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North Sea Gas

Volume 824: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made to reopen storage capacity for North Sea gas that has been closed since 2017.

My Lords, Great Britain has 1.5 billion cubic metres of gas storage capacity, which equates to approximately five days of peak January demand. Energy security is an absolute priority for the Government, and therefore we welcome Centrica taking the necessary steps to reopen the Rough storage facility this winter, which is its commercial decision. Last week, the North Sea Transition Authority granted its approval to Centrica to open Rough. Centrica has also received approvals from the Health and Safety Executive and Ofgem.

I thank the Minister for what I consider to be quite a positive Answer. However, does he agree that it is not alarmist to point out the bad decision of the then Chief Secretary, a former Shell employee, in 2017 to refuse the public contribution to maintaining the modest amount of gas storage in the Rough field? On the other hand, if it can be reopened this winter, Centrica was not telling the truth in 2017 about the safety and economic aspects of it. They cannot both be right. Is it not the case that we relied on the stock market and just in time, and this has cost the UK dear? We have a very low level of storage, as the Minister said, and Rough would give us an extra 10 days, compared to Italy which has 157 days. We are miles behind, and it is much better to have some security rather than the minimal amount that we have now. My final question is: can we stay part of the EU system for gas networks, if only for the fact that Ireland gets its gas via the UK?

The noble Lord has made a number of points that deserve an answer. First, it was a commercial decision for Centrica to close the Rough storage facility. Secondly, the reason that the UK has traditionally had lower levels of underground storage than the likes of Italy or Germany is precisely because 45% of our own capacity is from our own domestic resources, which is essentially a huge gas storage facility. We also have 20% of all the LNG unloading facilities in Europe, and in fact the UK has been taking the opportunity during the summer to help the EU, including Germany and other countries, to refill their storage capacities using our LNG import facilities, because they did not have enough of them. So it is a complicated picture, but energy security is a great priority for us, and we are well placed for it.

My Lords, I want to pick up on the final point that my noble friend just made and on the point that the noble Lord made in his question on the role of the interconnectors. I am sure that my noble friend will have read the Economic Affairs Committee report on energy which was published at the end of July. One of our main conclusions on the short-term issues was:

“There is no agreement in place between the UK and its European partners to manage energy supply emergencies. The Government should urgently seek an agreement with its … partners on energy cooperation.”

This concern has been echoed by many in the industry during the summer. Can my noble friend please tell us whether such an agreement is now in place and whether, as was pointed out earlier, the British Government will be sending a Minister to the emergency energy summit on Friday in Prague?

As I intimated in my previous answer, we are co-operating closely with the European Union, and as I said, throughout the summer, in the quiet months, the UK’s LNG terminals—we have 20% of the entire European capacity—have been working overtime precisely to help our European friends to refill their storage capacity in time for the winter months. Therefore, security is a top priority for us, and of course we work very closely with other suppliers such as Norway, with LNG suppliers, and with our European friends.

My Lords, it is incredible to me that Centrica, a private company, was just able to close our national gas storage facility without, it would seem, any consultation or intervention by the Government. What will stop that happening again in two or three years’ time?

We have received proposals from Centrica, which we are closely examining at the moment. I point out that the market in 2017 was in a very different position. A number of independent reports were produced by experts at the time, supporting that decision from Centrica. However, the situation is very different now, which is why it is now looking at reopening it.

My Lords, following on from that answer, I welcome the Government’s approach to reopening the gas storage facility in the North Sea. However, as the Minister just touched on, questions persist with regard to the safety of Rough wells, and these concerns, as he mentioned, are shared by many, including energy consultants and safety experts. This raises real concerns over the safety of reopening without extensive remedial work. Can the Minister say what measures the Government are putting in place to ensure the safety of both the facility and the workers, to make sure that they are protected?

As I said, the facility was closed in 2017 for commercial reasons, and that was not a decision for BEIS or Ministers at the time. The Government understand that Centrica is seeking all the necessary regulatory approvals to reopen the facility. The decisions to grant any and all approvals are of course taken by independent safety regulators; health and safety is their top priority.

My Lords, we are in the process of discussing an Energy Bill. I am sure the Government are correct when they say they take energy security very seriously. However, we are 85% dependent on gas for heating our homes and we in Britain have some of the leakiest homes. Just because we produce 45% does not mean we will actually be able to afford to buy it, so we need more intervention. In the Bill, there is a power to intervene in the market to secure core fuels. However, that applies only to oil products: petrol and diesel. Is it time to consider gas as a core fuel?

Gas is clearly a very important fuel. As I said, our sources of supply are diverse. We have 45% from our own North Sea production; we have secure supplies from Norway; we have 20% of the entire EU capacity of LNG storage regasification facilities. So we are well served, but we are not complacent about these matters. We keep a very close eye on what is a fast-evolving situation and take energy security as our top priority.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Bridges asked a very specific question about representation in Prague at the end of this week. My noble friend did not reply to that. Can he tell the House whether the UK will indeed be represented?

My Lords, is it not the case that it is not up to a private energy company to decide whether it provides a facility to safeguard British gas to the customers? It is the Government’s responsibility, and it is the Government who have failed to make sure that there is sufficient gas in case of an emergency.

We have not failed to make sure there is sufficient gas in case of emergency. As I just said, we get 45% of our supplies from our domestic sources; we have extensive LNG terminals; we have a good relationship with Norway, which has another part of the North Sea and supplies gas to the UK. We are much better served than the rest of the European Union in these matters.

Is the Minister really serious about this, and will what he advocates be in the plan which we receive tomorrow? There is so much concern, not only among ordinary families, who are desperately concerned in many cases, but among businesses. Only this morning, I had a message from a local businessman in my town of Conwy. He said that the amount his energy is going to cost this coming year is six times what it was in the past year, from £148,000 to £790,000. When we have businesses that are going to breach nearly £1 million to keep their business going, no wonder there is great consternation. What will the plan be about tomorrow?

I totally agree with the noble Lord. Of course, the issue of energy security is completely different from the issue of being able to afford it, and we are all, of course, all too painfully aware of the tremendous increases in gas prices in particular that have taken place recently. There will be important announcements tomorrow. The noble Lord will understand that I cannot tell him what they are at this stage, but he will not have long to wait to find out.

My Lords, following on from the questions of my noble friends Lord Bridges and Lord Cormack, I ask my noble friend to relay back to his department the concerns that have been expressed about the UK’s potential non-attendance at the meeting on Friday, and perhaps report back to interested Peers whether it is possible for the UK to be represented in the middle of an energy crisis in a meeting that is so important?

To be honest, this Question was the first I have heard of this meeting. I do not know the answer. I do not even know if we have been invited to it, but I will find out.

My Lords, the Rough gas storage facility was closed because the Government refused to subsidise the repairs, which means that the Government made the decision. I therefore have two questions for the Minister. First, was a cost-benefit analysis conducted from an energy security and public interest perspective? If so, will he now publish it?

Indeed, the reports written at the time were published. There was one report by Cambridge academics studying precisely this matter. It is easy to be wise after the event. If that facility had been retained, the cost would have gone on to gas bill payers—Peers in many parts of the House are criticising us for the high level of prices—and that would have been an additional cost. That was the decision taken at the time. The world looks very different now, so we have received proposals from Centrica, and we are closely examining them. These are important matters; we take the security of supply incredibly seriously; and we will look at it.