New sanctions proposed in revised offshore EA rules

Revised draft regulations to apply the 1985 EC Directive on environmental assessment to offshore oil and gas projects were issued by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in February.1 The proposals contain new sanctions for breaches of the regulations or project consents and for submission of false information.

The regulations will end several years' procrastination by the DTI in applying the EC Directive to offshore oil and gas schemes, which should have been done by 1988. Initial draft rules were issued last July (ENDS Report 270, pp 35-36 ).

The revised draft regulations will require environmental assessment of wells, pipelines and any projects aimed at the "getting of petroleum" unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that they will not have a "significant" effect on the environment. Offshore exploration activities are not covered.

The DTI has gone a step further than the previous draft by proposing that the regulations should implement slightly ahead of time one aspect of last year's amendment of the 1985 Directive. The amending Directive, which is due to be brought into force by March 1999, classes three types of development as "Annex I" projects for which assessment is always mandatory. These are projects producing more than 500 tonnes of oil per day or 500,000 m3 of gas per day, and pipelines over 800mm diameter and more than 40 kilometres long. The draft regulations would implement these requirements.

Another change is tougher sanctions for non-compliance. The original draft regulations would have allowed any person with a "sufficient interest" to apply for a court order to quash an offshore development consent where the environmental assessment requirements had been breached. Under the new rules, "any person" may make such an application.

In addition, the Secretary of State herself will now be able to apply for a court order where an offshore project is carried out without consent - and, by implication, without complying with the assessment requirements - or in breach of environmental conditions in the consent. The courts will be able to order the removal of the works concerned and reinstatement of the site.

These are tough sanctions which will probably never be used, but the DTI - under fire from environmentalists for its oversight of the offshore industry - probably felt that they would show that it was intent on improving its act. The provisions may have a knock-on effect, since environmental organisations may now ask why similar penalties should not be included in the other regimes used to implement the EC rules.

The same may hold good for another new proposal that any person "knowingly or recklessly" submitting false information - whether by act or omission - as part of the environmental assessment process would be guilty of a criminal offence.

Other changes include an extension of the time allowed for the public to submit comments on environmental statements from two to four weeks, and a fuller statement of the procedure to be followed - including prior notification of the European Commission - where the Secretary of State "exceptionally" decides to exempt a project from the regulations and proposes some alternative form of assessment.

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