Oil transfer decision prompts mixed reaction

A decision to make the stretch of coast between Lowestoft and Southwold the UK's only offshore area for ship-to-ship oil transfers has prompted a mixed reaction.

From April, oil tankers waiting to be restocked off the British coast will be moored exclusively off north Suffolk.

The Department for Transport decision comes just two months after maritime authorities were preparing to put a stop altogether to the practice of transferring oil at sea.

Last November, then secretary of state for transport Lord Adonis moved to cease transfers in UK waters.

But now the sea between Lowestoft and Southwold is to become the sole area for more than 50 small tankers bringing oil from Russia to transfer their cargo to larger vessels unable to negotiate the Baltic Sea.

Shipping minister Mike Penning announced, following a review of regulations, that instead of a general prohibition, ship-to-ship transfers outside harbour authority areas will be restricted to a single designated area off the north Suffolk coast.

He said: 'Ship-to-ship transfer operations have been common in UK waters for many years with a generally excellent safety record.

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'These new regulations aim to strike a balance between supporting those who benefit from such operations and ensuring they are properly monitored and regulated.'

James Reeder, vice-president of the Lowestoft and Waveney Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the news.

He said: 'It's good for our local economy in Lowestoft and it is good that people are looking at ways to increase our business opportunities rather than trying to chase them away. We shouldn't be afraid of risk, we should manage it.

'If we can make this area the place where everybody goes then we can have a thriving business opportunity and help Lowestoft, as part of the whole east coast, create jobs and bring more money into the economy.

'The people who are doing ship-to-ship transfers are completely professional. They are world leaders in it. We shouldn't be worried.'

But John Perkins, Southwold and Reydon Society secretary, accused the government of making a U-turn in its legislation, adding: 'This is the worst possible decision. Far from being moved on, these tankers are now being sent here from all over the UK.

'There have been anything up to 30 ships moored off the coast at one time – and this number is only set to increase.

'You don't have to be a genius to see that an oil spill could wipe out the entire tourism industry.'

In the past, businesses such as hotels and shops had welcomed the increase in trade from crew members coming ashore. But Mr Perkins fears the local economy will generally suffer and also raised concerns over protection from a potential disaster at sea. He said: 'The oil booms, used to clean up and contain spills, are stored inland at Ely. It would take five hours to get them to shore.'

Southwold town councillor Simon Tobin said: 'I hope that full safety systems are in place and that the oil booms might be better placed – though we understand this may not be sufficient in the event of an oil catastrophe.

'Further safety measures need to be in place – and the community need reassurance.'