, Cavan): The main purposes of this Bill are (a) to enable Ireland to become a party to the International Convention relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties, 1969, (b) to enable Ireland to accept certain amendments to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil, 1954, (c) to extend and strengthen the powers of the Minister for Transport and Power in relation to oil pollution of the sea, and (d) to resolve a jurisdictional difficulty in relation to the Oil Pollution of the Sea Acts, 1956 and 1965, and to increase the penalties for offences under these Acts.
The problem of oil pollution of the sea is not a new one but it has become particularly serious over the last 20 years or so during which time the volume of oil carried by sea has increased very substantially. In the past, oil pollution of the sea occurred mainly through the practice of dumping oil residues from tankers at sea. Nowadays, however, because of the vastly increased quantities of oil being carried by sea in tankers of ever-increasing size, a major threat is also posed by spillages following marine casualties. The Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO), of which Ireland is a member, decided to take the initiative in promoting international agreements to strengthen the hands of coastal states. To date IMCO has adopted four conventions dealing with the problem of oil pollution. This Bill is concerned with two of these:
the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil, 1954; and
the International Convention relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties, 1969.
Two further conventions—the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage, 1969, and the International Convention relating to the Establishment of an International Fund for Oil Pollution Damage, 1971—deal with civil liability in cases of oil pollution damage and provide for the setting up of an international compensation fund to meet the cost of major spillages. Legislation to enable Ireland to ratify these latter conventions is at an advanced stage of preparation and I would hope to present it to the House for consideration later this year.
The purpose of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil, 1954, which was drafted prior to the advent of the mammoth tankers, is to reduce the risk of pollution of the sea by oil discharged from ships. The principal means adopted in 1954 was the designation of certain zones of the sea into which the discharge of oil was prohibited. Amendments to strengthen the convention were adopted by IMCO in April, 1962. Both the convention and the 1962 amendments are in force internationally, that is, they have been adopted by the requisite number of states in respect of their own ships and are implemented in Ireland by the Oil Pollution of the Sea Acts, 1956 and 1965. IMCO adopted further amendments to the 1954 Convention in October, 1969 and October, 1971. The 1969 amendments will come into force internationally on 20th January, 1978. The 1971 amendments have not yet received the required number of ratifications.
The purpose of the amendments adopted in 1969 is to ensure more effective control of the discharge of oil into the sea by ships. This is done by introducing more restrictive controls and by making the whole sea, rather than certain specified sections, a prohibited area as far as unrestricted discharges are concerned; tighter restrictions are, moreover, imposed on all discharges—including, for example, discharges of ballast—in areas within 50 miles of land. The ultimate object of these amendments, as expressed in the Assembly Resolution adopting the amendments, is to enable significant progress to be made towards the achievement of complete avoidance of discharges. The principal amendments adopted in October, 1971, establish requirements relating to tank arrangements and the limitation of tank sizes of tankers in order to minimise pollution of the sea by oil in the event of an accident involving a large oil tanker. A further amendment adopted in 1971 deals with the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, that great natural phenomenon of coral reefs and cays off the Australian coast. Although the amendment is of no practical significance to us, we intend to accept it as, by doing so, we will be contributing towards its entry into force.
Senators may have difficulty in relating the foregoing to the various provisions of the Bill. I should explain that the sections dealing with the amendments to the 1954 Convention are, basically, sections 9, 12, 13 and 18. These are couched in general terms and the actual implementation of the 1969 and 1971 amendments will be done by way of statutory orders and regulations. For example, the 1971 amendments relating to tank sizes will be implemented by a statutory instrument made under section 16 of the Oil Pollution of the Sea Act, 1956, as amended by section 12 of the present Bill. This section enables me to make regulations concerning the construction and fitting of ships with a view to the prevention or reduction of oil pollution.
