Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the Pollution Prevention and Control (Fees) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2022 were laid before the House on 25 April 2022. I will refer to these regulations as the fees regulations.
As the environmental regulator of the offshore oil and gas sector, which I shall refer to as the offshore hydrocarbons sector, BEIS’s Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning, which I shall refer to as OPRED, recoups the cost of its regulatory functions from the offshore hydrocarbons sector rather than the taxpayer footing the bill. OPRED minimises the impact of the offshore hydrocarbons sector on the environment by, for example, controlling air emissions and discharges to sea and minimising disturbance over the life cycle of operations, from seismic surveys to post-decommissioning monitoring.
Regulatory activities for which OPRED can recover costs are covered in two ways: within a suite of regulations that are covered by the fees regulations, and by five fees schemes which are not, as they do not require legislative change and will be amended administratively. OPRED’s annual fees income is on average £6.2 million, which is recovered from around 120 companies, which are billed quarterly. OPRED recovers its costs via fees based on hourly rates.
The fees regulations will revise the hourly rates used to calculate fees payable by the offshore hydrocarbons sector. The fees relate to the provision of regulatory functions in relation to the environmental management of offshore operations. Currently, the fees that OPRED charges for providing regulatory services are based on hourly rates of £197 for environmental specialists and £108 for non-specialists. Environmental specialists are qualified technical staff who carry out the legislative functions of the Secretary of State, and non-specialists are administrative staff who support them.
The current hourly rates have been in force since June 2021. OPRED reviewed the cost base and concluded that the existing hourly rates need revising to reflect the present costs to OPRED of providing specific regulatory services. The fees regulations will therefore amend the charging provisions by increasing the existing hourly rate for environmental specialists to £201 and decreasing the current hourly rate for non-specialists to £104. As the changes relate to cost recovery, they do not represent monetary changes linked to inflation.
OPRED’s fees are determined by adding together the recorded number of hours worked by environmental specialists and non-specialists on cost-recoverable activities, multiplied by the hourly rates. The new hourly rates were approved by Her Majesty’s Treasury in March 2022 and were calculated in line with the Treasury’s Managing Public Money guidance. They cover the expenditure on all resources used by OPRED to support cost-recoverable activities—for example, staff salaries, accommodation, IT and office services, and corporate services such as human resources, senior management, legal, finance and learning and development.
Guidance on OPRED’s fee-charging regimes is published and clearly explains the scope of the cost-recoverable functions undertaken by OPRED and how the costs are to be calculated and recovered. The cost-recoverable functions undertaken by OPRED include, for example: the evaluation of applications and issuing of consents for seismic surveys, and the conducting of appropriate assessments of the likely significant environmental effects of proposed projects; assessing and approving operators’ oil pollution emergency plans; and compliance monitoring activities, including offshore environmental inspections.
The fees to be paid will be revised by a small amount, sufficient only to allow OPRED to recover its eligible costs. OPRED’s guidance on its fee-charging regime will be revised to reflect the new hourly rates. Those who OPRED charge are aware that the hourly rates are reviewed annually. Although there was no statutory requirement to consult on the fees regulations, in April 2022 OPRED informed the offshore hydrocarbons sector of the planned revisions to the hourly rates, and no representations were received.
Therefore, I conclude by emphasising the importance of the revisions to the hourly rates being introduced by the fees regulations. The revisions will enable OPRED to recover the costs of providing regulatory services from those who benefit from them, instead of these costs being passed on to the taxpayer. The fees regulations will be debated by the House of Commons tomorrow, 24 May. I therefore commend the draft fees regulations to the House.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on bringing forward these regulations, which seem perfectly reasonable. I thank the environmental specialists and non-specialists for the crucial work they do in this sector.
I have just one small question to ask my noble friend, if I may. If you look at the same regulations from last year, we seem to be reversing the rate that was agreed for the non-specialist workforce. I think the rate was increased from £101 to £108 last year, so I would like to understand why the Government have decided to cut that back to £104.
My noble friend has just told us that there were no responses to the consultation, so one has to accept that no alarm was expressed by the non-specialist sector. For my greater understanding, can he explain what proportion of the workforce are environmental specialists, as opposed to non-specialists? Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that
“the total amount to be recovered by OPRED in FY 2022/2023 will be broadly similar to the average received in previous years”.
On what assumption is that based? Is the increase in environmental specialists being covered by the reduction in the non-specialist sector in order to keep it within that envelope?
