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North Sea: Geological Information

Volume 326: debated on Wednesday 15 December 1971

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will insert into the new North Sea oil and gas drilling licences a provision for the geological information acquired by the licensee to be made public after five years, as is already the case in the Norwegian and Danish sectors of the North Sea.]

My Lords, a five-year period is already specified. The Petroleum (Production) Regulations 1966, as modified by amending Regulations made in May, 1971, allow detailed geological information to be made public after five years from the end of the initial licence period and after a five-year interval subsequently. Disclosure of general geological information may be made three years earlier.

My Lords, will that five year publication provision apply to the aero-magnetic survey of the North Sea which has been made on behalf of a consortium of 20 commercial companies, the results of which have been passed to the Institute of Geological Sciences, and are being held by them in confidence, and which are referred to in the recent Natural Environment Research Council's publication called A Review of Recent Investigations of the Sea Bed on the Continental Margin around the British Isles?

My Lords, I was not aware of that, and I think the answer probably is that this would be of the nature of a preliminary exploration. The consortium may not have required a licence. If it was under an exploration licence, valid for three years, then the five year period would apply thereafter.

My Lords, would the noble Lord make it clear from his Answer whether there is an obligation to make this information public after five years, or whether it is merely permissive?

My Lords, the present position is that the information is made available with the consent of the licensee, but the consent may not be unreasonably withheld.

My Lords, does that mean that it is the policy of the Government to require this geological information to be made public or not?

My Lords, the question has not arisen yet, and in the nature of things it is unlikely to arise for some years. For existing licences the Government have no power to require the information to be made available. If consent is withheld it will be a question, presumably, for the courts to decide whether or not it is unreasonably withheld.

My Lords, this being a complicated situation, would the Government accept the following suggestion: that in future all geelogical information obtained by or on behalf of a commercial enterprise in the exercise of or allied to the exercise of a prospecting or exploiting licence under the sea around the British Isles should be made public after five years?

My Lords, I cannot accept that. The regulations prescribe the circumstances in which information can be made available. This is bound to depend on the circumstances. But I ought to say that, so far as any survey or exploration is concerned, there is a good deal of time, effort and money going into this, and those who spend that time and money should have the benefit of the results of the survey. Of course, the results are always available to the Government. If all the information were made automatically available it would cause a lot of people to sit back and wait for others to do the survey at the expense of those who instigated it.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the period of five years during which the information remains confidential is a quite sufficient incentive for people to do the necessary surveys'? Would he agree that information of this kind would be very beneficial to the country if it were made public after five years.

My Lords, it may be that in practice the information will come to be made public. It is true that the 1971 regulations make it possible for information to be made public where it was not made possible before.

My Lords, would the Minister undertake to put to his right honourable friend in the relevant Ministry the idea that this would be a very beneficial step to take, and put forward the proposition as suggested by my noble friend Lord Kennet?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, this is an extremely complicated matter, and I will take up the matter with the Minister concerned.