Sections 2 to 5, inclusive, provide in detail for the implementation of the International Convention relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties, 1969. This convention arose from a special international legal conference which was convened by IMCO in Brussels in 1969 in the wake of the Torrey Canyon incident. IMCO accepted that there were serious deficiencies in the powers available to coastal states for dealing with shipping casualties involving large tankers and the consequential risk of major pollution of coastlines.
Bearing in mind that existing maritime law embodies the principle of freedom of the seas, IMCO decided it was essential to adopt an international agreement which would empower coastal states to take whatever action might be necessary to safeguard their coasts. Accordingly the intervention convention authorises a coastal state to intervene and take measures, by sinking or towing away offending vessels, to protect its coastal and other related interests whenever such a casualty occurs.
The convention stipulates the conditions under which, and the procedures through which, such measures are to be taken. A state which took measures that went beyond what was reasonably necessary to achieve the ends stated in the convention would be obliged to pay compensation for any damage resulting from such unjustified action. The convention also provides for the settlement of disputes which might arise from such measures. It is intended that Ireland will ratify the convention, which came into force internationally on 6th May, 1975, as soon as possible after this Bill becomes law.
I trust Senators will appreciate that, while the powers conferred on me by section 2 of the Bill are, on first glance, virtually without limit, there are two effective controls on the exercise of such powers. Firstly, they may only be used in cases where there is grave and imminent danger of major harmful consequences arising from a maritime casualty involving oil pollution. Secondly, section 3 of the Bill provides recourse to the courts for compensation for any person who establishes that any action taken under the Bill was unreasonably severe or unnecessary. I consider these are adequate safeguards and I feel sure I reflect the wishes of the House when I say I sincerely hope that the circumstances which would make it necessary for me to act under section 2 will never arise.
I should, of course, point out that the convention only relates to intervention in cases on the high seas. As it is within the competence of Governments to enact legislation in regard to intervention within their territories without the sanction of an international agreement, the convention did not concern itself with territorial waters. The Bill is structured so that it will be possible to apply its provisions to Irish ships and to Irish territorial waters in advance of applying such provisions to foreign ships outside territorial waters.
Section 7 of the Bill, dealing with the place of commission of an oil pollution offence, is designed to remedy a defect which has been discovered in the Oil Pollution Acts. Briefly, the problem is that, while the 1956 and 1965 Acts clearly created the offence of polluting the sea by oil, they did not, it has recently emerged, confer jurisdiction on any court to try such offences. The areas of jurisdiction of the District Courts are fixed by reference to the district electoral divisions, and do not, therefore, extend to our territorial waters. As summary proceedings are dealt with at District Court level and proceedings on indictment are initiated at that level, it is clear that, as the Act stands, no future proceedings could be initiated for offences under them. Section 7 remedies this defect in a manner which is used in many other instances, for example, fisheries protection and air hijackings.
Finally, the present Bill extends and updates the provisions of the 1956 and 1965 Oil Pollution of the Sea Acts, mainly by increasing substantially the various fines for offences under the Acts. It also grants additional powers to oil pollution inspectors, the most important being that such inspectors will in future be empowered to take samples of oil from any ship. This will assist in the sometimes difficult task of assigning responsibility for a particular spillage. A further important strengthening of the law is effected by section 6 of the Bill which provides powers to detain vessels which are suspected of being in breach of the Acts.
To summarise, therefore, this Bill will enable Ireland to ratify and implement the latest internationally-accepted law on the subject of oil pollution offences. The Bill recognises the fact that, although Ireland is an island, we do not live in isolation. Our interest lies in full support of international measures to prevent pollution. It is only fair to emphasise here that Irish shipowners in general have an excellent record in this field and, indeed, I am satisfied that foreign ships calling at Irish ports also have due regard for the desirability of keeping our seas free from pollution. This Bill and the 1956 and 1965 Acts provide adequate controls and where necessary, deterrents in the form of fines and possible imprisonment. As such I hope the shipowners' and the general public's awareness of the potential seriousness of the problem of oil pollution will be heightened and that we may thus move nearer to the goal of a cleaner marine environment.
I commend the Bill to the House.