§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what are their intentions with regard to the draft Department of the Environment/Welsh Office Circular Planning Control over Oil and Gas Operations.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Unstarred Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In August this year the Department of the Environment sent out to all local authorities and other interested bodies an advance circular of new guidance lines on the granting of planning consent for the development of on-shore gas and oil in the United Kingdom. The theme of the circular is broadly to encourage the exploration of on-shore oil and gas and development where justified, with a slight bow to the conservation of the environment as being in the best interests of economic recovery, both nationally and internationally.
Although the circular is published by the Department of the Environment, its guidance on conservation of the environment falls far short of the strength to be expected from the Ministry which is specifically responsible for this. Indeed, I could say with Isaac, being beguiled by Jacob,
The hands are the hands of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob".
The hands are the hands of Department of the Environment but the voice is the voice of the Department of Energy. Towards the end of paragraph 11 of the circular comes this sentence:
There is now a wide measure of agreement on all sides that it is feasible to draw up sensible planning policies to balance oil and gas exploration and the protection of the environment".
If my noble friend Lord Avon or indeed the Secretary of State for the Environment himself will visit the villages bordering on Surrey, West Sussex and Hampshire, where proposals to drill for oil and gas are now becoming public, he will hear a completely different version of the subject. This is an undeveloped—and I should declare an immediate personal interest because I live there—unspoilt rural area immediately beyond the outer boundary of the London Green Belt and indeed some of it was proposed for an extension of the Green Belt. Virtually all this area is classified as of great landscape value or as areas of outstanding natural beauty. Existing planning controls prohibit any development outside each village area and very tight control within it. Thus the local inhabitants are very conscious of their continuing responsibility for the protection of the beautiful environment in which they live.
§ I should also draw attention to the fact that the Surrey County Council's structure plan permits development outside villages only to meet needs of agriculture and forestry. So local inhabitants foresee that the drilling of exploration boreholes followed by 175 exploitation and production wells is going to change the character and amenity of their villages and the surrounding countryside for up to the next 25 years, and change it in a way which is far from pleasant. It would change from being unspoilt countryside to being spoilt countryside. Currently there is a planning application for drilling an exploration well at Dunsfold but it is opposed by the two parish councils of Dunsfold and Alfold and also by the rural district council's planning committee.
§ I come now to the precise nature of the damage to the environment which would follow exploitation and production. The boreholes are drilled by a derrick 128 feet high, working day and night, with a heavy noise factor. The estimated time for the exploration is given as only four to six weeks, but I did note that in the neighbouring village of Chiddingfold they took some 38 weeks. If oil is found it will probably take a few months to install the pumps and pipelines; and further disturbance would probably be small. If gas is found the production process is of a completely different nature. An industrial site of some eight to 10 acres is established at each find, equipped with pumps, compressors and other processing plant in order to gather and clean the gas before pumping to the nearest arterial gas pipe.
§ This industrial site will work 24 hours per day with a noise factor which will be heard in a rural area up to 1½ kilometres. It will also have a smell factor, probably hydrogen-sulphide, and also a sight factor, not consonant with rural countryside.
§ I now return to the DoE circular. This circular makes no mention whatsoever of the difference between gas abstraction and oil abstraction. It gives no guidance at all. It is evident from my description that the damage to the environment from gas abstraction is of a very different nature from oil abstraction, so four questions arise on this. Why does the circular say nothing about the potential objections to gas abstraction? Is the DoE not informed on this?—at least they are now. Do they think that planning authorities should ignore these factors? I hope not. And how many full-scale on-shore gas abstractions are there in the United Kingdom? We know that there is some oil. What gas abstractions are there? The impression is given that not very much is known about on-shore gas abstraction and that the DoE is hoping for the best.
§ Now it happens that the proposals for exploration and production in my neck of the woods—Dunsfold, Alfold and Chiddingfold—are all expected to be for gas. Only the Chiddingfold exploration borehole has been drilled so far and that has proved gas. The oil company promoting this work has gradually, in answer to much questioning, given information about what will be involved, which the company has learned from its seismological survey over a very big area.
§ The gas deposit at Dunsfold runs across the middle of the village from east to west, in a cigar shape pattern about two miles long. I am informed that one of the favoured positions for the industrial site is about half a mile from the village church and half a mile from where I live, so my interest is a fairly close one. No doubt, other threatened villages have similar problems. So I have said enough, I think, to indicate 176 that the arrival of commercial gas abstraction in a village will drastically change the character of the village. Incidentally, to add insult to injury, the local community, which does not have a main gas supply now, will not even get a main gas supply after all this.
§ So I turn to the questions of national policy. It is clear that on-shore abstraction of gas raises serious environmental objections. It is also clear that experience in the United Kingdom is in its infancy, and I cannot believe that the technology of management could not be greatly improved. So I should like to ask these questions of my noble friend.
§ First, at the present time, when North Sea oil and gas supply is in such abundant surplus that the price has had to be cut, despite the serious financial implications, is it really in the national interest to press on with development of all on-shore finds of oil and gas, irrespective of the environment? Secondly, would it not be better in the national interest, after proving the presence and capacity of an oil or gas deposit, to delay development to a time when the market is strong enough to absorb it?
