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Oil and Gas: UK Continental Shelf

Volume 768: debated on Tuesday 9 February 2016

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they intend to take to assist the viability of oil and gas exploration and development on the United Kingdom continental shelf in the light of the reduced price of oil.

My Lords, during his visit to Aberdeen on 28 January, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister set out an action plan to help build a bridge to the future for the industry. This includes a £20 million package of new investment in exploration, innovation and skills, and a new oil and gas ambassador.

My Lords, the oil and gas industry is probably facing its worst ever crisis since it was established more than 60 years ago. Will the Government now scrap the supplementary charge and will they clarify the liabilities on decommissioning which might help that to proceed? This industry has provided tens of billions of pounds worth of investment and hundreds of thousands of jobs for many decades. Will the Government ensure that their action plan will enable it to do so for many decades into the future?

My Lords, it is true that representations have been made on the fiscal front and the Chancellor will be considering those. We must recognise that it is not all doom and gloom. Bob Dudley, the chief executive of BP, said last month that the North Sea remained viable economically and would be for decades to come.

My Lords, is it not quite obvious by now that Scotland and the oil industry have benefited enormously from having the strength of the United Kingdom around them? Had the Scottish people voted for independence, they would not have been able to benefit from the wider resources of the United Kingdom and the Prime Minister’s welcome involvement in supporting the oil industry in the north-east of Scotland.

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right about the strength of the United Kingdom and the resilience that it has afforded to the oil industry over a period of time. Long may that resilience continue.

My Lords, Scotland has its very own carbon crisis. The Minister mentioned a supplementary tax. That was imposed in the 2011 Budget and increased from 20% to 32% on the basis that oil prices had doubled. They have now crashed from $114 a barrel—happy days for the SNP—to less than $30 a barrel. There must be a compelling case for scrapping that supplementary tax in its entirety and engaging once again with Sir Ian Wood and others to ensure that, in a bleak global environment, there is at least some viable future for the North Sea oil industry.

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that the fall in oil prices is an international problem. He will be aware that there was fiscal reform in the 2015 Budget, with a £1.3 billion injection of extra help over five years through tax cuts. As I have said, the Chancellor will look at representations that have been made to him.

My Lords, are the Government considering a direct subsidy of development capex for exploration and production companies on the UK continental shelf, such as is given to similar companies in Norway?

My Lords, the package that the Prime Minister announced on 28 January includes £20 million of new investment in seismic exploration. This will be of assistance, together with the City Deal package for Aberdeen which includes a new innovation energy centre. I hope that the noble Lord will welcome it.

Will my noble friend please bear in mind that although this is a major problem for the north-east of Scotland and the Grampian area in particular, the oil and gas industry and exploration on the continental shelf have generated much wealth for the whole of this country, and therefore tackling the particular issues of the continental shelf will benefit large parts of the nation’s economy?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right about the benefits to the whole of the United Kingdom from oil and gas exploration. He will be aware that two massive new fields to the west of Shetland were opened today by Total in Laggan and Tormore, which is very good news.

My Lords, when Sir Ian Wood published his recommendations two years ago, oil was indeed trading at a much higher price than it is today, with the price now dipping to below $30 a barrel. Will the Minister inform the House what effect the Government think this has had on the strength of the recommendation of the Wood review report?

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that the Government have given high priority to ensuring that the recommendations of the Wood report are taken through into law. That is now happening through the Energy Bill, as the noble Lord is aware, so I think that indicates our clear commitment. He is absolutely right; this is a global problem but we are doing what we can domestically to ensure that the UK industry has all the support necessary.

My Lords, as I well recall from my time as Energy Secretary, the North Sea oil and gas has had a glorious past. However, is it not clear that its future can be only a shadow of what it has been, and that the future of our indigenous oil and gas industry must lie in the exploitation of our shale resources, which are quite substantial? Will my noble friend undertake to go ahead with that as fast as he possibly can?

My Lords, I am very much aware that my noble friend has a very distinguished record as a former Energy Secretary. However, I do not think it is true to say that the oil industry is entering a period where its significance is diminished. It is perhaps not what it was, but it is still of enormous importance. The two oil fields to which I referred will be able, when at maximum production, to supply energy to 2 million homes. However, he is absolutely right about the importance of shale and the Government are determined to go ahead with exploration for it.

My Lords, will the Minister comment on the reports in today’s press that the Chancellor is expected to raise taxes on the oil industry at a time when consumers are not really seeing a reduction in price at the petrol pumps? Will he disabuse us of that idea?

My Lords, matters for the Budget are, of course, matters for the Chancellor. The noble Lord will know that I cannot comment on that.

Further to the question of my noble friend Lord Lawson, what is the projected life of the Total gas fields in Shetland?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise the importance of the Laggan and Tormore fields. They will be there for a substantial period. I am not sure about the precise period but, as I say, it is a massive find. The greatest part of the energy fields yet unexplored remain to the west of the Shetland Islands and are of massive importance to the country.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a Lancashire resident. Will the Minister care to take away and reflect on the fact that there is great concern and anger at government suggestions that local people should be taken out of the decision-making process for future fracking? Will he care to comment on the fact that all the fracking decisions this Government have taken tend towards the north? Does he envisage any fracking taking place for oil or gas in the south of England, where Conservative support is concentrated?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that decisions on fracking are taken by planning authorities; they are not a matter for the Government. She will be aware that there are potential fracking areas throughout the country. That, of course, will be something that planning authorities will take forward.