§ 6.7 p.m.
§ Lord Craig of Radley rose to move, That this House take note of the Report of the Science and Technology Committee on Decommissioning of Oil and Gas Installations (Third Report, HL Paper 46).
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I may start by saying that I am sorry to learn that the Minister responsible for energy matters is indisposed. I wish the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, a speedy recovery and welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, in his place.
§ The inquiry which was originally set up just over a year ago proved to be particularly timely. There have been significant changes affecting the exploitation of our oil and gas reserves around the United Kingdom since the subject was considered by the Select Committee on Energy in another place in 1991. In May 1995, a couple of months before our call for evidence was issued, the Department of Trade and Industry circulated for comment a consultative document entitled Abandonment of Offshore Installations and Pipelines under the Petroleum Act 1987. That was shortly followed by the highly publicised Greenpeace campaign against the sinking of the "Brent Spar", a floating oil tank and never a fixed installation, in the deep waters of the Rockall Trough off north-west Scotland. Our inquiry was not a post-mortem into the "Brent Spar" episode, although inevitably there were useful lessons to be drawn from the difficulties which arose.
§ Before I comment on our findings and recommendations, I should like to put on record my heartfelt gratitude to all members of the committee who gave me and our clerk, Mr. Vaughan, such marvellous encouragement and backing. We were very fortunate to have the experience and knowledge of our two co-opted members, the noble Lords, Lord Lewis of Newnham and Lord Tombs, and of our specialist adviser, Sir Anthony Laughton, Fellow of the Royal Society and a world renowned oceanographic consultant. Dr. Bradshaw, the committee's special assistant, also made a most valuable contribution. Both Mr. Vaughan and I were on our maiden run as committee clerk and chairman. I am most 1644 grateful for the forbearance and unfailing support that we received. Mr. Vaughan passed his overture performance with flying colours.
§ Our thanks are of course due to the many witnesses who responded both verbally and in writing to our calls for evidence. Some committee members visited the "Beryl Alpha" platform owned by Mobil North Sea Limited. We were most ably looked after by our hosts, who included the Beryl area manager, Mr. Neil Duffin, and Mr. Andrew Sneddon, their senior staff environmental engineer. We are most grateful for all the trouble taken to make this very well organised visit so worth while and informative.
§ As an aside, "Beryl Alpha" is a 90-minute helicopter ride from Aberdeen. It stands in 120 metres of water and weighs in excess of 520,000 tonnes. It is far from being the largest North Sea structure. It is mainly fabricated in concrete and when decommissioned will almost certainly have to be left permanently in place, apart from the topsides which will be lifted off and brought to shore for disposal.
§ The scale of development of the North Sea's oil and gas reserves is now massive. There are approximately 440 rigs in the entire North Sea, half of which lie in the UK sector. Many of these lie in the relatively shallow waters of the southern North Sea, and modern floating cranes and barges are man enough to lift and remove these shallow sea structures to shore for dismantling when they have been made redundant. The problems we face lie with the 50 or so massive deep water installations in the hostile environment of the northern North Sea, together with the large amount of pipelines (around 10,000 kilometres in the UK sector alone) and the oil and mud pile cuttings which are a necessary concomitant of oil drilling.
§ Our report describes the various types of structure and the ways in which they could be dealt with on decommissioning. As noble Lords will have noted, there is much in our report which has been welcomed and supported by the Government in their formal response. They will have been able to take account of our recommendations in their guidance notes for oil and gas installations following the consultation process they initiated some 18 moths ago. I hope that in her response to the debate the Minister will be able to bring us up to date with this document.
§ One of our principal recommendations, after careful thought and discussion, was that it would not be right to rule out of consideration the possibility of sea disposal of a structure. Would it not be perverse to rule out sea disposal before considering any of the factors for an installation which has been in the sea for half a century or more? Indeed, some of the very heavy gravity structures like "Beryl Alpha", which rely on their massive weight and grouting to the seabed to hold them steady during their working lives, will never be removed.
§ The arguments we heard for and against disposal at sea and our conclusions are fully set out in our report, so I shall not rehearse them now in detail. The key point is that, whatever option is selected, it should be based on an open and transparent selection of the best practicable 1645 environmental option, or BPEO for short. This concept, which was devised by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in 1988, states that all possible options should be investigated and compared; all factors should be considered in comparing the merits of these options; the whole process should be conducted openly and incorporate consultation with interested parties; and the process should be flexible and take account of past experience. Wise words, and the Government deserve full support in upholding this line of approach.
§ Some witnesses suggested that the case-by-case approach would not take account of any cumulative effects of the decommissioning process. However, because there is such a variety of rigs and installations, and because decommissioning operations for large structures in the difficult waters of the North Sea are still in their infancy, we recommended that the case-by-case approach proposed in the IMO guidelines of 1989 and the Government's own draft guidelines should be maintained. Perhaps for the avoidance of doubt the phrase "case-by-case" should, I submit, not exclude considering the cumulative effects of disposal operations.
§ We further recommended that the Government should seek to restore international agreement and extend international guidelines to cover pipelines and wastes arising from drilling operations based on a BPEO approach. Without international consensus it would be very difficult for the oil and gas industry to make long-term plans or to estimate the costs of decommissioning—clearly not a satisfactory prospect for them. I shall be interested to learn what progress has been made in this important area.
§ Let me now turn to two points where the committee and the Government do not appear to be quite of the same mind. The first concerns the committee's recommendation that for any deep sea disposals planned in the future the Government should define the criteria for an ecologically acceptable area in the UK waters within which, subject to BPEO analysis, they will allow the sinking of installations. We believe that the expense of identifying several different sites and the difficulties for government (and hence the operators) of getting widespread public and international acceptance of a number of sites point towards trying to find and select a single suitable one. Moreover, the ongoing cost of the necessary monitoring of disposals would be greater if more than one site were to be used.
In their response the Government acknowledge the possibility of reusing a selected site, but then argue that it would not be sensible now to define one ecologically acceptable area for the disposal of installations and rule out the possibility that other sites could be more suitable in a particular case. In the light of the Natural Environment Research Council's report commissioned by the Government and chaired by Professor John Shepherd, I hope that the Government will think again about their attitude to our recommendation. The Shepherd group found that:
the global impacts on the environment and on human health of the deep sea disposal of a structure such as Brent Spar would be very small, roughly equivalent to the impacts associated with the wreckage of a fairly large ship".
§ In the light of that finding, I do not think that our approach is totally incompatible with the Government's present thinking. Our recommendation does not preclude an exception being made if a particular installation had to be disposed of elsewhere; for example, if for technical or other reasons it would be best to topple it on site. However, an extreme example does not mean that the majority of those selected for sea disposal should not be sunk in one location. Any step which removes uncertainty and extra cost must surely be considered favourably.
§ My second point refers to the Government's rejection of our recommendation that in situ remains of an installation should be marked by a light or buoy. I acknowledge the Government's point that the function of a buoy is to mark a hazard to navigation and that submerged remains of decommissioned structures will be marked on charts. However, our recommendation came from evidence which we received from the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. It pointed out that there is a real hazard to its members who may be capsized if their nets are snagged in underwater remains, even those at the legally allowed 55 metres or more below sea level. I hope that the purest argument about the navigational purpose of a buoy will not be allowed to override the fishermen's real concerns about hazards to their safety.
§ Finally, although we did not go so far as to make it a formal recommendation, I wish to draw the attention of the House to the problem of long-term liability for remains. When we asked Mr. Eggar, the then energy Minister, about that he stated in evidence that after consultation with the oil industry the Government had come to the conclusion that the liability should be left with the industry. Of course, one can understand government being uneasy about taking that on, but I believe that there is a real issue here which must be gripped some time in the future.
§ It is not too soon, as we start to see rigs being decommissioned and face the prospect of some of these structures remaining in situ for perhaps hundreds of years, to be giving the matter more active thought. Nor should we overlook the 10,000 kilometres of pipelines lying on the seabed and the large piles of drill cuttings and other wastes. Those could become sources of longterm pollution, perhaps ever more troublesome than the abandoned structures themselves.
§ Today's industry is financially sound and strong, but will its successors in title be equally well founded? Ultimately the risks inherent in abandoned facilities may affect the health and safety of human lives. Government will not be able to avoid shouldering some responsibility for safeguarding international safety at sea. Requiring today's owners to pay government a sufficient sum to insure against a potential liability some time in the future would seem to be a prudent course of action.
§ In commending the report to the House, I wish to conclude by underlining our support for the concept of the best practicable environmental option when considering and approving the choice for disposal of installations. Your Lordships should remember the importance of the key word "practicable" in this 1647 concept. Only by that broadly based approach will the other factors—technical, engineering, human safety and, of course, cost—be properly weighed in the balance when reaching a decision on disposal.
At the end of the day there will be a measure of human judgment in that decision. Risks, where they are quantifiable, can and should be measured, but some cannot and those with the greatest experience and scientific and engineering knowledge of the structures and their hostile environment are those whose advice should be given greatest weight by Ministers who have to approve and, if necessary, defend their decisions in public. I beg to move.
§ 6.24 p.m.
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, I wish to thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, for his clear and comprehensive introduction of the report and its main conclusions. I shall make some observations which I hope will be helpful because, in general, I agree with what is in the report.
Offshore oil and gas still form a comparatively new industry for the United Kingdom. The oil was first discovered only 26 years ago in 1970 and the first oil was extracted from the seabed only 21 years ago in 1975. I venture to make my modest contribution to the debate because I was closely involved in those early days; I was Secretary of State for Scotland from 1970 to 1974 when oil was discovered in the North Sea. The Department of Energy was not created until 1974. Later I served in a non-executive capacity with a major oil company which has been the operator of one of the largest fields in the North Sea. I retired some time ago but I still follow offshore activity with close interest.