§ Thirdly, in view of the prospect of an industrial site, as I have described, of eight to 10 acres containing compressors and cleaning plant at every gas deposit which is to be developed, operating for 20 to 25 years, in the interests of conserving the environment of these attractive rural villages should not on-shore gas abstraction for production be postponed until the technique has been developed to pipe the gas away to a central processing plant sited in some suitable industrial estate, thus reducing the damage to the environment to the same dimensions as oil abstraction?
§ I conclude by referring to the debate which is to take place next Monday on the 1984 Report of the Royal Commission. The burden of the report is to survey the progress which has been made in the past 10 years in reducing pollution in land, water and air and to examine what still remains to be done. All noble Lords will know that the story is that thousands of millions of pounds have been spent and immense efforts made to overcome the neglect of past generations and to repair the damage done. Today we are conscious of the continuing need to conserve the environment—above all, to prevent fresh arrears accruing.
§ To permit these unspoilt rural areas of Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire to be defaced by a rash of oil and gas developments, especially gas, without ensuring adequate protection of the environment would be to do just that—creating new pollution for our successors to clear up in the future. I am sure that this is not the intention of my noble friend, so I look forward to hearing what steps he can take to strengthen this offending circular to help local planning authorities protect our beautiful countryside.
§ 6.5 p.m.
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford for having drawn attention to this recent draft circular and bringing to our notice in your Lordships'House the important matters with which it deals. I believe that they need to be widely understood and then handled with care by the authorities, both Government departments and local authorities.
177 The draft circular, coming from the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office, deals with England and Wales, and I should like to make a brief contribution, having myself been involved in one way and another in the discovery and production of off-shore oil since 1970. On-shore activities and installations were created by that, which produced similar problems but on a larger scale than those produced by on-shore drilling. I declare again an interest to the House in that I have spent the past nine years working in the oil industry with a company which is the operator of one of the largest fields in the North Sea.
I should like to offer two propositions: first, there need not be conflict between the national need to realise our resources of oil and gas and the requirements of preserving the countryside and amenity; secondly, there is a danger that, because this is a new industry within Britain, unfounded alarm and distress can arise from fear of the unknown. On this second proposition, I am acutely aware, from my own experience in the early 1970s as Secretary of State for Scotland, of what can happen in the way of almost hysteria about the development of a new industry.
The platform building sites on the seashore which were required are of massive proportions, as are the structures which they build. There are also other onshore installations, such as the terminal on Flotta in Scapa Flow. Those were all proposals which excited great concern and anxiety in Scotland and elsewhere. Of course, the environmental bodies immediately registered their worries. But the general public also, particularly in the areas of Scotland concerned, were naturally alarmed. They raised objections because they were unsure what was coming from this new industry, and what was needed quickly was the dissemination of clear and accurate information about what was in fact involved. I remind your Lordships that this was all to be done in areas of great natural beauty, mostly in the Highlands, in the Firths. The concern was not only about the areas, but also about the wildlife that might be threatened.
I am glad to record that the fears of the responsible objectors were met, and in those cases it was consequently possible to avoid public inquiries which might have delayed North Sea oil production for up to two years. The Forties field, for example, the first very large field to be discovered, would have been delayed for about two years had there been a public inquiry, because two of the platform jackets were built at Nigg Bay. Her Majesty the Queen would not have been able to perform the inauguration ceremony for about two years after the date when she did so.
It is fortuitous that my own home is in northern Scotland, the scene of this action. I have been known there for many years as one who is interested in protecting the environment and as one who has a knowledge of shore birds. They knew me first in that area as somebody who is an environmentalist and secondly as a Secretary of State who was concerned with the planning procedures. I suggest that this demonstrates a healthy sense of priorities. The message which I hope I can contribute to this debate is that these installations—terminals, yards, associated 178 pipelines and other equipment on site—have not since then given rise to any further serious objections, although they are situated in areas of outstanding natural beauty. Indeed, the reverse has been the case. There is universal concern in these areas when there are reports that these installations may not be needed in future years due to advances in technology and because of the facts of geography.
Speaking therefore from the point of view of my personal interest in protecting the environment, coupled with some knowledge of the oil industry, may I make a few comments on the draft circular. In a large number of the cases which one can foresee, it should be possible for an oil company to accept the planning requirements for the site, though this may mean extra expense. The technology which is being developed in the North Sea offers various possibilities which could also be used onshore. I believe that the oil companies should go out of their way to comply with the requirements of good and sound planning.
My next point is that the local authorities and the oil companies concerned should take the trouble to inform local communities about their plans. Perhaps this could be done at public meetings, as has been shore oil wells in operation which are so very well concealed or disguised that one would have no idea that they were connected with the industry. I am pleased to see that the nuisance of noise is mentioned several times in the circular. I believe it to be right that noise nuisance should be emphasised, particularly if it is a noise which continues throughout the night, as a result of which nearby communities would suffer.
