spill treatment products shall pass to the Marine Management Organisation (MMO). DECC presently approves the use of dispersant by offshore operators based on the advice of Marine Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Where a shoreline pollution incident affects a wide area and multiple agencies a Strategic Coordinating Group (SCG) will be established to take overall responsibility for coordinating the response. This feeds into the overall theme in the draft NCP of creating clearer communication lines and a more efficient response. In the current NCP, Local Authorities are the focus of responses to pollution incidents. Below the SCG is the Tactical Coordinating Group (TCG), which ensures that action are coordinated, coherent and integrated, enabling the Shoreline Response Centre (SRC) to concentrate on clean-up activities.

Transfer of authority from DTI to DECC

The Department of Trade and Industry was dissolved in 2007 and subsumed into BIS. For the purposes of the NCP, DECC have been considered the most appropriate body to takeover the DTI’s responsibilities. DECC has a committed Oil and Gas Environment and Decommissioning Unit, which is responsible for situations relating to oil pollution. DECC are responsible for approving Offshore Operators’ OPEPs after consulting with the MCA and appropriate environmental agencies. For the most part this is a direct transposition and of little significance for consultees.

Responding to the consultation

Interested parties should direct their comments to the MCA. The MCA is particularly interested in whether the draft NCP is fit for purpose, any additional guidance and whether the new NCP addresses specific concerns. More broadly, the MCA are seeking comments on the length of the document and how it is presented. Any comments must be received by the MCA by noon on 12 November 2012. Further details are available here.