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Offshore Exploration

Volume 892: debated on Monday 12 May 1975

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9.

asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether exploration activity is now increasing in United Kingdom waters.

The level of offshore drilling activity on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf is expected to be higher in 1975 than in 1974. Experience in 1975 has so far conformed to this pattern.

Will the right hon. Gentleman say why he believes that exploration activity is increasing when British Petroleum and other oil producers believe that in the coming year it will fall by as much as 60 per cent. because of uncertainties about the future price of oil, the Government's policy of participation and the fears that inflation in this country is now completely out of hand?

The reason why I am confident is that the figures speak for themselves. There are 28 rigs operating at present on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf. That figure compares with an average of 25 for last year, and our estimate of rig activity for this year is about 30.

In view of the decision to promote exploration for oil on land as well as in the North Sea, will my right hon. Friend ensure that, if significant finds are made on land, especially in Derbyshire, his Department will co-operate with the Department of the Environment and local authorities to ensure the preservation of environmental amenities?

Of course I can give that assurance. Exploration licences have been granted. If there were oil finds, planning procedures would still be necessary.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Opposition genuinely do not know whether his advisers do not understand the position about rigs or whether he is refusing to accept their advice? Does he recognise that the presence of rigs in action on the North Sea now is the result of contracts made up to two years ago and that what matters is what is happening to the contracts for the next two years of drilling? Will he listen to the advice of the industry on this important matter?

Of course I am prepared to listen to the advice of the industry. I know that before the February election last year the right hon. Gentleman said that, as a result of Labour policies, all the rigs in the North Sea would go away. Contrary to that, as I have shown, activity is higher this year than before. We shall keep the matter under review. We are anxious that exploration activity should go ahead. Development activity is equally important and we must concentrate on that, too.

What consideration has the right hon. Gentleman given to the establishment of separate oil corporations for the different countries of the British Isles? Does he appreciate that we in Scotland wish to see development and exploitation in English waters before the Scottish resources are finally dried up? Does he also appreciate that we wish fields south of the border to be explored, investigated and developed so that we can get the English balance of payments problem off our backs?

The question of a separate oil corporation for Scotland makes no more sense than having a separate National Coal Board, a separate Steel Corporation or a separate anything else for Scotland. If that were the case with energy resources, the Scottish people would be worse off. For example, the cross-subsidisation that takes place between Midlands and Yorkshire coal helps to some extent to make sure that the Scottish coal industry continues.