The structures which pose the difficult problems are the platforms. At times they are referred to as "rigs" but that can be confusing. Drilling rigs used for exploration are mobile and move around in their work. They are not rooted to the seabed when their working lives come to an end. The top sides of platforms, consisting of the operating and living quarters supported above the surface, should be removable when no longer needed without great difficulty. However, the jackets, which in the North Sea are mostly steel structures but a few are of concrete, are another matter. Some in the deeper water are gigantic and their eventual fate will need very careful consideration.
The core legislation in this country was the Petroleum Act 1987. Some of us took part in the debates in this House during the Bill's passage. At that time I was chairman of the Advisory Committee on Protection of the Sea, a non-governmental organisation with international membership. The principle enacted in that Act was that each redundant structure should be considered as a separate case, as recommended by the International Maritime Organisation. Later guidelines from the British Government have confirmed, elaborated and clarified procedures. Guidelines have also been formulated on water clearance to be left above partially removed installations. For reasons of safety and navigation, clearance of at least 55 metres of water 1648 column must be left on the United Kingdom shelf. The smaller platforms in shallow water are likely to be removed completely. I understand that in the North Sea about 10 have already been taken out of commission in that way.
We should remember that oil provinces discovered offshore before those in the North Sea—for example, in the Gulf of Mexico and in Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela—were in relatively shallow waters. When their first platforms became redundant they could be removed completely without great difficulty. In contrast, the most productive fields in the North Sea were in much deeper water and the latest technology from American and international companies, and advances in that technology in the early 1970s, were required to build the giant platforms which were needed.
The fields now being developed west of Shetland are in even deeper water. Fixed platforms of even greater size to serve them are not practicable. Other sophisticated techniques are being devised; for example, special vessels on the surface controlling operations and the remote control of installations on the seabed. Those systems are less likely to raise serious problems on abandonment of the fields and that augurs well for the future. It is also consonant with the IMO's recommended standard that from 1998 onwards all new installations should be demonstrably removable when they are redundant.
The subject of decommissioning and disposal became front-page news last summer with a chapter of the unfinished saga of "Brent Spar". Unfortunately, the impression was given by the media, unintentionally, that that was an example and a precedent for the disposal of platforms. "Brent Spar" was referred to continually as a platform, which it is not; nor is it a rig; it is a storage buoy, floating and moored to the seabed. It does not contain drilling or other equipment for operating a field. Its purpose was to store oil for loading into visiting tankers.
Furthermore, there have been very few of those floating storage buoys on the British Continental Shelf. I believe that there has been only one other. However, platforms, of which there are about 150 on the British shelf, are standing on the seabed, many pile-driven into it, although some recent ones have a flexible tension-leg system. Their main functions are different and the storage of oil—the whole purpose of "Brent Spar"—is not one of them.
The disposal of "Brent Spar" raises special considerations which do not necessarily apply to platforms; for example, in relation to residues in its tanks.
Another mistake made widely last year was in reporting that the "Brent Spar" was to be dumped in the North Sea. On hearing one such statement in a BBC broadcast I telephoned immediately to point out the error. An apology was made and I was told that the mistake would be corrected in future bulletins. I find it sad that in a maritime nation, which we are, the difference between sinking an object to a depth of a mile or so in the deep Atlantic Ocean, far from land, as was the plan, and discarding it in some 400 feet of water in the North Sea is not sharply apparent.
1649 The saga is unfinished. "Brent Spar" is still lying in a fjord, the Norwegian Government having extended the period originally agreed to July 1997. Shell has received 30 outline plans for its disposal from 19 contractors and consortia. Those plans include both sinking in the deep ocean and dismantling on or beside land. The second option entails many additional health and safety factors.
As paragraphs 3.41 and 3.42 record, in decommissioning, attention must be given to drill cuttings, which are likely to include oil and chemicals. They are normally produced by drilling processes and collect in piles or layers at the feet of platforms. They could be sources of contamination if not neutralised. They could be stirred up and spread when the bases of platforms are being uprooted for removal.
I should like to make a few comments on the effects on sea fisheries. While platforms are in place, there are no-go zones around them, usually of a radius of 500 metres. Fishermen's organisations are greatly concerned about the effects of decommissioning on their fishing operations, not only from the stumps or abandoned lower sections of structures but also from the chemicals, oily cuttings and pipelines. I believe that the last two can he neutralised; for example, by removal or covering over. On structural remains left on the bottom and well below the surface there will inevitably be controversy, although they are likely to be authorised only in deep water.
I shall try to convey what I believe is the attitude of fishermen's organisations. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation, to which the noble and gallant Lord referred, represents about half the tonnage of all British fishermen and is certainly a very influential body which I believe normally takes sensible views.
It has been pointed out that the remains of a platform can form an artificial reef which can encourage the multiplication of fish. That has been effective in other parts of the world in shallow waters. However, I suggest that that is appropriate only in certain areas of our Continental Shelf.
The reason for that is that an important part of our fishing fleet—the boats that trawl for demersal fish on or near the seabed—would find the truncated structures to be additional obstacles. There are already wrecks of ships forming obstacles whose locations fishermen must know and take into account. Those fishermen would not welcome more obstacles on the seabed likely to damage their fishing gear on what had been productive fishing grounds in the past. In other words, avoiding obstruction to their normal fishing methods is as important to them as increasing the numbers of fish by creating artificial reefs.
I am speaking mainly of the larger boats—those which form the substantial core of our fishing fleet and make voyages of several days, often travelling far from their home ports. Those not engaged in the specialised pelagic fisheries of herring and mackerel are bringing to market the white fish which swim near the seabed; for example, cod, haddock, whiting and flat fish. Their fishing operations involve movement. Their engines propel them so that their trawls or seine nets are extended and pulled behind them. They are looking for 1650 straight fairways where they can have a clear run of 1,000 metres or more without impediment. That is very different from rod and line fishing from a seaside pier.
I have kept in touch with fishermens' organisations for many years on this and other subjects. Perhaps it is fitting for me to speak on these fishery considerations today. I established a body bringing together fishermen's organisations and the offshore oil industry and others expressly to examine jointly the swift course of developments in the North Sea when oil was first being discovered way back in the early 1970s and when I was the Secretary of State concerned. I believe that, with full consultation, acceptable solutions can be found to suit different parts of the sea and the seabed. That can be done within the policy of authorising decommissioning separately for each individual case, a policy which I continue to support.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Lord Gregson
My Lords, I too thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, for his very able chairmanship of the sub-committee which produced this excellent report. I also thank the clerk to the committee for the determined way in which he kept us to the subject.
What intrigued me most about the inquiry was that when we started it, the proposed disposal of the "Brent Spar" was a recent event and the considerable antagonism associated with it was still in recent memory. As the inquiry proceeded, the calm and detailed examination in the committee room showed slowly but surely that the protagonists were not so far apart compared with the rhetoric which was generated at the time of the "Brent Spar" problem.
In giving evidence, Greenpeace accepted that concrete structures could be disposed of at sea since they in fact mimic the materials of the seabed but they need to be thoroughly decontaminated before disposal. As that concrete is half the mass of the rigs in the deeper waters, it makes a very large inroad into the problem of disposal. However, it thought that the remaining steel parts and steel rigs should be brought ashore and recycled for scrap.
Later in the inquiry the offshore operators fully accepted the need for decontamination, and so we are really concerned only with the disposal of the deep water steel rigs and components.
Personally, I can see no ecological problem with disposing of steel in the deep sea since many billions of tonnes are already under the sea as a result of two world wars and many thousands of shipwrecks, with no apparent damaging effect. In fact, steel is protected in deep water because oxygen is excluded. A fine example of that is the images which were generated by Bob Ballard when he investigated the "Titanic" and several other vessels in the sea. In fact in many cases the structures were almost as good as when they were launched, probably better.
In fact, only last week, in the journal Nature, four international papers were published which proposed the introduction of iron into the world's oceans in order to 1651 encourage the growth of plant life, which would increase the food potential and absorb carbon on a massive scale to counter the greenhouse effect.
On the other hand, there is a growing shortage of steel scrap due to the changes in the manufacturing process of steel production—the so-called "minimill process" which is rapidly spreading throughout the developing world. Those minimills are fed entirely from scrap and avoid the costly and large-scale smelting of iron from iron ore. There is, therefore, a strong case for recycling the steel from the off-shore rigs. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said, several of the shallow rigs have already been brought ashore and recycled.
Unfortunately I am highly suspicious of the £3,000 to £4,000 per tonne quoted by the off-shore operators for bringing scrap from these deep-water rigs ashore to be recycled, especially when one considers that a scheme is being proposed to salvage some of the many U-boats scuttled in deep waters after the Second World War, in order to recover the scrap for recycling.
I believe that much more work needs to be done to determine the feasibility of recycling steel from the deep water rigs. It is apparent to me that, given a reasonable degree of compromise, the problems of disposal of off-shore rigs can be solved. I believe that this report points the way.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ The Earl of Selborne
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Gregson, I was a member of the Select Committee which undertook the inquiry. I join the noble Lord in expressing gratitude to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, for the way in which he chaired the committee and especially for the way in which he introduced the report today. As my voice is rather suspect tonight, I can be very brief because the noble and gallant Lord has said really all that needs to be said.
