Dirty Dealings

A disastrous conflict of interest ensures that the government won’t stop oil pollution

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian

For the last few years, the dirty man of Europe has been dropping his trousers with impunity. He has horrified his neighbours with torrents of unspeakable filth, and done the most shameful things to himself. All attempts to stop him have been in vain – he has merely gathered his overcoat around himself and shuffled off to another bush. Now, at last, the groundsmen have promised to act, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll succeed. For the man has been recognized by his victims: the filthiest flasher of all is no less than the park keeper himself.

Yesterday morning, Michael Meacher announced bold new curbs on the pollutants that British industry delights in pouring into the sea. He would, he asserted, rescind Britain’s special exemption from the European ban on dumping nuclear waste and discourage the disposal of oil and gas installations (like the Brent Spar) at sea. The government would reduce other hazardous marine pollutants to almost zero by the year 2020. He was widely applauded, and rightly so: Britain’s record on marine pollution is possibly the worst in the world.

Not only do we pour far more toxic waste into the sea than any other European country, but the North Sea’s currents also ensure that our discharges could scarcely be more damaging. Heavy metals accumulate in some of the most important fishing grounds: on the Dogger Bank, for example, a staggering proportion of the catch is now covered in running sores and hideous growths. Dragged by a gigantic anti-clockwise gyre, our filth ends up lapping the beaches of Holland and Germany.

British oilrigs are now surrounded by small mountains of toxic sludge, in which no sea life whatsoever can survive. Thanks to Sellafield, the Irish Sea is now believed to be the most radioactive sea in the world, worse even than the nuclear test site at Mururoa and unfit for bathing.

Welcome as Michael Meacher’s pledges are, however, his ability to honour them is questionable. The regulation of the most persistant and deadly polluters rests not with his Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions but, curiously, with the Department of Trade and Industry, which also happens to be the body responsible for promoting them. There has never been much doubt about where its loyalties lie. For the last few years the DTI has actively conspired to permit the pollution it is charged with curtailing.

It has made no secret of some of its exertions on the polluters’ behalf. Its civil servants are encouraged to do all they can to pervert European attempts to close the loopholes British industry exploits. The committees preparing Britain’s negotiating positions are overwhelmingly composed of representatives of the very industries they are intended to restrain.

Until 1994, the DTI employed a single inspector to cover the entire oil industry. It has no records of any visits he made or any data he collected: environmentalists wonder whether he did anything at all. Today there are six part-time inspectors, but they have managed so far to examine only ten per cent of the North Sea’s oil rigs. All their visits are pre-arranged. Characteristically, the oil operator itself flies the inspector out to the rigs – the companies, in other words, have plenty of time to prepare for his arrival. The oil producers have been released from their duty to conduct environmental impact assessments, which is why their expansion into the Atlantic is so perilous.

More alarming still, however, are the services the DTI has sought to conceal. In June, the Marine Conservation Society received a leaked letter sent by the department to the UK Offshore Operators Association, an oil industry trade body. The civil servant “thought you might wish to warn your members” that the Marine Conservation Society was “pushing ever harder for the release of environmental information”, which the department had a legal duty to supply. “We may,” it went on, “therefore find ourselves obliged to provide the data and any views you had on this would be welcome.”

Before the election, Michael Meacher promised to sort all this out. There would, he said, be unannounced spot checks, proper environmental assessments and a review of the regulatory arrangements. After the election, Angela Eagle, a minister in the same department, revealed that “the Government has no proposals for change”. Yet again, the Department of Trade and Industry has shown its colleagues where true power lies.

While the DTI, furtive and filthy, still lurks in the bushes, the straight-laced officers of the Environment Agency will keep out of the park. Utterly discredited, unwilling and unable to pull its trousers, let alone its socks up, the Department of Trade and Industry is a national embarrasment. Like any other pervert, it needs to be confronted. It is time to drive it out of the grounds and find ourselves a new keeper.