Scottish MEPs this afternoon hailed a major victory when a call to end all new drilling for oil in European waters was overturned in the European Parliament.
MEPs on the Environment Committee last month voted in favour of a moratorium in the wake of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
But when the issue moved to the full European Parliament for approval this afternoon it was kicked into touch.
The Committee wanted the ban until uniform oil rig safety standards and procedures were introduced to reduce the chance of a “Deepwater Horizon” disaster happening in EU waters.
But a 323-285 vote approved an amendment deleting the moratorium call from a resolution on ensuring high safety standards in European offshore oil drilling.
Scottish Liberal Democrat MEP George Lyon said it was a victory for common sense, adding: “A drilling ban would have had a disproportionate effect on Scotland as we have some of the most promising areas for development.
“UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne made it clear on a visit to a platform off Shetland yesterday that the government would fight to maintain drilling activity in the North Sea and I am pleased MEPs have backed up that position.”
Mr Lyon said safety standards in the North Sea were already among the toughest in the world: “Although disasters like that in the Gulf of Mexico give pause for thought, it is vital that we do not take steps that will undermine the strong action that has been taken since Piper Alpha.”
SNP MEPs Alyn Smith and Ian Hudghton also welcomed what they called a “surprise victory”.
SNP President Mr Hudghton commented: “We have all been horrified by the Gulf of Mexico disaster and lessons clearly need to be learnt. But it was ridiculous to suggest that Scotland’s oil industry, with its first-rate safety record, should be jeopardised by such a knee-jerk reaction.”
“This vote will also be seen as a rebuke for those who want to see the European Commission gain powers over oil and gas resources. It is for Scotland’s democratically-elected institutions, working with our neighbours, to shape the future of our oil and gas exploration in a responsible way. I look forward to the day when an independent Scotland has full control over its natural resources.”
Mr Smith added: “I’m glad that my fellow MEPs were persuaded that a ban would be a knee-jerk reaction.
“Today’s decision recognises the rigorous standards already in place in Scottish waters. We have over 40 years’ experience of drilling in harsh conditions in the North Sea. In that time, more than 300 wells have been bored in water deeper then 300 feet, without a blow-out or other drilling accident.
But he warned the issue would not disappear – because the Commission is due to unveil proposals later this month which may still include plans for a moratorium.
Mr Smyth acknowledged: “We have an ongoing job to reassure our European colleagues that our standards are indeed as high as they need to be. The next step is working with the governments of Europe to ensure that new safety proposals lead to high standards across the continent.”
Scottish Conservative Struan Stevenson commented: “Our oil industry is renowned for its safety and security technology which we export worldwide. Initial indications show that systems in place in UK waters would have been much better placed to handle an incident like that in the Gulf of Mexico.
“There will be a review into safety procedures in all drilling operations following the devastating spill off the USA and we must remain vigilant to any risks to the environment. However, we also cannot shut down an entire industry around the UK when our safety culture here is totally different and the track record is strong.
He added: “We risked sending the global oil industry a terrible signal that would have jeopardised millions, if not billions, of pounds-worth of orders for our state-of-the-art technology. Instead, we have said that we will learn the lessons of the Gulf of Mexico disaster without sending our valuable oil industry up in smoke.”
About 10% of EU oil comes from deep-sea drilling operations similar to BP’s Deepwater Horizon.
Last year 130 development wells were drilled in the North Sea and 66 have been registered in the first half of 2010, according to Government figures.