I should like to return to a very fundamental issue and it is one which informs the whole debate as to how one disposes of installations, be they rigs, platforms or whatever. First, when we come to dispose of such installations, should we always take the best practicable environmental option (BPEO)? Secondly, if we determine that BPEO is appropriate, then how, on a case-by-case basis, do we set about determining what is BPEO?
The first and fundamental issue arises from society's legitimate right to say that some areas of the globe are no-go areas. Whatever the assessment of risk and the assessment of environmental damage of alternative actions, we may decide, despite the fact that this might be the best practical environmental option, that: "We, society, in our wisdom determine that you shall not dispose of rubbish or no longer-needed installations in those areas". I suppose, when thinking where such areas could conceivably exist, one might think in terms of those cultures which use such areas for burial or they could be areas where sacred graves are located. Although there may well be sensible reasons for burying 1652 waste in those areas because they are deemed by society to have a value which transcends the assessment of an economist, they become no-go areas.
I suppose that it is therefore conceivable that society might determine that the bottom of the ocean—or, indeed, all oceans—should become such areas. Indeed, during the kind of fiasco surrounding the debate on the "Brent Spar" there were indeed just such proponents. Presumably such proponents said that on no account should we ever again dump our waste at sea. I assume that they would have taken a more extreme view than Greenpeace took in evidence to us. They would have said that even those concrete installations could no longer be dumped at sea.
Of course we see a movement in that direction, although it has to be admitted that it is nothing like as fundamental. In a few years' time we shall no longer be allowed to dump our sewage at sea. Some people will still believe that the best practical environmental option would be to do just that. Indeed, those who have read the report on soils of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recognise the great damage that will be caused by critical loads unless we manage to take the metal out of sewage. Nevertheless, we have in that instance, and for reasons which I still find difficult to understand, taken the view that sewage can no longer be dumped at sea.
However, I do not believe that society is anywhere near ready yet to contemplate the dire consequences of saying that no waste of any kind should ever again be dumped at sea. The implications for the exploitation of the marine resource would be quite horrendous. It would follow from that that many of the exercises that man undertakes when securing his livelihood would simply become impossible. Therefore, I believe that it is reasonable to assume that this fundamental approach—although people are quite entitled to debate it—is not one that society is anywhere near to sanctioning. It is clearly right and correct, as the report recommends, and as Professor Shepherd's committee recommended, that BPEO should be determined.
Then we have the issue as to how precisely one determines what is BPEO. Everyone must recognise that the exercise undertaken by the owners of "Brent Spar" was a fairly poor example of the implementation of BPEO. I shall not go into that because our report was not about "Brent Spar" although, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, reminded us, clearly it was bound to be influenced by that episode. The report by Professor Shepherd which was undertaken on behalf of the Natural Environment Research Council was specifically about the "Brent Spar". I believe that that report makes it quite clear in what respects BPEO was defective.
The clear essential to be undertaken by physical scientists, engineers, economists and lawyers and others who undertake BPEO is to agree first of all a methodology on risk assessment. Unless there is an agreed methodology, there will always be arguments about the basis upon which the assessment is to be made. Then, on the basis of that agreed methodology, one needs to undertake a full assessment of the 1653 problems, the risks and the environmental hazards, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, reminded us, to such interests as fishing and others. All those interests must have the opportunity to check the data and engage in the debate. When the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution defined the concept of BPEO it was clear that there simply must be full transparency, as the noble and gallant Lord reminded us. Without it, one cannot undertake a proper, clear review and, without it, people cannot possibly be expected to have any confidence in the views of "experts". Everyone must feel that he is entitled to contribute to the debate.
The only area where anyone could put a knife between our report and that of Professor Shepherd is in our wording of "case-by-case" as opposed to "cumulative". I believe that the noble and gallant Lord dealt with the matter quite clearly. There is nothing in undertaking a case-by-case appraisal which suggests that one cannot also bear in mind the cumulative effects. Indeed, the Government's response to our report makes that very clear. I believe that it is perfectly appropriate for the cumulative effects to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
What then for the future? Clearly, before any new installations are put into the North Sea or elsewhere, we expect a cradle to grave environmental appraisal to be essential. No doubt there will be far greater transparency, openness and a shared consensus on the methodology involved in the future. However, I suspect that there will still be a role for confrontation. After all, it is perfectly open for members of society—perhaps some people would call them extremists, whereas others would say that they were ahead of their time—to wish to change people's attitudes to the basic principles under which we normally operate and behave.
There will be some people who believe passionately that we have a duty not to dump our rubbish and especially not to do so at sea. I hope that I may declare that I do not count myself as one of those people. I believe that there are still very good reasons, not least when considering the impact on human health and safety and, indeed, the impact on the terrestrial environment, why we should allow the options still to remain. However, I accept that confrontation will remain with us if we wish to allow people to put forward their point of view that, one day, we should no longer be allowed to dump our waste at sea.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lord Nathan
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, who chaired the sub-committee. He kept us all in order which is not easy in a committee containing so many varied talents. It was easy to branch out into interesting but irrelevant matters. However, our chairman, with his charm and firmness, brought us back to the main purpose of the inquiry. The report, its form and its relevance to the matters under consideration, owe much to his excellent chairmanship.
I was interested to hear what the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, just said about dumping waste at sea. Many years ago I was chairman of the sub-committee of the European Communities Committee which studied the 1654 question of dumping waste at sea. We came to the conclusion to which the noble Earl has referred; namely, that that was a perfectly proper course to adopt. It has since been found by others not to be an acceptable course to adopt, and accordingly it is not now adopted. Therefore when we considered the matter we are presently discussing I felt a certain familiarity with some of the problems that we examined. I find the matter extremely interesting.
Many years ago, as a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, while undertaking a study of marine oil pollution I visited the Forties Field and the oil rigs. I, and I believe also my colleagues, were greatly impressed by the absence of pollution from operations and the abundance of fish sheltering there. In the course of this present inquiry, we discussed the importance and difficulty of dealing with drill cuttings. That raised for me new concerns. We were advised that cutting piles was likely to be the major source of hydrocarbon release from decommissioning operations. Apparently over time natural processes form a relatively inert top layer or cap over cutting piles. Therefore the process of removing, dismantling or toppling the main structure might break the cap and release hydrocarbons and other chemicals. Indeed, even the removal of the jacket above the pile might cause changes in currents and result in such releases. If the structure is removed, piles of some 100 feet in height will not only be a peril to fishermen and gear, but will result in extensive pollution if they are disturbed by fishing operations.
These are not issues which arose—and they could not arise—in connection with "Brent Spar" about which there was so much publicity. I believe there is little public knowledge about those matters yet they are clearly of the first importance in the whole subject of decommissioning, not least because the process of the removal could be held up until problems of dealing with drill cuttings have been resolved. We have made recommendations about research. In their response the Government have stated that they have commissioned research into the subject. That stemmed from an international meeting in 1995. I should be interested to hear the Minister tell us what progress has been made in the research which has been commissioned, and when it is expected that an outcome of the research will be available. I should also be interested to hear whether the Government are pressing for an early reply. For the reasons I have mentioned, I believe these are matters of great importance.
I turn for a moment to current licensing arrangements, on which we took certain evidence. We were told by many witnesses that "cradle to grave" design procedures were now well established. The Minister, Tim Eggar, told us,We probably ought from the very beginning of looking at the installation of these platforms, to have asked the issue of decommissioning to be designed in, but that has been done for the last decade or so".I should be grateful if the Minister could help us on that matter because I believe there is some confusion on this important point.
1655 As has been said, the International Maritime Organisation guidelines require that after 1st January 1998 no structure should be installed unless the design and construction are such that entire removal upon abandonment or permanent disuse would be feasible. That guideline falls far short of requiring any particular course of action to be taken, or indeed any action at all. Yet public expectation in the light of that guideline must be that the structure will be removed. The comment of the Minister which I have quoted reinforces that assumption.
It might be thought that the precise steps to be taken at the end of the structure's life would be prescribed in the original licence to install; but in further evidence the Minister seemed to feel that this was inappropriate as the long timescales indicated the need for flexibility as to the steps to be taken. Accordingly, determination of what is to happen about decommissioning would only be decided when this was to take place. I accept that this is a dilemma; but it seems to me that there would be much advantage in incorporating into the original licence full programmes for decommissioning which would be subject to public debate, according to BPEO as indicated by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and based upon the then known factors. There should be liberty for either the company or the Government, subject again to public debate, to consider proposals for amendment or radical change if circumstances at the relevant time were substantially different.
For all the good intentions of the companies and the Government, public confidence in each is at a low ebb particularly in relation to assessment of risk. It is risk which lies at the root of the need to decommission in an acceptable manner. A recent report issued by POST (the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) quotes University of East Anglia research which indicates that few people trust advice on environmental risks given either by government (the figure is 7.6 per cent.) or companies (the figure is 12.8 per cent.). Therefore I believe that public acceptance of further exploration and production can only be envisaged if there is public involvement as to decommissioning. Promises by government and companies will be of little use. The positive response of the Government to the report is encouraging but there remains much to be done. I very much hope that the Minister will say what the Government will do—and I wish this most of all—and when.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, I add my thanks to the chairman of the committee which produced this report. The noble and gallant Lord not only kept us in order but he also—this has not yet been commented upon—worked us to a strict timescale as he was under pressure to complete the report with limited time available in which to do so. It was hard work to keep us all in order. I also wish to place on record my thanks for the co-operation of the oil industry at large in this inquiry. The industry was most helpful to us all.