With those few remarks, I welcome the regulations before us.
My Lords, I will speak to the regulations very briefly. This is one of the briefest SIs I have ever had to speak to, and it seems utterly bizarre that we are having this discussion about a very minor matter. This is an area I have interest in because I was on the Science and Technology Committee in 1996, looking at the decommissioning of oil and gas rigs. I even went out to one of the rigs at the time.
I want to raise two questions. When we conducted the original committee report and it was debated, it was assumed that metal pipework that was to be laid would be left in the ground and forgotten about. I declare my interest as chairman of the UK Metals Expo. I went to an interesting presentation on the value of the metal in the pipework in the North Sea. Of course, if it has value it is quite likely to be dredged up again, but that will have environmental issues associated with it. Is this being taken into account by OPRED? Is the value of that metalwork being assessed?
The second question concerns the Government’s long-term views on removing large structures. The very large gas rigs still in place are surrounded by drilling offsets, which was a normal aspect, but of course a lot of oil and pollution is then tied up around the base of these structures. If they are to be removed from the seabed, there will be a great deal of localised pollution in that operation. Have the Government looked at a recent report? No report had been carried out on that issue at that point.
I will finish there because it is so brief a report. On that basis I actually read the whole report, and I was quite amused by a slight error in paragraph 8.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum.
I thank the Minister for putting forward these proposals, which are, as we have heard, rather inconsequential and unremarkable. There is nothing I want to add by way of commentary, but I have a few questions.
First, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked, can the Minister explain why the fee for specialists has risen at the same time as the fee for non-specialists has fallen? If it is to do with numbers, can he explain the reason for this change in the balance between specialists and non-specialists?
Secondly, the fees received have remained the same as the previous average, £6.2 million. In the Government’s assessment, is this is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future, bearing in mind what the noble Lord has said?
Thirdly, while I understand that no formal representations were made by the industry regarding OPRED’s plans, can the Minister say whether any informal opinions were given and whether the industry as a whole is satisfied by the proposals? I look forward to his response.
I thank noble Lords for their brief contributions to this debate, which reflect the relatively uncontroversial nature of the regulations. As I said in my introduction, the regulations will enable OPRED to recover its costs for the provision of regulatory services under the offshore oil and gas environmental legislative regime, as opposed to the alternative—those costs being borne by the taxpayer.
The annual fees income is, on average, £6.2 million, which represents around 65% of the cost of running OPRED’s environmental operations unit. The total running cost of around £10 million per year includes the cost of the office in Aberdeen and corporate support provided from London.
In terms of chargeable activities, OPRED considers the environmental implications of all offshore oil and gas operations before issuing permits and consents covering areas as diverse as seismic surveys, marine licences, oil pollution emergency plans, chemical permits, oil discharge permits and consents to locate permissions for offshore installations. OPRED reviews around 3,000 applications for permits and consents annually. In addition, there is a regular programme of monitoring and inspections to ensure compliance with environmental regulations.
As I said in my introduction, in line with the Treasury’s Managing Public Money guidance, OPRED does not charge for policy work—for example, the enacting of new or revisions to existing offshore environmental legislation—and nor is OPRED able to charge for enforcement activity, such as prosecutions. OPRED is proposing the fees regulations pursuant to a power that requires an affirmative procedure. This is because the changes allowing OPRED to recoup the costs for the provision of regulatory services are not alterations to reflect changes in the value of money.
Questions were asked by both my noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, about what proportion of the workforce are specialists, compared with non-specialists. Both also asked for an explanation of the fee rise for specialists and the reasons for the change. The revisions to the hourly rates reflect changes to OPRED’s staffing levels and associated costs, plus corporate costs such as IT, accommodation, human resources and finance, which are allocated on a per-head basis. There are 53 staff who work in the offshore environmental unit, of whom 40 are environmental specialists and 13 are non-specialists. The reduction for non-specialists is largely due to a reduction in London corporate costs; the increase for specialists relates to an increase in the cost for advice from statutory nature conservation bodies.
The question from the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, was nothing to do with these regulations, but I am happy to take it back to the department and send the noble Lord a reply in writing. As I said in my introduction, about 45% of the cost of running OPRED is currently recovered from the offshore hydrocarbons sector through these fees.
With the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, to whom I will write, I hope I have answered the questions raised by noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh. Therefore, I commend the draft fees regulations to the Committee.