My next point is that the local authorities and the oil companies concerned should take the trouble to inform local communities about their plans. Perhaps this could be done at public meetings, as has been suggested in paragraph 14 of the draft circular. They could then dispel the rumours and exaggerated fears which can build up quickly. They could also learn of particular problems in the area and adapt their plans accordingly. This has been done on several occasions in different areas of Scotland, with very good results.
I hope that the Government will consider with the greatest care the comments of my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford on additional provisions in the draft circular to improve the protection of local communities. I foresee the Government, local authorities and operating companies being able in this way to proceed with the confidence of those local communities.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Lord Teviot
My Lords, with some embarrassment I have to say that owing to a long-standing engagement I must crave the indulgence of your Lordships. I shall be unable to remain for the winding-up speeches and my noble friend's reply. This is the first occasion upon which I have had to leave before the end of a debate. I hope that it will be a long time before it ever happens again.
Your Lordships may be aware that I asked a Question concerning the Government's policy on drilling for oil in areas of outstanding natural beauty—in particular, Ditchling Beacon—in November of last year. I am very pleased that my noble friend Lord 179 Nugent of Guildford has seen fit to raise again more or less the same subject. I agree with him about the additional hazard of gas. However, the essence of my argument in November of last year was that areas of outstanding natural beauty are, first, as much a part of the nation's natural resources as are oil and gas and, secondly, that governments of all complexions have recognised this by designating them. Furthermore, a fixed and finite amount of beautiful landscape, peace and solitude are available in this crowded island, whereas oil and gas reserves, if not infinite, at least are currently in surplus and, unlike landscape, are ultimately replaceable by alternative energy resources.
Again one must say that the Government have abrogated their responsibility, particularly with respect to areas of outstanding natural beauty, by leaving planning decisions relating to oil and gas exploration and production in the hands of local authorities which, for a variety of reasons, are not the best people to handle them. Furthermore, having left the planning decisions to local authorities, the Government have not provided them with either the means or the policies by which to make sound judgments as to the relative merits of the case for oil and gas against landscape and social amenity. I said also—this is a particularly important point—that it was evident that local authorities were catching up with the flood of applications too late and are only now developing their policies.
My noble friend's objections to gas exploration at Dunsfold are similar to the objections raised by the residents of Ditchling. Dunsfold is not in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Nevertheless, it is just as pleasant an area, though the AONB label is not attached to it. The Government were prepared to let the normal planning process take its course when responding to my Question in November 1983, so why should they take any more notice now? The answer is that since November 1983 there has been substantial experience of the effects of on-shore oil and gas exploration upon local communities and landscapes. There is also evidence of how seemingly innocuous applications for single exploratory wells and well sites can grow like Topsy, once commercial interests have taken control.
May I give to your Lordships two examples. The first is Graffham in West Sussex. As a result of their direct experience of oil exploration at Graffham, West Sussex County Council have tightened up their planning policies. There are indications that they wish they had never started, but it is now too late. My second example is Humbly Grove in Hampshire. No fewer than 70 wells on the Humbly Grove site have been sunk—far in excess of anything which was envisaged at the time of the original exploration application. As a result, a local residents committee has been formed to fight it, but again it is too late. The Government have at last produced some guidelines for local authorities. These are too late. I reiterate also that I believe such decisions should be taken out of the hands of local authorities.
That said, what can one say about the draft proposals? In my view, three points can be made. First, the Government appear to lack the courage of their own convictions. There are occasions when their 180 proposed actions do not match the merits of their own arguments. Secondly, there are still many areas where important policies and operating procedures remain to be developed. Thirdly, there are some potentially misleading statements. Let me give to your Lordships a few examples.
The draft proposal acknowledges that there is currently a surplus of oil and gas from the North Sea. It also states that new fields are even now being developed off shore, particularly in estuaries and in relatively shallow water off the coastline. If that is the case, what is the importance and urgency of developing on-shore fields? We already have a surplus; and oil and gas developments in shallow water are far cheaper than in deep water. So economically, and in future energy supplies, the Government's requirements are being met without recourse to on-shore wells.
Section 9 of the draft acknowledges proposed developments in specially designated areas of the landscape, and it specifically mentions that AONBs should be subject to the same "rigorous examination" as national parks are currently accorded. That is from Department of the Environment Circular 4/76. Yet nowhere in the text of these draft proposals are local authorities told how to apply "rigorous examination". No special provision whatever is made. Indeed, Section 11 states that the Government believed that,The provisions operative for all minerals [a decade ago] provided a sufficiently comprehensive and distinctive framework of control to meet the Committee's concern, and this remains the position".Section 24 of the draft states thatThe new edition of the Memorandum on the Control of Minerals Working (the Green Paper) will cover in general terms all those detailed environmental factors which mineral planning authorities should have regard to in deciding mineral applications".Once again we are talking of the future tense. Is it not time that applications were considered under properly considered and fully developed policies?