1656 When I look outside this building I see a river that is lined with stone, concrete, brick and reinforced concrete from here almost down to its mouth. I can think of endless coastal towns protected by reinforced concrete sea walls. None of that causes any particular problems in the environmental field. Yet suddenly last summer a proposal to drop a large reinforced concrete structure into the deep ocean became a matter of high public controversy. One has to ask how this can be. How could what was thought to be a fairly straightforward, non-controversial matter suddenly expand into a major row? Fifteen months later, "Brent Spar" is still moored in a Norwegian fjord and time is running out. Of course that is a slight over-simplification of the story. Not least of the important issues in the report is how we handle matters in the future so that that kind of problem does not arise again. "Brent Spar" may not be a platform, but it is a precedent. It is a forerunner of 20, 30 or 40 years during which similar situations can arise.
For me, an important aspect of the report is not simply the environmental issue of how to dispose of those platforms. It is how to set about avoiding such controversies in the future; it is about public information and public knowledge; it is about bringing together the different approach which comes from commercial interest and public interest. In that instance the problems were exacerbated by an unfortunate inaccuracy in a statement by Greenpeace which was inevitably played up by some of the less responsible elements of the media. However, by the time that crisis arose it was too late to try to counter the argument with the real facts because public attitudes, which were conditioned by apathy initially, had not been prepared in any way. We have already heard mention of the suspicion of the public about government statements. In cases like the "Brent Spar" it is necessary to apply what I call a slow process of education. In that instance the real damage is to Greenpeace's future credibility; but that is a separate issue.
We need to be aware of the international aspect of environmental matters and green politics. In the final analysis what brought "Brent Spar" back to that Norwegian fjord was not the activity and action in this country but the consumer action in Germany and, more importantly, the rising tide of violence occurring there. We need to be aware that we are not discussing simply a national problem in all these issues but an international problem, and one with which we have to deal.
The best practical environmental option—it is a system which I support—in the case of "Brent Spar" was not known in detail to the public. The facts were not secret but they were unrevealed and had not been drawn to the public's attention so that again it was possible to play on public fears and to produce an unreasonable reaction. Indeed, one factor that arises is that public acceptability has to be considered as part of the best practical environmental option. The other lesson that we have to learn—it is not exclusively in this field that we have to learn it—is to trust the public with accurate facts and information. If we are not prepared to do so, we have to accept that this kind of crisis will 1657 arise from time to time. This will be a long-running saga over a considerable period in the future. We must expect similar incidents to arise as time passes.
Another important aspect of the report is the need for the developing co-operation that already exists as regards future pipelines. We are discussing clearing platforms and the seabed. That is perfectly reasonable. However, those pipelines have a very different life and future from platforms. Platforms are established to deal initially with specific fields. As drilling technology develops, so the capacity of those fields develops. The platforms will continue in production for rather longer than was initially envisaged when they were built. Pipelines were built and installed to serve those platforms. But once they are installed they can then serve other fields which are developed subsequently.
The pattern of development has been to develop first the large fields which will stand the high investment required. That includes investment in the pipelines. However, on the back of that development smaller fields which are otherwise uneconomic to develop will be brought on-stream. We need to have particular regard to the fact that economic circumstances may well change over time. Small fields and small pockets of oil under the sea which are uneconomic at present are likely to become economic at some point in the future. If in our keenness to clear structures away we clear pipelines out of the way, we shall almost certainly guarantee that there will be no access to many of those small fields which are uneconomic at present. If the pipelines are preserved, much of the infrastructure necessary to make it possible to develop those fields will already be in place. We need a different approach on the issue of pipelines from the pure issue of disposal of rigs.
I shall revert to "Brent Spar" to this extent. This crisis and—if the noble and gallant chairman will forgive my saying so—this report arose out of the controversy that was generated by public ignorance; and that is where I wish to conclude. The best practical environmental option must include public acceptability. But public acceptability and public opinion are valid only if the public are well and accurately informed. Whatever else we do, we must take care to ensure that that takes place in future.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, perhaps I may add my compliments to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, on this study. As he told us, this is the first report that he has led as chairman and I must say that it was a delight to work under his leadership. Like the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, it is also to his credit that this is one of the quickest reports that the committee has ever produced. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, has given noble Lords the background to the report, and so there is no need for me to cover that ground again.
However, it will be interesting to look at some of the events that have happened since. Some time has passed since we reported in February and, as other noble Lords have said, in May an expert group from the National Environmental Research Council also reported on the decommissioning of "Brent Spar". It confirmed many of 1658 our conclusions. It agreed with us that disposal at sea was an option, and that the global impact would be minimal. The group also agreed that there should be a case by case consideration of the disposal and that the cumulative effect must also be taken into account. Most importantly, it also agreed that the best practical environmental option procedure should be followed in decommissioning operations.
I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that one of the most important recommendations in our report concerns the consultation procedures in our paragraphs 4.10 to 4.13. In those paragraphs we are anxious that the best practical environmental option procedure should be open and transparent. Other noble Lords have made that point and so did the NERC report. We emphasise that the assessments should be open to peer review and that each case should be judged on its individual merits. Any proposed decommissioning should be announced in advance, and submissions from interested parties should be welcomed. It is important that the consultation should not simply be a public relations exercise; it should be capable of altering the identified best practical environmental option.
What was our reason for this? Our reason was the belief that the row over the disposal of the "Brent Spar" was partly caused by the secrecy surrounding the way the BPEO decision was taken. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that the secrecy was interpreted by the public as not taking their concerns into account. Unfortunately, the DTI added to the aura of secrecy by considering its discussions with Shell as "commercial in confidence". In reality, it was largely a matter of risk assessment. The DTI approved of sea disposal as the BPEO and then compounded the public's suspicion by attacking Shell for changing its mind at the last minute. I seem to remember government Ministers referring to Shell's directors as "wimps" for changing their minds.
The Government must realise that an important part of a BPEO decision is public acceptability, because people do not just automatically believe the Government any more. Politicians are losing out to consumers, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, told us. Shell understood this and, perhaps a little late, acted accordingly. The Government did not and were suitably made to look incompetent.
A further reason for openness is contained in the recent report by the consultants, Wood Mackenzie. They point out that the taxpayer will carry much of the cost of disposal and decommissioning by virtue of tax allowances. Wood Mackenzie estimate that in some fields this could amount to as much as 70 per cent. of the abandonment expenses. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, told us about the number of installations to be decommissioned, so the amounts of money involved are huge. Wood Mackenzie estimate that total decommissioning could cost about £8.7 billion. At a time when government tax revenues are seriously below estimate, this is an important consideration.
1659 However, I am sure that the Government have learnt their lesson and that the Minister can reassure us on this. In their observations on our report in paragraph 2 they state:Events surrounding the disposal of the Brent Spar oil storage installation have emphasised the need for a clear, public understanding of the issues involved and the way in which decisions are taken".That this is right has been proved by further events. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, told us that recently several structures had been satisfactorily decommissioned by moving them onshore for recycling or re-use. He also told us that "Brent Spar" is unique because of its size and design and how Shell publicly called for ideas to decommission the "Brent Spar". Shell received hundreds of responses, many imaginative and some less so. Some suggestions were that future installations should be left in situ and turned into anything from a gambling casino to an offshore wind farm. Other ideas involved recycling parts of the structure for oil storage tanks onshore or as sea defences on the east coast or as fish breeding tanks.
There are many ingenious ideas as to how "Brent Spar" can be brought onshore into a dry dock or floated in a horizontal position to ease dismantling. One suggestion is that it should be cleaned up and, with the installation of a wind-powered generator, turned into a desalination plant to produce fresh water. On 1st November, there is to be the first of several conferences where 30 of these ideas will be discussed.
However, an interesting development could extend the life of the rigs. Companies are emerging which specialise in extending the productive life of mature oil fields. These firms have lower operating costs than the large oil companies and can operate profitably on lower volumes. That has an impact on depletion and tax, but extending the life of the offshore fields allows more time to develop new and cheaper ways of dealing with the platforms.
The point I wish to make is that by such openness, not only has there been more understanding of the issues involved, but also the possibilities of the best practical environmental option have been widened from only considering contamination of air, land and sea to possible alternative use, recycling of the installations or extending their working life.
As other noble Lords have said, there is a large element of judgment in the concept of the BPEO. Opening the process to public discussion and scrutiny should ensure rigorous and rational consideration of the facts. It will help in the disputes between industrial companies and the environmental lobbies because ultimately a solution has to be found. This openness should assist the Government in regulating matters.
As we progress and discover new ways of extracting fuel, there will always be new risks to ourselves and to the environment. We need to be open about this trade-off between risk and progress. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, that nowadays for technical progress to succeed it needs the confidence of the public. I hope that this debate will help to reinforce that. 1660 It would be a welcome reward for the hard work of the committee and the clerks. I am most grateful to all for being such helpful, pleasant and willing colleagues.
§ 7.17 p.m.
§ Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
My Lords, I too add my congratulations to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, on chairing the investigation. I joined the sub-committee not at the beginning but when it was about a quarter of the way through. As with all such investigations, there is a massive amount of data to digest. I admire the noble and gallant Lord's ability to make everyone digest it in the most appropriate way.
It is only two decades since we started drilling and recovering oil and gas from the seabed in the North Sea, often on the Continental Shelf, mostly less than 50 metres down but sometimes in much deeper waters. At present, there are of the order of 440 steel and concrete installations, of which 219 are in the UK sector. We learnt from the UK Offshore Operators Association that there are sufficient reserves to sustain significant levels of production of oil and gas for at least a further 20 years.
