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Oil Exploitation: International Authority

Volume 374: debated on Tuesday 5 October 1976

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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, in view of the discovery of rich potential oil fields between the Bay of Biscay and Rockall beyond the 200-mile territorial limit, they will urge that the exploitation be conducted by the international authority as the common heritage of mankind.

My Lords, it is still far from certain whether potential oil fields exist in the area. In the view of Her Majesty's Government, the exploitation of all seabed resources up to the edge of the Continental margin falls, and should continue to fall, within the jurisdiction of the coastal Sate. The establishment of an international authority and its possible areas and method of operation are being discussed at the Law of the Sea Conference.

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for that reply. Is it not the case that drilling has taken place 230 miles west of the Hebrides, and there are optimistic reports about that drilling? If this is the case, will Her Majesty's Government seek to use this as a heritage of mankind and not for the profit of private companies?

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, the Law of the Sea Conference is engaged in constructive discussions precisely on this point—but not exclusively—about the future management of this area. There are other similar areas in the rest of the world. As to the possibility of finds in the area, which was mentioned in the Question, I repeat that it is impossible to say with certainty at this stage what the chances are of hydrocarbon resources being located in any particular parts of the Continental margin. At the moment our geological advice is that the prospects of commercial resources of hydrocarbons beyond the Continental margin in this areas are somewhat poor.

My Lords, will the Government press at the Law of the Sea Conference that where these mineral resources are found they will be used for the benefit of the whole of mankind as the heritage of the oceans, rather than for private companies?

My Lords, we shall do considerably more than that. We shall engage with the 140 other countries in working out the precise details of a workable system. It is not enough to press; one must plan.

My Lords, will the noble Lord remember that he is representing the interests of this country and that the true dilemma is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, pretended, between commercial enterprise and the whole of mankind, but the rights of the British Isles?

I had not quite finished my sentence, my Lords. Yes, there are the rights of this country with the rights of 142 others, which include among them developing coastal States. We have made absolutely clear the basis of British interests in this matter, and we shall stick to what we have made clear to this Conference. We are also confident that what we have advanced as British interests coincide with the best interests of the great majority of the cointries which are representated at this Conference.

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the problem involved with this kind of proposal is this: Who conducts the international authority? Experience tends to tell us that when 140 nations get together they are more interested in 140 interests than in the common purpose.

Nevertheless, my Lords, I would be interested in learning from my noble friend how otherwise we can organise an international convention dealing with five-sevenths of the globe.

My Lords, is the noble Lord not aware that no agreement has been reached about this matter for some time at the Law of the Sea Conference? If no agreement is reached in the near future, it is very likely that the United States, among others, will go it alone.

My Lords, that is indeed the danger, the probability. The Conference will reassemble for the sixth time next year in New York where the revised single negotiating text will, we hope, provide the basis for an international convention. I would not for a moment minimise the difficulties which lie ahead in trying to get what is, after all, an international convention covering five-sevenths of the globe, where a great many national, regional and other interests are in conflict.

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that, in the complex of 140 States, Britain ought to try to define what is meant by "British", because meanwhile we are grabbing, extending and intruding upon the common heritage of mankind. By defining what is supposed to be our legitimate interests, we are creating even greater problems than we are solving. We shall now have every other country, including America, successfully asserting their unilateral claims for areas whose present definition they have devised or contrived. When my friend asked the question about 240 miles, he was talking about the British Continental Shelf, which we have proceeded to redefine in weird ways, because we have taken over Rockall—

Several noble Lords: Order! Order!

Are you aware, my Lords, that we have taken over the Island of Rockall, which takes us some 350 miles into the Atlantic?

My Lords, I am aware of all these things, but I do not know that I agree with most of them. I do not think we can reasonably say that the British contribution to these very difficult and complex negotiations in five successive sessions of this conference has been exclusively nationalistic. We recognise that a viable international convention must emerge from a general consensus of view and interest, and indeed we are hopeful that if the British view is accepted generally such a convention will prove possible; but, as I have said, the way ahead is very hard and difficult.