In summary, I believe that these draft proposals are too little and too late to have any real impact. I urge the Government to take closer control over on-shore development and, to use their own phrase, to be more "rigorous" in their examination of all the issues involved. I wish my noble friend great success in his opposition to gas developments on his doorstep. Furthermore, having read the report put up by the local protection association—an excellent document—I will refer to one particular road. It is the A.281 which runs between Horsham and Guildford. It is one of the most unpleasant of roads to drive along. It is very dangerous and if Surrey County Council goes ahead, I suggest that they dare not do so until the M.25 is finished. The A.281 is a very dangerous road now and it will be made very much worse by the proposed development.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, we had in the last sentence of the speech made by my noble friend Lord Teviot a perfect example of the quandary we all face. He complained, justifiably, about the state of the A281, which I, too, drive down. The answer would be to straighten it, widen it and make it into a dual carriageway—whereupon the same noble Lords would all be on their feet complaining about the horrendous 181 damage being done to the environment. We have to be extremely careful. When we take objection to any form of development or progress, we have to be very careful that we do not fall into that very easy trap.
As a fellow Surrey Peer I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford has raised this matter in your Lordships' House today. I will try to confine my remarks to the Surrey development plans. Of course we need energy, and certainly gas is one of the cheapest and most efficient forms of energy we have. The creation of jobs and employment is an important objective for good and sensible government—but so is the preservation and protection of the qualities of a civilised and beautiful countryside a prerequisite of sensitive Ministers.
My noble friend Lord Nugent has pointed to the lack of sufficient emphasis on environmental factors in this particular circular as well as the failure to differentiate between the undoubted dissimilarities between oil wells and gas processing plants. I should like to add what little emphasis I can to the criticism of that lack of emphasis.
Paragraph 21 of the circular says it is essential to screen or landscape sites. But a later paragraph shows that an oil site on land is one of the longest surviving of these particular sites, and should last for about 25 years. An oak tree barely reaches shoulder height in 25 years, so it means that we have either to build earth banks or bury the site, or use those enormous friends of every single garden centre owner—and here I declare an interest as one of them—the Leylandii cypress. I see that my noble friend on the Front Bench also has some experience of these factors and knows about the Leylandii. They offer an instant screen in the area where I live.
This brings me straight on to the prospective drilling for gas by Conoco in the area where my noble friend Lord Nugent lives. Perhaps one would be slightly more sympathetic to Conoco if this development was going to turn my noble friend into an instant J. R. Ewing; but the Petroleum (Production) Act 1934 nationalised (as always by a Conservative Government) the oil rights, and it thus effectively denies my noble friend his stetson.
The part of the south Surrey/Hampshire/Sussex border where all this is due to take place is an exceptionally attractive area in a very English way. It is the countryside of Cobbett. It is a close countryside full of oak trees; and the hedges still continue their old pattern, produced by early enclosure. The contrast with the much larger and more open Scottish countryside is very marked. I drove to the north of Scotland the other day. One saw the oil rigs being built on Nigg Bay, and in a funny way they are very beautiful, because they are so far away. They are not close in. I said to my wife, with whom I was driving to Scotland, "In a funny way they remind me of Chartres Cathedral, in that they come straight out of the surrounding countryside". That is a very subjective judgment, but one thing of which I am absolutely certain is that an eight to 10-acre concrete gas processing site can never produce that kind of reaction in the Surrey countryside or in a close English countryside. It is a difference of perception between different countrysides.
182 If one travels on the M6 on the way to Scotland, just south of Carlisle the road cuts through and there is an enormous contrast between great banks of hills on one side and the road going through the middle. There is something essentially beautiful about that. That beauty is totally absent on the M25, cutting through the close English countryside. I am totally prepared to accept that what I am saying is totally subjective and probably personal to me only. There may be people who think that the M25 cutting through close English countryside is much more beautiful than the M6 cutting through big, open countryside. On the whole, I believe that more people tend to agree with me.
The countryside where my noble friend lives really has got to be protected from the pressures. Of course, that protection must not be an absolute dead hand on any development. Succumbing to the threat that this development produces for a maximum find of gas for six months for the use of the South Eastern Gas Board—and, as my noble friend said, the threat is to villages that do not even have gas—is not worth the damage that it is going to cause. I hope it will be looked at in enormous detail and with even greater compassion and care.
Rightly, the agriculture industry is being criticised for some of its more insensitive environmental habits. The gas industry can cause much more damage than farmers, so it must take heed of the warning. Above all, I hope that the county councils of Surrey, Hampshire and Sussex, who are obviously in the forefront of our minds, will be Bismarckian in their iron determination not to allow any drilling or production development without the strictest of all conditions being imposed. All I am asking is that enormous care and even greater concern are shown by those in authority. If it is not, they will have committed an outrage on an area of especially subtle and gentle perspective which is a beautiful and natural part of our inheritance.
§ 6.31 p.m.
§ Viscount Torrington
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, for bringing this interesting document to the attention of this House. As usual, before I continue I must declare an interest in this subject. While I have no connection with the company which has applied to drill at Dunsfold, I am attached to a company which is involved in precisely the same kind of business. I live in Hampshire, where there is a lot of this sort of activity, but I have to say to your Lordships that most of my company's activities are in Scotland, although shortly to move south.