However, eventually—as with all fossil fuels—the supply of oil and gas runs out. Then the installations must be decommissioned and possibly disposed of. I am sure that all Members of the House have the booklet of the UK Offshore Operators Association which states that some 50 fields will be decommissioned in the next 10 years at a cost of approximately £1.5 billion. This is at present, and will be a major engineering and environmental challenge, as the report of the Select Committee states. Indeed, the committee has been an opportune study to bring together the present objective information and opinions on that information about decommissioning, as well as the more subjective opinions of those concerned with environmental and health issues.
The report will serve as a landmark in providing the basis of action in each case of decommissioning to decide the best practical environmental option (BPEO), especially for installations in the North Sea where difficult problems pertain and where large and heavy units are in deep water—compared with the decommissioning of shallow water installations, as in the Gulf of Mexico, where to date some 900 installations have been decommissioned. The BPEO includes an economic component as well as technical feasibility and the effects on the environment.
I was particularly drawn to the environmental issues and to the comments in the various evidence on the effects of decommissioning on the marine biota. This has been the concern of environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others. However, I believe that NERC, the environmental research council, in its evidence, set the minds of many, and certainly my mind, at rest as to the minimal impact that deep sea disposal would have on the marine biota at depths of 2,000 metres and below where deep sea disposal is planned.
At that depth waste would move, it is stated, in a horizontal manner and to a large extent not vertically because of a main thermocline at 1,000 metres. The 1661 conclusion of NERC is that many pollutants would be extremely diluted by the time they reached the surface waters and there would be no damage to the environment, fish or human health in that area. The deeper one goes, the more tenuous are the links with the surface and with areas below 2,000 metres there is little connection between the two. NERC suggests, therefore, convincingly to my mind, that deep sea disposal would pose no threat to commercial fisheries.
A suggestion from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee is that if disposal at sea were indeed the best practical environmental option, one deep sea water site should be chosen instead of dumping rigs all over the place. In such a case there is an opportunity to investigate a site to be used. The present scientific evidence is that it would lead to little or no pollution. In any case a single site could be kept under surveillance and monitored over a period of years.
There are situations where the marine disposal of installations, appropriately cleaned up, is beneficial to the marine biota in the formation of the reefs. The concept of "rigs to reefs" has been frequently practised in the Gulf of Mexico to great advantage.
All those points were made and were well received by the Government, with the exceptions mentioned, and by environmental groups. An important outcome of the report, mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and others, is the transparency that is necessary in the decommissioning process to determine the best practical environmental option.
I believe that that has had an effect on the "Brent Spar" situation. I am sure that noble Lords have received from Shell an invitation for 1st November to practise a transparent opinion as to what should happen to that rig. The "Brent Spar" rig has very much focused our interest on this issue. It may well be that when the history of deep sea oil rigs and their disposal is written, it will be the signal marker of the start of a process of doing more research, which needs to be done, on the disposal of rigs in a deep sea situation. It is important that there is transparency and that people of many opinions have the opportunity to express interest in this issue.
§ 7.25 p.m.
§ Lord Gisborough
My Lords, I am amazed at the fuss made about the prospect of toppling fully prepared rigs into the depths of the ocean. There must be thousands of ships littered over the sea bed, all ill-prepared for sinking, many in shallow water, sinking with hazardous cargoes, full oil tanks and often stuffed with ammunition. Certainly there is nothing to be happy about, but they do little damage to the environment and it puts into perspective the sinking of a fully prepared rig into very deep water well out of the way of any underwater activity.
There is, however, no technical reason why even structures in our deepest waters in the north of the North Sea need to be toppled. I base that view on public comments made by offshore heavy lift contractors that such structures can be lifted, removed and returned to land, even those made of concrete.
1662 Structures in shallow water are already being brought to land. That is being done in accordance with International Maritime Organisation regulations that all structures in less than 75 metres of water and weighing less than 4,000 tonnes must not be toppled but must be decommissioned and returned to land. That relates predominantly to the structures in the shallow southern North Sea. For instance, platforms have already been successfully removed from the BHP Hamilton Esmond field and the Conoco Viking field, and the Shell Leman BK platform is currently being removed. Furthermore, Esso is currently removing the "Odin" platform, which I understand to be in some 80 metres of water.
We must weigh the consequences of toppling structures, with the remote possibility of damage to the environment, against the prospect of bringing the structures ashore for decommissioning and thereby creating employment opportunities and having the advantage of enabling materials to be refurbished and recycled and thus overall reducing the depletion of natural resources.
It is important for us to realise the opportunities available for decommissioning rigs in this country and the advantage to the British economy, as well as ensuring that our seas and oceans are not environmentally disadvantaged.
On the face of it, cost might be considered the vital issue here. Ignoring any environmental issues, it may seem less costly simply to topple the structures than to bring them ashore and dismantle and recycle them. The main cost of bringing structures ashore lies with the removal and lifting of the structure from the seabed. The cost of dismantling equates with the value of the surplus parts, such as scrap, generators and so on.
Yards are therefore able to stockpile rigs and have a reservoir of work with which to keep their labour force occupied. Dismantling is therefore a valuable industry both economically and for the creation of some 500 jobs in one yard, provided there is a reasonably steady flow of rigs. Because a reservoir of rigs can be held at very little cost, those jobs can be fairly permanent.
If the structures are returned to land, the UK economy will receive a cost benefit from the job creation aspects and the material recycling savings. I have seen figures indicating that over 99 per cent. of materials are recycled from the structures brought back to land. So there is a strong case to be made that there are overall cost benefits and savings in bringing the structures back to land. I am told that the potential tonnage of material exceeds 10 million tonnes and the market value of onshore disposal is in the region of £3 billion. Those figures conflict with other figures mentioned; but whatever the figures are, they are very big.
The main onshore disposal yards are in the north east, which is why I am taking part in the debate. There is a large facility on the River Tees, in the north east of England, which can receive and successfully handle a significant proportion of the platforms that will need to be decommissioned, and there are other yards of rather less capacity. The Tees facility is large and well located for access from the sea and is in an area well away from 1663 housing. It is also located in an area where unemployment is very high, yet the skill base required is readily available.
There is one serious competitor to the UK yards; namely, Rotterdam. There are also smaller yards in Norway and on the Tyne. With the desperate need for jobs in the north east, it is vital that the UK should aim to be a leader with the North Sea dismantling industry. There is therefore a strong argument against cluttering our seas and ocean beds with rotting structures and toward the option of maximising UK job creation and material recycling. I have no doubt that future generations would certainly support that view.
§ 7.31 p.m.
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, I too thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, not least for on almost all occasions reminding us that this report is not just a synopsis of the events that took place regarding the "Brent Spar" but looks at the wider problem. It would be wrong to assume that the report was not prompted by the "Brent Spar" and the reactions to its disposal, but it has brought to light a much larger problem which will take many years to solve.
I hope the Minister will forgive me if I focus my contribution on the Government's response. On first reading the Government's response, I could not help but see it as an extremely positive and indeed generous document. However, I suspect that I am becoming quite cynical and I had to read it a second time. I was then struck by the fact that, although it is positive in nature, there are very few concrete plans and set financial commitments regarding future disposals of oil and gas sea installations.
I was heartened to see that the Government have accepted the idea that the best possible environmental option should apply to each individual rig. But I believe that there is an inherent danger associated with that; namely, the cost. As the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, pointed out, there must be as much information as possible made available about these installations and their disposal and I feel that only through open government will the public come to accept their disposal at sea. However, as anybody who has taken part in a planning inquiry—say, between a county council and a supermarket—will know, those with the most money will have the loudest voice.
I echo the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough. Coming myself from the North East, I feel that it would be wrong not to recognise the financial viability of bringing these structures to the North East to be scrapped. A very large industry will probably grow up in the North East and also in Norway to look at the options for disposing of the rigs. However, financial considerations should not be our only focus.
I was interested to note in the report that the differences between the options of disposal are not paltry. The difference between taking the cheapest and the most expensive option runs into billions of pounds. Indeed, on individual rigs the difference can run into hundreds of millions of pounds. It would be wrong to consider cost as the ruling factor.
1664 With that in mind, when I re-read the Government response I felt slightly apprehensive. Discussing drill cuttings, on page 10, paragraph 32(b), the Government put forward the objective:To present a review of what have so far been estimated to be the effects of such cuttings piles"—I come to the important part—(including but not limited to the environment)".Obviously, the environment should not be the only factor taken into consideration. However, cost could easily outweigh the environment in many cases. This is where the Government must make the strongest stand. The best practical environmental option is a fairly movable feast. It is an artificial solution that will be set by the government of the day and the institutions.
I must admit that I entered the Select Committee feeling that dumping at sea was morally the wrong option. After noting the evidence that was given, I echo the view of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, that dumping at sea should not be ruled out. In fact, in some cases that might be an environmentally sensible option.
But I also believe that it should be seen not as the first but rather as the last option. Financially it might be more expensive to bring many rigs to shore but their effect on the sea bed in the long term could be more detrimental. The changing nature of the financial position was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Gregson. The value of the scrap metal may change dramatically in the next few years. It would be ironic if, in the future within our lifetimes, we see salvage operations to recover oil rigs dumped in the deep sea undertaken because of the rigs' scrap metal worth.
Looking at the dumping option, I was surprised—this was brought about by the visit to Aberdeen—when the DTI indicated that its cradle-to-grave scenario in clearing the sea floor meant that it was looking at taking the structures off the sea floor and bringing them to the surface. That is where the guidelines stopped. It was a separate consideration from their next destination. That is perhaps the fundamental flaw which underlined a great deal of our discussion.
