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Offshore Oil and Gas Licensing (25th Round)

Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 20 February 2008

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
(Mr. John Hutton)

I am pleased to inform the House that I am today inviting applications for petroleum licences for unlicensed seaward blocks which will form the 25th round of offshore petroleum licensing. These blocks are located in the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) areas 1-7. A map of the SEA areas can be found on the website indicated below, and copies have also been placed in the Libraries of the House.

Strategic environmental assessment (SEA)—post-adoption procedures

BERR’s draft plan to offer licences for offshore oil and gas exploration and production through a 25th licensing round was the subject of a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) initiated in 2005. The SEA is documented on a dedicated website——and includes commissioned reports on various components of the natural environment, cultural features and socio-economic considerations. In addition, as part of the SEA new information was collected, for example on selected seabed features through seafloor mapping, sampling and photography, and on the offshore distribution of small cetaceans. The draft plan for the 25th licensing round included offering blocks to the west of the Hebrides, and also in those areas that had been subject to earlier BERR SEAs—SEAs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6—which covered the UK North sea exclusive economic zone and the UK EEZ in the Irish sea and to the north and west of Orkney and Shetland.

The potential implications of the exploration and production activities which could follow if the draft plan was adopted were considered at an expert assessment workshop and a stakeholder workshop. The results of these workshops were assessed further and documented in an environmental report which then formed the basis for consultation with the consultation bodies and the public. The initiation of a 3 month consultation period on BERR’s draft plan and environmental report was advertised in a number of local and national newspapers and by email notification to a wide range of individuals and organisations.

All responses received from statutory and other consultees on the draft plan and the environmental report have been considered by BERR and a post-consultation report for SEA 7 prepared and placed on the SEA website. This summarises consultee comments and BERR responses to them. The full texts of consultee comments have also been placed on the SEA website.

In deciding to proceed with a 25th offshore licensing round BERR has considered the conclusions and recommendations of the SEA 7 environmental report together with feedback received from consultees. As a result of the SEA process, blocks west of 14 degrees west are being withheld from licensing for the present on environmental grounds.

A number of blocks excluded on the basis of recommendations of previous SEAs, or those currently in the process of appropriate assessment consultation will also not be offered.

The SEA recommended that the blocks in or overlapping with the boundaries of the Moray firth and Cardigan Bay SACs should also be withheld from licensing for the present whilst the further assessments initiated following the 24th Licensing Round applications are concluded. We have therefore excluded 11 blocks in the Cardigan bay area and 10 in the Moray firth.

In addition, 126 blocks will not be offered for licensing in the areas covered by SEAs 1-7 at the request of the Ministry of Defence due to them being intense military test areas.

Licensing of these blocks may be revisited in the future, for example as more information on the features of interest becomes available. In addition, a number of blocks may be licensed but with conditions attached restricting or prohibiting marine activities. It should be noted that the Offshore Petroleum Production and Pipe- lines (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations 1999 and the Offshore Petroleum Activities (Conservation of Habitats) Regulations 2001 variously require that all major activities undertaken in connection with UK offshore hydrocarbon exploration and production include environmental assessment as part of consenting.

Before any licence awards are made, an appropriate assessment will be undertaken to assess whether exploration licences applied for in the 25th round will have any adverse effects on the integrity of Natura 2000 sites. This is required under EU Council Directive 79/409 EEC on “The conservation of wild birds” and Council Directive 92/43/EEC on “The conservation of natural habitats and wild fauna and flora’, and UK implementing regulations.

BERR has, with industry and statutory environmental advisors, established an offshore oil and gas environmental monitoring committee which is charged with coordinating the strategic monitoring of potentially significant environmental effects of the industry, including those that could arise from the implementation of the plan to hold a 25th round of offshore licensing.