Having declared that interest, I suppose that if I were to say that it is a good and balanced paper it would be to condemn it out of hand. I certainly have to agree with earlier speakers that the paper does not address the subject of gas development in the detail which it perhaps ought to do. However, my noble friend Lord Nugent lives at Dunsfold, where these sort of developments are not welcome. I have seen two areas in Scotland where planning applications have been made for drilling, one of them not so far from one of those rig-building yards, admittedly, but another in a fairly attractive part of Fife, where both the local authorities and indeed the local people have been very 183 glad to see this sort of development happen. I am sad to say that the wells concerned resulted in dry holes and there has been no further development to please the locals.
My noble friend Lord Nugent brings a great deal of experience to this topic, in that he served in the past in the Ministry of Agriculture and later on the London and South-East Regional Planning Council. Perhaps after the debate he can explain to me why there seems to be a system of planning for agricultural matters which is totally different from that for, for example, oil and gas. The valley which runs past my village in Hampshire has recently been disfigured by the erection of an agricultural feed mill in the name of an agricultural building. In fact, it is hardly an agricultural process. It is the most insensitive development I have ever seen. I think I can honestly assure the House that the oil industry would never contemplate onshore in the south of England or in any other part of the United Kingdom, anything like so insensitive a development.
In this paper the phrase "good oilfield practice" is mentioned. This is perhaps an industry term of art. In the old days it meant using the right steel pipe, the right pieces of gadgetry and the right weight of mud while drilling a hole. However, in recent years this has come to mean a great deal more and, in the context of exploration on-shore in the United Kingdom, good oilfield practice has one chapter on the technical side and several chapters on the preservation and care of the environment. The oil industry is only too aware that it has to live, not by public acceptability, perhaps, so much as by public forbearance, because, as an earlier speaker mentioned, there are no financial benefits to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, from the fact that he may live within the drainage area of an oil or gas well.
I know little about the development by Conoco at Dunsfold, but no one seems to have mentioned the fact that the well concerned is to be drilled on an airfield which is in active use. I am surprised that it causes so many ruffled feathers. It seems to me that it is an activity which is—
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, I am not sure whether I am in order but perhaps I may be allowed to help the noble Viscount on this point. That airfield is not like other airfields. In fact it is extremely sensitively done and is surrounded by trees. In itself it is a very nice piece of countryside. That is the point. It is not like London Airport or Gatwick.
§ Viscount Torrington
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Onslow for that. Nevertheless, it is an airfield.
I should also like to point out that, as I understand it, we are talking of a possible deposit at Dunsfold of some seven kilometres by three kilometres. That is the technical people's view of the possible size of the field. I should like to point out that if this was an oilfield it might require about 100 wells to develop it. Due to the fact that it is gas—and I understand the reservoir is fairly permeable—the whole field may be developed with as few as two or three wells. Therefore, from the point of view of disruption from drilling there is not too much to fear. The actual surface facility left at the
184 wellside afterwards will amount to something a little bigger than a pillar-box. There are regulations which require it to be fenced within a certain distance but intrinsically it should be very inconspicuous. Certainly, in the context of a producing well on the airfield, one would not know that it was not a hydrant for aviation fuel.
I agree that the gathering system is a greater problem. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, was quite correct. He seemed to imply—and no doubt he will forgive me if I misheard him—that there was to be more than one gathering system. He said, I think, that there would be one for each well site. I do not think that that would be the case.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
My Lords, may I help my noble friend? I said one for each find or deposit. One for the whole deposit. I also described, for the information of my noble friend, the dimensions of the gas deposit, as forecast now by the company, as stretching some two miles from east to west across the centre of the village. The proposal to drill a well on the extreme end of it on the airfield, therefore, does not describe the effect it would have on the village itself.
§ Viscount Torrington
My Lords, I appreciate that. Until at least one more well is drilled no one has any idea of how big this field will be and whether ultimately it will be an economic field.
It is obviously necessary to have a balance between the environment, the potential for employment and the needs of the oil industry. I was interested to see that a number of objections to the development at Dunsfold queried whether gas development was really necessary. The sort of field which might be there could in fact contain, at import replacement values, some £100 million to £200 million-worth of gas. When we are about to buy Sleipner gas from Norway very expensively, that is obviously quite important. If cumulatively we developed a number of fields through southern England, that could do quite a major job in replacing those proposed imports, and, personally, I should rather overlook a sensitive oil development than the operations of an insensitive farmer.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, we are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, for giving us the opportuniity once again to discuss this subject. Some of us remember the debate last November in which we all took part. I sympathise very much with the noble Lord in his local difficulty, but I apologise; I do not know the area and therefore cannot comment on the likely effects on it.
It seemed to me that the circular indicated that a better system was being sought. I know that there are faults in it, but it is a consultative document and one hopes that during the consultations improvements will be made. After all, discussion of whether something is beautiful is very subjective. If one lives in an area that has been without electricity for a long time, the sight of a line of electric pylons marching towards you can be very beautiful indeed. If one is out of work and the local community is depressed, the prospect of employment from a local industry can, again, be a very attractive thought.