When looking at the scale of options, it is hardly surprising that many designs of oil rig are not considered worth shifting. But perhaps it is a measure of our arrogance that half a million and even one million tonne structures were put on the sea bed with, perhaps at most, a 30 to 40-year life span, which might in some cases be extended. It is quite possible that those concrete structures will be there for hundreds of years in the future if, as is quite likely, they are left without their topsides.
Another problem brought out by the report, which will be a legacy for the future long past the removal of the rigs themselves, was the matter of drill cuttings. Drill cuttings were not seen as a major problem when we started our inquiry. Indeed, I had no idea that they existed. The drill cuttings themselves are the detritus of the drilling process. Oil was pumped down into the wells to make sure that the drilling took place smoothly. The drill cuttings were then dumped over the side. It is interesting now to see some of the models of oil installations put on display by the oil companies with 1665 very large amounts of drill cuttings built about their base. It will be interesting—this is a problem which has not been addressed to a great extent—to see at what point the structures can be removed. The drill cuttings are seen to be environmentally unstable if they are shifted; but, if the platforms themselves are to be cut off right at the sea bed, one will have to shift the drill cuttings. It is possible therefore that the platforms will have to be cut off above the level of the drill cuttings.
I was surprised also, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, pointed out in his speech, at how little research has been done into the drill cuttings themselves. A large amount of oil is trapped in the drill cuttings. There is of course an argument to say that it has not done a great deal of damage so far and therefore can be left; but it is also a fact that we are leaving on the sea bed a legacy for the future that may have serious environmental consequences over the long term.
I believe that the report gives a balanced viewpoint. The environment is dealt with adequately. There is obviously a compromise between the practical considerations, the economic viability in relation to moving structures, and the environmental considerations. However, the report points out that removing what has been placed on the sea bed over the past 30 years is a long-term consideration. It will be up to this Government and future governments to make sure that it is not an issue that is ignored.
§ 7.41 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I too join in congratulating the Select Committee on producing an excellent report and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, on steering the committee to such an effective outcome. The report was good. It was clear and dealt with a difficult issue, though it was so effective that it made the issue seem less difficult than perhaps it is. The report will lead to more sensible, open and informed debate in the country—at least I hope it will. Though I was not a member of the committee, I learnt a great deal from reading the report and the supporting evidence.
I should also like to thank the many organisations that I approached for information, not to challenge the report but to update myself on what may have happened since it was published last February. Those organisations included individual oil companies—BP, Shell, Amoco and Kerr-Mcgee—the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association and Greenpeace. They were all extremely helpful, as was the report of the Natural Environment Research Council published in April 1996 to which many noble Lords referred.
I should like to declare an interest in that I had the opportunity of visiting the United States this summer as a guest of the consortium of oil companies that operate in the North Sea. It gave me a chance to learn about the operation of oil companies in the United States and in particular a chance to look at the Gulf of Mexico where I visited one of the rigs. Of course, the situation in the Gulf is somewhat different—the waters are shallow, water extraction is easier bar the occasional hurricane, and the waters are less stormy.
1666 I had the opportunity to discuss with people from the oil industry the "rigs to reefs" project, which is certainly popular with sporting fishermen in that it seems to be an effective way of enabling them to do their fishing and possibly—though this has not been proved—increase the actual amount of stock available. I do not know whether that would work in the North Sea; opinions differ on that. I should have thought that it would be worth doing a little more research to find out whether there is any potential for doing that in the different waters that exist in the North Sea.
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. At the time of "Brent Spar" a letter appeared in one of the newspapers written by a deep sea diver who knew about these matters. He said that where there is the wreck of a ship that has sunk, there are fish. If an oil rig such as "Brent Spar" or any other oil rig settled on the sea bed, there would be even more fish. That appears to relate to what the noble Lord opposite was saying and may well be right.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I appreciate what the noble Earl says. Though the conditions in the North Sea are different and sporting fishermen may find it difficult to enter such deep waters, it may be worth pursuing in the way of marine research to see what the outcome could be. Incidentally, I was surprised on my visit to the United States to learn that exploration is not allowed offshore in Florida, California or Alaska. That is prevented every year by an addition to the Appropriations Bill that goes through Congress. It is odd that that should be the case when one considers the dependence of the United States on imported oil and the low prices that exist there. But that is one of the oddities that one discovers when looking at the situation in other countries.
Though the report is primarily concerned with the North Sea, looking at the situation globally it relates also to the Gulf of Mexico and offshore installations in the Far and Middle East. Perhaps therefore the lessons that we are learning today will have a bearing on how we tackle the environment and the environmental difficulties in other parts of the world. However, I shall confine myself to North Sea oil.
North Sea oil and gas are vitally important to our economic future. That is not the specific subject of the debate but perhaps I may make the comment in passing that I do not believe that over the past 17 years, as a country, we have derived the full economic advantage that we should. However, that is not necessarily a dispute with the oil companies but a dispute with the Conservative Government and the way that they have handled the situation.
In reading the report I was astonished at how many different government departments and agencies had some involvement with decommissioning. I counted 17 different government departments and agencies, quite apart from the interdepartmental Decommissioning Policy Review Committee. There is therefore much government interest in the subject. But whether 17 different departments and agencies are the best way of focusing attention on the matter I do not know. The 1667 Select Committee report recommended that the DTI should continue as the lead department and that seems to be sensible.
Other Members of the House drew attention to the differences between the northern, middle and southern sectors of the North Sea. For a long time it has been the policy that in the southern and central parts disposal should be on land because of the shallow waters and smaller rigs. The issue therefore concerns the 70 or so rigs that exist in the northern sector of the North Sea where conditions are more difficult and that is the main focus of our debate. Though they may be the minority of all the installations, I understand from the report that they cover nearly two-thirds of the weight of all the installations in the North Sea. In terms of disposal therefore they represent the larger part of the problem.
Perhaps I may mention in passing that a couple of weeks ago I had the chance to visit a floating rig (a floating platform)—Kerr-McGee's "Gryphon" rig in the North Sea. I was impressed by the concept of a ship acting as an extraction platform. It seemed to me to have many advantages in terms of decommissioning. When I put that to people from the oil company they said, "That is easy. When we want to decommission we simply sail the boat away to the North of England or wherever for disposal if it cannot be used at another site for extraction". I notice that other oil companies are beginning to look at that as a model for further work and that in itself is interesting. Whether it would be sustainable in the harsher climate in the West of Shetland, I do not know; but given the depth of water it may be one of the interesting options for the future in that area.
I looked with interest at the report and the costs of decommissioning. There are various estimates and they are very high. But we must bear in mind that a substantial part of the cost of decommissioning will be offset against taxes. Any savings in decommissioning will therefore be beneficial to the Exchequer and to the public purse.
I welcome the approach in the report to public consultation and openness and noted the various recommendations in relation to ensuring that the public should be better informed with regard to what is happening; that documentation should be made available; and that there should be adequate consultation allowing interested parties to make submissions about proposals for decommissioning. I suppose one could say, with the wisdom of hindsight, that had such an approach been in place earlier some of the controversy regarding "Brent Spar" might not have happened or, at any rate, would have been less heated. But where there is ignorance, emotions can run very high—on the basis of supposition rather than on fact. One of the lessons we have learnt, a point to which many noble Lords have referred, is that public opinion is important. We may not always agree with public opinion but in a democracy we ignore public opinion at our peril. One of the key conclusions is that we have to do our best to bring public opinion on board in terms of any of the approaches.
1668 I am pleased that the Government supported the committee's recommendation that there should be an acceptable decommissioning plan at the design and placement phase covering disposal and removal. I understand that in the lifetime of a platform or rig technology may change and improve and so it may well be that one has to work out the best practical environmental option for decommissioning towards the end of the life of the structure. But it would be a good thing if every new structure had a decommissioning plan worked out which could be brought into being or a better one developed towards the end of the life of such a structure.
I am glad the Government have said that in future they will not approve any decommissioning proposal unless and until they are satisfied that all possible options for the re-use of infrastructure have been thoroughly investigated and shown to be impractical. I also note that the IMO guidelines suggest—perhaps they have more force than a suggestion—that on or after 1st January 1998,no installation or structure should be emplaced on any continental shelf … unless the design of the installation or structure is such that an entire removal upon abandonment or permanent disuse would be feasible.When Mr. Eggar, the energy Minister at the time, appeared before the Select Committee he was not totally clear about the implications of the IMO guideline and seemed to be leaving his options open. Perhaps that was because Ministers always like to leave their options open or because he wanted to allow for the possibility of such a thing as a "rigs to reefs option" being applied in the North Sea. Perhaps we shall hear more when the Minister replies.
The important point is that the oil industry has undertaken to remove all structures from the sea unless the Government say otherwise. That policy has been accepted by all the oil companies. Nevertheless, we are still in a very controversial area. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, described graphically what happened not so long ago in terms of public outcry about the proposal to sink "Brent Spar" in the Atlantic. He referred vividly to some of the action that took place in Germany where there were threats of violence against Shell petrol stations. Perhaps the effect of the report and the period for reflection will have calmed matters down but certainly the Select Committee has said that sea disposal should remain an option for thoroughly cleaned structures. That must be a sensible conclusion.
I notice that both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth oppose any disposal at sea. My understanding is that Greenpeace is opposed in principle to anything which may have an adverse effect on the marine environment and therefore is against the disposal of anything in the seas and oceans. One must have sympathy with its concerns, but for obvious reasons I find it difficult to go along with such an absolute position.
It might well be, as the report indicates, that bringing a structure on-shore could cause more environmental damage than sinking it at sea and there might be health risks to any of the people involved in dismantling such a structure. For example, I understand that there is asbestos on some of these structures and that while 1669 asbestos in the water is inert, asbestos when dealt with on-shore might cause dangers, possibly unacceptable dangers, to persons dealing with it. Therefore, I would not take an absolute position on the matter.
I regret that Greenpeace has done so, although I think that public opinion will always be nervous about disposal in the sea unless we can inform the public much better than we have in the past. However, Greenpeace has argued in favour of a co-ordinated approach regarding on-shore decommissioning, claiming that it would be economic and therefore could be developed as a skill. It juxtaposes that with case-by-case policies advocated by the oil industry.
I do not think that they need be alternatives. It seems to me that case-by-case policies have quite a lot to commend them. But, given the widespread agreement that installations from the southern part of the North Sea will be disposed of or decommissioned on shore, a co-ordinated approach will inevitably be developed by the oil companies. Therefore I do not think this should be seen as an alternative to treating the more difficult decommissioning proposals on a case-by-case basis.
The Shell company has said that the decommissioning world will not be the same again following the "Brent Spar" episode. I know that it has had many bids for disposal in reply to its request and it is now considering some 29 to 30 bids on a long shortlist. Those will be considered against the original deep sea option which Shell still regards as the BPEO.
Can we learn anything from the "Piper Alpha" tragedy? Most of the structure is still in the water but the accommodation block has been recovered, which shows that technically it can be done. I understand that the DTI will continue monitoring to see whether it can pick up anything by way of environmental pollution coming from the rig. I hope it will continue monitoring because that will add to the information we have available.
The question of leaving concrete legs and bases has been adequately dealt with by other noble Lords. The view is that they can be left quite safely provided they do not damage fishermen's lines or commercial fishing lines. In the view of the fishing industry, partial stumps could be dangerous.
I suspect that, save in the most exceptional circumstances, the long-term future is that all rigs will be decommissioned on-shore. I say that taking into account the views of the oil companies, the experience of "Brent Spar", the IMO guidelines and public opinion and political pressure. I am not saying it should not happen; I am not saying it is impossible. I suspect that in the real world most installations will be decommissioned on-shore.
North Sea oil is bound to make an important contribution to our economic future. The report will help us better to understand the environmental impact of such developments and enable us better to cope with any environmental damage that may be caused. I warmly commend it to the House and to organisations outside.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, perhaps I 1670 may begin by apologising on behalf of my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser of Carmyllie who is unable to be here today. I know that he would have enjoyed replying to this most stimulating and interesting debate but, regrettably, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, told us, he is indisposed and returned from hospital only yesterday. I know I speak for the whole House in wishing him a speedy recovery—and certainly no one hopes more than I do that he will soon return to the Dispatch Box.
In their response to the committee the Government have formally welcomed the report which is the subject of our debate today. We wish to take the opportunity of expressing our gratitude to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and his colleagues for producing such a valuable and comprehensive document. Indeed, if anyone comes to me asking me where they can learn about the subject of decommissioning offshore installations, a subject on which I myself have been compelled to take a crash course in the past few days, I can tell them from personal experience that they can do no better than to look at the committee's excellent report.
The decommissioning of offshore installations on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf is not a new area of activity. The legislation which provides the statutory framework for considering decommissioning decisions received Royal Assent in 1987. Since then, under the terms of the Petroleum Act 1987 the Government have approved 12 decommissioning programmes. But the events surrounding the frustrated disposal of the "Brent Spar" oil storage and loading buoy during 1995 have brought the subject of decommissioning into sharp focus.
The Select Committee intended its report to be a contribution to the on-going debate in the aftermath of the "Brent Spar" affair. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, told us, although the report is not in any sense an inquiry into the "Brent Spar", it nevertheless highlights lessons which can be learned.
We entirely accept that in the future the public should be in no doubt about the basis upon which decisions have been taken. As my noble friend Lord Soulsby said, Shell shares that view, as it has indicated in the past few days.
Decisions will continue to be taken on the basis of the best practicable environmental option—the BPEO. That process, which was originated by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, is crucial to the way decisions are made.
The BPEO procedure ensures that the best available relevant factual information is identified. All possible solutions are reviewed. The comparative assessment takes account of technical feasibility, health and safety, environmental factors, including cumulative effects, economic factors and the interests of other users of the sea.
My noble friend Lord Selborne spoke in some detail about the BPEO. I know that he will be pleased to note that we continue to believe that that approach is the one 1671 most likely to achieve sensible and balanced conclusions reflecting the particular issues raised by each decommissioning proposal.
My noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said that public acceptability should be part of the BPEO. It is not part of the BPEO, but it is not ignored. Ministers must take a view on the public acceptability of any particular decommissioning programme. The final decision takes account of all the relevant factors and is taken in a transparent manner. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, will be pleased to hear that.
That is what we mean by a scientific approach. It is the cornerstone of all we do on decommissioning. It was the basis of our decision not only on "Brent Spar" but on all the other decommissioning proposals which have been made to us. We are grateful that the committee has endorsed the approach. It has recommended that the Government's guidelines should state explicitly that the BPEO procedure must be followed in decommissioning operations.
Last year, my right honourable friend Tim Eggar, then Minister for Industry and Energy, asked Professor John Krebs, Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, to establish a group of scientists and engineers with the task of examining the scientific evidence. Their job was to look at the potential environmental impacts of the disposal of large offshore structures, using the "Brent Spar" as an example.
That group of very distinguished experts, chaired by Professor John Shepherd of the Southampton Oceanography Centre, published its report on 22nd May 1996. The group has attempted to set the environmental impacts of the deep-sea disposal of decommissioned installations in context, mostly by comparison with natural and man-made analogues. We agree that it is a useful aid to understanding.
Its view is that the global impacts on the environment and on human health of the deep-sea disposal of a structure such as the "Brent Spar" would be very small—roughly equivalent to the impacts associated with the wreck in the deep ocean of a ship of 30,000 to 50,000 tonnes with its tanks pumped out.
It also concludes that the available evidence indicates that the environmental impacts of the deep-sea disposal of a structure such as the "Brent Spar" are not large enough to be a crucial factor in the selection of the best disposal options or for that option to be excluded from consideration.
That conclusion is rather similar to a somewhat broader one reached by Dr. Gordon Picken of the University of Aberdeen in evidence to the committee. Dr. Picken says (HL Paper 46-I, page 215, paragraph 14):If decommissioning is carried out according to the existing International Maritime Organisation guidelines and international conventions, there would be no strong environmental imperatives, from an ecological point of view, that would highlight options that would be totally unacceptable. The environmental gradient is neither long nor strong. There is therefore no clear-cut need, on ecological environmental grounds, to carry out options which are technically demanding, risky or expensive, in order to reduce or eliminate potentially significant environmental impacts. They do not exist".1672 We accept that this is a broad theoretical generalisation. A comparative assessment in each case will tell us whether it is right or not. The important point which we must never tire of making is that we are looking for sensible decisions which protect the environment. But those decisions must be advised by sound science.
The best practical environmental option provides an appropriate and well-tested vehicle. We must not make decisions solely on the basis of emotion.
The committee made important recommendations in relation to the restoration of international agreement. The Government agree that the re-establishment of international consensus is an important goal. We are working to achieving that. Perhaps I may take a few moments to relate where those international discussions now stand.
The OSPAR Convention is a regional convention for the protection of the marine environment in the north east Atlantic area, including the North Sea. At the meeting in June 1995 of the contracting parties of the OSPAR Commission, a majority of parties—but without the agreement of the UK and Norway—agreed upon a moratorium on the disposal at sea of decommissioned offshore installations pending preparation of a draft decision to ban the disposal of such installations for implementation by 1997.
Under the rules of procedure of OSPAR, the UK and Norway are not bound by that moratorium. It has no binding legal effect on those countries which voted against it. The resolution is a political gesture. It has no practical effect. Those countries which voted for it have in their waters relatively light installations in shallow water similar to those in the southern part of the UK sector of the North Sea. Such installations are required under international guidelines to be entirely removed. We have made it clear that the BPEO for such British installations is likely to be disposal on-shore.
The large concrete installations may need to remain in place. If that is shown to be the BPEO, and if there are safeguards for navigation, fisheries and the environment, it should be allowed.
The heavier steel installations in deep waters are those for which options other than disposal on land must be maintained. We are not saying that such installations will be disposed of at sea; but we are saying that it is not sensible to exclude the option from consideration. The BPEO will show the way.
However, international discussions have moved on since the summer of 1995. We have made progress in OSPAR to the extent that the other contracting parties have expressed a willingness to reach agreement on the basis of consensus. That is a welcome development.
An ad hoc working group on the disposal of offshore installations will be meeting early in December to seek a way forward. It will prepare a draft OSPAR decision for consideration by OSPAR Ministers at their meeting in June 1997.
In those discussions officials will continue to press our view that the environment is best served by the identification of the BPEO. If sea disposal is agreed to 1673 be the best course, a judgment based on scientific evidence will be taken as to whether any materials which remain after cleaning are hazardous.
The OSPAR Convention already provides a tough test. It requires that no permit shall be issued for sea disposal of an installation which contains substances which result in hazards to human health, harm to living resources and to marine ecosystems, damage to amenities or interference with other legitimate users of the sea.
In preparation for the discussions in the ad hoc working group, there are many studies under way to provide evidence against which decisions might be taken. We have already sent copies of the Select Committee's report to all those who will be participating in the discussions. We are sure that they will find it a very valuable source of information. We have also circulated copies of the Shepherd Report.