185 I have one or two little comments that I should like to make on the beginning of the circular. At the end of page 1 it says:This Circular is not considered to have significant expenditure and manpower implications for mineral planning authorities".I should like to remind the Minister that during the time of the discussion last year the Association of County Councils was very worried because it was said that the amount allowed in the planning regulations to deal with planning applications for these oil developments was nothing like enough to cover the cost of the officers' time. I wonder whether anything has been done about that. When one considers the profit in a successful oil strike, the fact that ratepayers may have to subsidise the cost of the planning application is not acceptable. Perhaps I may be told about that at the end of the debate.
I am also concerned, as is the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that the Secretary of State for Energy still appears to have sole responsibility for the issue of licences. It seems to me that there should at least be discussion with the Department of the Environment at a very early stage before any licences are issued.
However, the fact that licences for the three major stages—exploration, appraisal and development—now require planning permission is an improvement on the old system, although I wonder whether the vibroseis stage should not also require planning permission. Once the initial seismic exploration has revealed the possibility of an oil or gas deposit, the pressures will be very great to go on from there. The pressures on the local authority to refuse if it is told that it is in the national interest are very great indeed. Therefore, I wonder whether planning permission should be required at the very beginning or whether there should be much wider consultation at the stage when the initial vibroseis exploration shows possibilities.
Also I believe—and this was something, again, that we discussed last year—that there should be no-go areas. The best safeguard of all, of course, is to establish consistent standards of planning control throughout the country. I do not agree with the noble Earl that local authorities are not capable of implementing the planning requirements, but there must be a consistent standard. I think at the moment it varies very much from authority to authority. I shall return to that in a moment.
There is a temptation to give special consideration to national parks and areas of natural beauty. Every environment is important to the people who live in it. That is another reason why I feel that standards should be uniform Every resident of every area where exploration is likely to occur is entitled to have good standards of control and reinstatement. The control of air pollution, noise and traffic have all been mentioned. They are just as essential whether or not the village or town is labelled an area of natural beauty.
We understand the need to establish the existence of national resources. There are just a few areas in which exploration should never be permitted at all. I refer particularly to SSSIs and some nature reserves, where restoration would be impossible. Some SSSIs—the 186 Minister seems to be in difficulty: SSSI stands for site of special scientific interest. Some of them date from the ice age. To disturb them for any purpose whatsoever is unthinkable. They are our heritage from long ago. They cannot be restored and must not be disturbed. It is our duty to maintain them and hand them on to the next generation. I think that from them all threats should be removed.
The East Sussex County Council, whose wish to amend its structure plan was discussed in detail last year—which I criticised rather heavily at the time—has, after wide consultation and after listening to the debate in this House, come up with a very acceptable document. I commend it to your Lordships. I believe that it is before the Minister at the moment. It has not yet been approved by him. It has within it all the difficulties which are explored in the document, and I think that it gives very good protection to all the aspects. It is a long document and I do not propose to read all of it to your Lordships. I should like to mention just one or two of the things that it says:The County Council supports in principle exploration for oil and gas. It supports production of oil and gas insofar as it is in the national interest but this does not imply any precedence over the countryside and conservation policies in this plan. Development will not be permitted which"—and it lists a number of instances; I will not go into them all because they are not all applicable everywhere—is inconsistent with the objectives of an area of outstanding natural beauty or a conservation area … would damage an ancient monument … would prejudice the reasons for which a site of special scientific interest was notified or for which any nature reserve was declared".If that became an accepted practice throughout the country, I think that it would meet most of the objections raised by most of the conservationists and environmentalists who at the moment are so worried about these possible developments. As I say, the document goes on at great length but I shall not weary your Lordships with it. I recommend those who are involved in such worry to read it and press the Minister to make this a national standard.
To come back to the original discussions that we had, as I understand it, the drilling rig, which is so high and which cannot be screened, is normally a very short-term development. When it goes, it is replaced by a "Christmas tree", which is like a glorified water hydrant. It is a bit larger but not much. It can easily be disguised. I think perhaps it is unreasonable not to say that that would be acceptable, given that there are proper consultations with the local authorities and that it is properly disguised when eventually it is put into use.
I cannot speak about gas development. I do not really know enough about what is involved in the end. But I know that all the time new technology is occurring which will reduce the impact of all these developments on the countryside. Provided proper consultation is undertaken, the local authorities keep up to date and the oil companies are made to keep up to date in their application of the new technology, it is perfectly possible for developments to be made which will not have too much impact on the surrounding area.
187 But we have to ask ourselves the last question of all. It is this. We should be seeking to conserve for future generations not only the environment but our resources. Are we making proper use of the resources that we have? Are we making proper attempts at the conservation of our resources? Do we really need to go ahead with many of the explorations that we are doing? If the answer to that last question is, yes, then we must accept it, but I really wonder whether the first two questions have been properly explored.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ The Earl of Avon
My Lords, I welcome the debate initiated this evening by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford. Oil and gas on shore is a most topical subject and my recent spell away from Environment at the Department of Energy has certainly given me an added insight into the subjects. I am therefore grateful to my noble friend for asking this Question and, indeed, to other noble Lords, whose contributions have been both balanced and constructive. My noble friend asked specifically about the Government's intentions as to the draft circular produced by the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office. I can, of course, assure him that they are wholly honourable. I can also respond in the knowledge that this is the most straightforward question to answer of the many asked this evening.
The draft circular on Planning Control over Oil and Gas Operations is at present out for consultation with interested parties. We have asked for comments by the end of this month. We shall then consider all the representations that we have received together with the views expressed in discussions with the local authority associations, the industry and others. We intend to publish a final version by the end of the year. I have no doubt that this consultation period will prove most valuable.
Interest in the draft circular has been considerable. So far we have had an encouraging response. Some comments have been kinder, like those of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, some not so kind like those of my noble friend Lord Teviot. I should perhaps correct something that I think my noble friend Lord Teviot said about the Hampshire County Council. I do not believe that they were surprised by the expansion of oil development. The planning application for which approval was given in August included seeking approval for 65 wells, and this was closely examined by the planning authority before permission was granted. The existing exploration wells were given planning permission several years ago.
Many of the points raised so far in the consultation—I stress that we still await the views of a number of important interests—have been touched upon this evening. I shall seek to respond to these. But we have some way to go before we are in a position to assess what exact changes are needed in order to secure the correct balance between the need to satisfy our energy requirements and our wish to protect the environment. My noble friend Lord Onslow touched on this subject. I can assure the House that all the comments that we receive—and I should like to stress in particular those made this evening—will be considered most carefully. We intend to get the 188 balance right and to produce a document that will command as wide a range of support as possible.
There are conflicting views and, indeed, we have heard them tonight. But I have no doubt that some considerable measure of agreement can be reached. I might mention to my noble friend Lord Onslow that I am told that Kimmeridge, for instance, which has been going for 20 years now, is very well screened and quite attractively landscaped. I understand equally that Wytch Farm is in an area surrounded by trees. The draft circular aims to provide guidance to mineral planning authorities on the exercise of their powers over on-shore oil and gas development. In particular it indicates the national policy considerations that need to be taken into account, the respective roles of licensing and planning systems in regulating and controlling such development, and some of the particular factors that need to be considered when determining individual planning applications. It also explains just what is involved in the exploration, appraisal and production stages of oil and gas development, although it is not designed to provide a fully exhaustive account of this technical subject.
The first question that I should like to answer is, why do we need to go for oil and gas on shore at all when we are so blessed with our North Sea reserves and when there is a worldwide oil glut? There is no one response. I should like to put it this way. We are not concerned just for the present. We need to look ahead against the prospect of uncertain world energy supplies. Oil and gas are both extractive industries, and supplies are inevitably depleted over time. I should perhaps mention that even today we import 25 per cent. of our gas needs. It is not clear how long production from the North Sea can be maintained at present levels. That depends on very many factors. But it is the Government's intention to maintain a large share of domestic production into the next century. To achieve this, we need to maintain a high level of exploration activity. I believe that the Government have a clear duty to establish the extent of our oil and gas reserves and to ensure that this is done in an environmentally acceptable manner.
Our policy is also to ensure that proven resources are developed economically and expeditiously consistent with good oilfield practice and the protection of the environment. In this way, we can look forward to a responsible and creative contribution. Particular supply investments in oil and gas on shore as in other energy sectors are for the industry itself to justify in the first instance against commercial criteria. But, on-shore as well as off-shore, companies must first obtain a licence from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy. The licensing system is first and foremost designed to achieve a satisfactory balance of safeguards and rights between the Government in whom the resources are vested and the licensee. It is also designed to provide a framework for the orderly development of the resource itself, so that fields are exploited safely and responsibly and individual drilling proposals are rigorously scrutinised. So I hope that the House will agree that it is hardly a free-for-all.
Nor is there the implication that exploitation will inevitably follow the finding of commercial quantities 189 of oil or gas. Possession of a licence confers no right of entry onto the land nor does it confer planning permission on any proposed development. A licence always requires planning permission before the deep drilling of exploration and appraisal boreholes can be undertaken. And the Department of Energy requires evidence that the necessary planning permission has been obtained before authorising development wells and production facilities. In addition, under the new licensing arrangements to be introduced early next year, production licences will not be awarded unless and until a company has obtained planning permission.
I make no apology for emphasising these controls. I do so because they indicate our concern that development of our on-shore oil and gas reserves should go ahead only under the most stringent conditions. These apply whether or not the proposals relate to development in the most sensitive environmental areas and we shall continue to strengthen them whenever we consider it necessary to do so. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that the expression "sites of special scientific interest" is absolutely emblazoned on my heart after taking something called the Wildlife and Countryside Act through this House. We cannot but be aware that interest in on-shore oil and gas tends to lead companies to areas where there is strong national interest in preserving the landscape and in protecting particular environments and communities. However, it is an uncomfortable fact—and it has been said many times before—that the geology that harbours our oil and gas reserves is also responsible for the special landscape features and habitats that prompted their designation as areas of outstanding natural beauty or sites of special scientific interest.