In addition a study is under-way to identify all removal and disposal options for each of the categories of installation on the UK Continental Shelf. The study will also advise us whether, within the framework of the BPEO concept, a generic removal and disposal option may be appropriate. What we have in mind is consideration of whether we might be able to establish a generic BPEO for any particular category of installation. To take two extreme examples, one might be able to say as a generalisation that concrete installations might remain in place, but that all light installations in shallow water might be entirely removed and disposed of onshore. As my noble friend Lord Campbell said, we agree that new technology, such as floating platforms which are being used west of Shetland will lead to fewer decommissioning problems.
If the generic approach was appropriate it might be possible to use it to reach agreement internationally. It would also be advantageous in practice if it were possible to compare a certain type of installation against its genotype and come to a reasonably swift conclusion that a particular course of action was the right one. However, part of the study is to identify for each category any factors which might make the generic option inapplicable in individual cases, so requiring them to be considered separately.
The London Convention is the global dumping convention. At their 18th consultative meeting in December 1995, the contracting parties of the London Convention considered whether there ought to be a moratorium similar to that in OSPAR. They rejected that proposal. They concluded that contracting parties should apply the convention and the International Maritime Organisation's guidelines and standards in their national practice on a case-by-case basis. They requested the London Convention's scientific group to review the status of the disposal at sea of offshore installations, taking into account current procedures, existing international technical guidelines and standards, and the introduction of the waste assessment framework in the London Convention. The scientific group concluded that existing arrangements were satisfactory but agreed to propose the introduction of a specific waste assessment framework for the disposal at sea of offshore 1674 installations. When it is agreed, that waste assessment framework will provide an international mechanism for a comparative assessment of options. This is a welcome development which reinforces the scientific approach to decommissioning.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Nathan, Lord Haskel, and indeed the committee themselves, have rightly identified transparency and consultation as central to understanding in the decommissioning process. The Government are committed to improvement in both these areas. The exact mechanism of improved communication between the oil companies and the public on the one hand, and between the public and the Government on the other is yet to be decided. Whatever the process will be, we are clear that it must be the best that we can arrange. I am pleased to confirm that we are looking for an open and transparent system.
The last draft of the DTI guidance notes went out to consultation in May 1995 and the consultation period ended in August of that year. The "Brent Spar" affair happened in the midst of that period. We think it is right that we should look at those guidance notes again and take account of the lessons we have learned. There will certainly be revised sections on transparency and consultation.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, asked for an update on the guidance notes. What the guidelines say on consultation will depend to some extent on the outcome of our international discussions. There must be another round of full consultation within the United Kingdom. On that basis, and bearing in mind that the OSPAR ministerial conversation will not be complete before the end of June 1997, it would not be reasonable to expect publication before the end of 1997.
There is little commercial advantage to be gained at the decommissioning stage. The DTI will be encouraging the oil and gas industry to undertake whatever information-sharing and co-operative ventures will reduce costs. We shall certainly be looking for an increased commitment to joint industry funding for research and development where that is appropriate.
The United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association already has a good record in fostering co-operation between its members. For example, it recently joined with the DTI in commissioning an assessment of the environmental implications of the presence of drill cuttings during the decommissioning process. That study is complete. Its results will play an important part in informing future policy in this area.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Campbell, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, raised this point. They will be keen to learn that the Select Committee recommended that further research should be undertaken. An initial scoping study has been completed recently which has identified a range of options for dealing with drill cuttings. Further research will be undertaken and I hope that will be some reassurance for the noble Lords and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale.
1675 Research is important for the development of future policy and operations. It is vital that we ensure that the best use is made of both past and future studies. Oil and gas companies, commercial consultancies, universities, the research councils, and Government all have their part to play. It is important that all these efforts are co-ordinated and that existing co-operation should be improved.
I should like to mention some of the very interesting points that were raised during the course of this debate. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and my noble friend Lord Selborne mentioned (and I am pleased to agree with them) the case by case approach. That will include consideration of the cumulative effects of what we are doing.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and indeed my noble friend Lord Soulsby also mentioned the single grave site. We believe it is unlikely that the number of deep sea disposals will be high. It is possible that the site chosen for the "Brent Spar" will be suitable as a single site but it would clearly be sensible to satisfy ourselves on that point as the cases arise.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, also asked about the long term liability. We are ready to discuss any proposal that the industry may wish to make. We recognise the need for provision to be made in those circumstances where, for example, a large concrete installation in deep water may remain in place, and I agree that it is never too early or too soon to be considering this matter. The DTI will be discussing this with the offshore industry.
The noble and gallant, Lord, Lord Craig, also mentioned the importance of buoys. The important thing we need to remember is that any remains of decommissioned installations will be marked on the charts. Fishermen are required to carry such charts with them and they will therefore be in a position to avoid any of the remains.
My noble friend Lord Campbell also spoke about fishing. I would like to acknowledge the role that Lord Campbell of Croy played in establishing the Fisheries and Offshore Oil Consultative Group. The group enables both the fisheries and the oil industries to share their problems and to meet the challenges. I agree with him that solutions may be found which suit all sides, but we should recognise that the area which may be denied to fishermen is probably very small indeed.
The noble Lord, Lord Nathan, spoke about a cradle to grave plan for offshore installations. Regulations administered by the Health and Safety Executive require that the design of all installations should include consideration of decommissioning so that it may be accomplished safely. In addition, the DTI will require companies to demonstrate in their field development proposals that they have taken account of the entire decommissioning process and indicate what their outline plans are for removal and disposal at that stage. However, detailed proposals will be determined by the best practical environmental option at the end of the structure's life.
1676 My noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior referred to the rigs and reefs programme in the Gulf of Mexico, as indeed did the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I was interested that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, took advantage of his holiday in America to find out a little bit more about it. As regards that programme, we are considering the matter. It may be that the benefits conferred by the warm waters off the Gulf of Mexico will not necessarily arise in the North Sea. That matter must be investigated—
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, perhaps I may point out that I was talking about the professional fishermen and not the sporting fishermen. We must put our professional fishermen first in the North Sea.
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, I thank my noble friend. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, mentioned technical advances and was right to comment on the recent achievements of the offshore industry. They are significant. I am certain that, when he returns to the House, my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser will be happy to bring the noble Lord up to date on the skill and quality within the industry. I shall certainly point that out to my noble and learned friend.
My noble friend Lord Gisborough mentioned the IMO guidelines and the fact that they refer to removal rather than to disposal. We expect all the light platforms to be brought to shore because that is the BPEO on such installations. My noble friend also pointed out that the fact that platforms can be lifted does not mean that the balance of advantage will show that they should be lifted. That too will depend on the BPEO. I agree with my noble friend and acknowledge the contribution that has been made to our economy by the yards in the north east of England and elsewhere.
The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said that, although the DTI leads the decommissioning policy, many other departments, including the Department of the Environment and the Health and Safety Executive, have a strong interest in the final fate of the disused installations. I have never found the noble Lord to be cynical but I was surprised by some of his remarks today. I believe that the report is positive and we recommend it. The Government's response is positive and I believe that all who read it properly can see that. I suggest that the noble Lord has another little look at it and thinks again.
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, I mentioned the fact that I found the report positive but said that it was not very concrete in its proposals for the future. If the Minister can indicate that the Government will carry out all the proposals I shall be happy.
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord does not expect me to comment in that respect at this moment. We welcome the report and I believe that we are going ahead on practically every part of it. As I listened to the noble Lord it appeared to me that he did not agree with all of the report.
1677 I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was correct in suggesting that my honourable friend Mr. Tim Eggar did not understand very much about the feasibility of removal: he understood it very well indeed. It must be technically possible but the BPEO will always be the way to guide any decisions.
I conclude by saying that we welcome the committee's report. It is an important and timely contribution to the debate on decommissioning which was given an impetus by the events surrounding "Brent Spar" during the summer of 1995. The Government acknowledge that further steps are needed in transparency and consultation. We are committed to the scientific approach to decision making, which takes full account of potential effects on the environment as a whole. We are continuing to press home that point of view in all our international discussions. When the international discussions are concluded, we shall be in a better position to issue guidelines for industry.
Meanwhile, we remain committed to taking decisions on a sensible basis. The committee's report reinforces our commitment to that approach. I thank the committee again for all its hard work in producing the report and I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, for chairing the committee.
I hope that I have answered the concerns which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, raised towards the end of the debate. If not I shall write to him. Before I sit down I wish to make one short comment. I believe that the report is first class and we welcome it. I did not think that the discussion was to descend into anything political and I was amazed that the noble Lord believed that after l 7 years of Conservative government there is something wrong with our economy. We inherited the title "The poor man of Europe" and now we are a country which everyone emulates.
§ 8.24 p.m.
§ Lord Craig of Radley
My Lords, we have had a 1678 most interesting debate. It has been generally positive in tone, which is notable, and that I welcome. I thank the Minister for her remarks and for accepting our report in such a strong and positive way. I am grateful for the contributions from all members of the committee and from other Members of your Lordships' House. We have had some interesting contributions.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, spoke of the industry being young. When it comes to the disposing of installations it is positively in its infancy. I was rather distressed to learn that it will take so long to issue the guidelines on how to carry on the disposal. It makes the gestation period of the elephant seem meteoric.
The "Brent Spar" has figured greatly in our discussions and no doubt it may hit the headlines again. However, as so many noble Lords have stressed, openness is an important part of the ongoing business of educating and informing the public. Research was mentioned by several noble Lords and I am sure that their points were well made.
I do not wish to prolong the debate and I thank all those concerned, in particular for the kind remarks which noble Lords made about my chairmanship. I am grateful and I commend the report to the House.
On Question, Motion agreed to.