Of course, special policy considerations apply to all development proposals in such areas and to those areas where oil and gas lie beneath high quality agricultural land. My right honourable friend and his predecessors have made very clear that we expect any such proposals to be subjected to the most rigorous examination as to their effect on the environment. I am more than happy to repeat that assurance tonight. There is no way in which oil and gas development can be permitted to proceed unless proposals are environmentally acceptable. The industry knows this and the local authorities know it. However, we have to face the fact—and my noble friend Lord Nugent has brought that out tonight—that, for example, in southern England, over 20 per cent. of the land area is protected in some way or another, and a large proportion of the remainder is either already developed or highly valued by farmers and other members of the community. There can be few areas where so rich a heritage of national environment occurs side by side with so well informed and knowledgeable a sector of the population. May I tell the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that I have frequently driven through his village of Dunsfold, and next time I hope that I may stop and visit him. But, of course, that will have to wait until any application has been prejudged.
In these circumstances I believe it makes no sense at all to look for no-go areas. We have to find ways of reconciling these sometimes conflicting interests, each wholly legitimate in its own terms. Part of the search 190 for acceptable solutions means facing up to the fact that the more we know about the structure and location of oil and gas reserves in an area the more options are available from which to choose an acceptable pattern of development. This applies as much to areas where oil or gas bearing structures lie off-shore as it does on-shore, and this is why our draft circular gives explicit encouragement to exploration and appraisal, subject to the effects on the environment being assessed fully. Without this knowledge we do not know what we have and what options are open to us should we wish to exploit it.
A second strand in our search for acceptable ways of reconciling energy and environmental interests is to recognise that such choices are best made by those elected by the communities most affected. The Government are firmly of the view that planning decisions on on-shore oil and gas should rest as far as possible with the mineral planning authorities. It is demonstrably the case that local authorities are best suited to draw up sensible policies for such development following full consultation with the local people, and I pay tribute to those members and officers in local authorities who have done so to date.
Of course some applications, most particularly the larger ones, present difficult choices, and the policies which my right honourable friend approves in structure plans have to be designed to meet these cases as well as the less controversial ones. Our circular, when published, will give further guidance on the factors to consider in handling specific proposals. It is only in exceptional circumstances that my right honourable friend will wish to call in an application for his own decision.
The guidance in the circular will aim to be as positive as possible. It cannot, however, anticipate each and every case. Circumstances will vary markedly between different sites and proposals, and what is acceptable in one part of an authority's area may perhaps be rejected by that authority elsewhere. We shall look for consistency in the way proposals are considered and acted upon.
My noble friend expressed particular concern about the effects on the environment of gas exploration and development as distinct from those of oil. I should like, if I may, to turn to this question for a minute. A gas development is not necessarily larger or more obtrusive than oil. The size of the site depends to a degree on the size of the field and on other factors such as whether unwanted compounds like hydrogen sulphide need to be removed, and what other treatment is needed. This holds true for both gas and oil. I understand that if gas is confirmed at Dunsfold—I underline "if because there is uncertainty in exploration—the likely size of the site required would be somewhere around five to eight acres. Should hydrogen sulphide be present, I am told that it can be removed by a through, smell-free process and that the noise level would be minimal. It could even be inaudible from outside the site. My noble friend has produced his idea on gas to me fairly recently and I should like to continue to pursue it and let him know any further information which I might find.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
My Lords, before my noble friend leaves that point, will he deal with my question about the possibility of improving technology so that gas can be piped, as is oil, to an arterial point where it can be treated on an industrial site centrally, rather than in situ in the rural area where it is so objectionable?
§ The Earl of Avon
My Lords, I will indeed pursue this subject generally with my noble friend. Later on in my notes I have something about technology.
I believe that we neglect at our peril the important fund of expertise and advice available in those who live and work locally and who are most immediately affected by any proposals. Our planning system is designed to use constructively such skills and advice. I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, who asked a question on planning fees, that these have been reviewed from time to time but no specific adjustment has been made to deal with oil and gas. It would, I believe, be difficult to produce such a refined set of fees, if I can put it that way, to reflect exactly the amount of work involved.
I should like to say, although my noble friend Lord Torrington has spent some time on the subject, that I, too, have been impressed by the awareness for the environment of those concerned with the exploration for gas and oil. I believe they really do care, and have been persuaded to care, for the environment, and I believe also that we should pay tribute to their willingness to return the countryside and keep the countryside in its beautiful state.
I should like to make two further points about on-shore oil and gas. Because it is an extractive industry, even the largest oil and gas fields will be depleted in due course. Production will cease and restoration of the site can begin. Mineral planning authorities do have the powers to impose proper restoration and after-care conditions on such development, both in relation to well sites and to the larger gathering and handling facilities, and we expect these to be used imaginatively.
Secondly, I know that some noble Lords and others outside are worried about the possible proliferation of surface development facilities. This is not uncommon in the North Sea. In these circumstances the Government have the powers to ensure that the exploitation of such fields is carried out as one, and we shall use these powers if it proves necessary to do so.
I have welcomed the opportunity, so early after my return to the Department of the Environment, afforded by my noble friend's Question, first to listen to your Lordships' views and then to respond to them by explaining the thinking behind our advice in the draft circular. One of the benefits of issuing advice in draft form for consultation is that those who have a point can express it before we go to the printers and commit our thoughts to posterity. I can assure your Lordships that I and my department will consider very carefully all the points that have been put tonight. I am most grateful to my noble friends and other noble Lords for what has been a most interesting debate.