HC Deb 04 May 1965 vol 711 cc1129-36

For the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby declared that the powers conferred on the Gas Council and the other gas authorities by this Act and the principal Act include power to construct or excavate storage for gas otherwise than in natural porous strata.—[Colonel Lancaster.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Colonel C. G. Lancaster (South Fylde)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps with this Clause we might also discuss the hon. and gallant Member's Amendment No. 28—to the Title, in line 6, to leave out "in underground strata".

Colonel Lancaster

Yes, Mr. Speaker.

This new Clause seeks to remedy what I and my hon. Friends consider to be the serious omission of man-made storage from the Bill. I referred to it very briefly on Second Reading, and elaborated it in greater detail in the Standing Committee. When I first raised the subject, the immediate reaction was that it was unnecsary in this Bill to make provision for man-made storage as existing legislation covered everything affecting it. I questioned that view, particularly as research into man-made storage has taken place during the last 15 or 20 years side by side with research into storage under natural porous conditions, and has no relation to conventional methods of storage—gasholders, and the like.

The whole process of intended storage under natural porous conditions is a new departure in our thinking on the subject, and certainly in the thinking of the Gas Council. I will, therefore, confine my views to lay terms except, perhaps, where geology comes into the picture.

The storage of gas under natural conditions in porous strata is infinitely the cheapest way of storing it, but the economic advantages may in many cases be outweighed by the geographical disadvantages where those circumstances occur. Moreover, the risk in natural storage conditions is fairly widespread. We have heard a good deal about the Winchester project. I believe that the thinking in that case was not wholly comprehensive. The idea was that the risk would be limited to the actual area in proximity to the cap under the porous strata whereas, in fact, the area concerned was very much larger. It comprised six or eight parishes—a large acreage of land, in any part of which a fissure in the strata might have lent itself to some degree of risk and some effect on the surface.

Man-made storage, on the other hand, is a very expensive means of storing gas. It does not provide any particular problem from the aesthetic point of view, but factors affecting water measures undoubtedly come into the consideration of any excavation, whether shallow or deep. Water measures are at varying depths in the soil and, therefore, in a sense, their effect is common to the two means of storage. The risk is the less in the manmade storage, but any storage of gas carries with it some degree of risk. To that degree, therefore, both man-made storage and storage under natural conditions must require the same sort of legislation if it is to be altogether comprehensive.

I sensed that during my Second Reading speech and in the Standing Committee I got some considerable sympathy from the right hon. Gentleman and from his colleague the Parliamentary Secretary and, in the circumstances, I felt justified in tabling this new Clause. I referred in Committee to the fact that I have some personal interest in this development, because I have been connected with an undertaking which, together with its Continental associates, is possibly the foremost undertaking in Western Europe in regard to primary research, and one that has been carrying out researches into gas storage ever since the war.

I have been very surprised that the Gas Council has not sought the advice of this undertaking; after all, this is a fairly new departure—indeed, geology is a fairly new departure for the Gas Council. This undertaking does a great proportion of the primary research for the National Coal Board, and also for the Geological Survey and for many of our largest undertakings, such as I.C.I. It carries out consulting work in Canada and America, and elsewhere. It knows a great deal about the subject, and it is on its advice that I have developed the case for manmade storage.

It is evident from our prior discussion that the progress of the Bill has gone on in the friendliest circumstances, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman will admit that we set out to do no more than improve this Measure where we could. I think that any Minister of Power would wish to be in a position, when the Gas Council puts forward a proposition about storage, to assess whether the particular proposition had been looked at in all its aspects. He would wish to consider whether making use of natural conditions was the stronger case, or whether, in the particular circumstances, man-made storage was more likely to be in the national interest.

What one has to recognise is that manmade storage has the great advantage of being put down at the most propitious place. Were it not otherwise, of course, the cost would be too great. But having put it down at the most propitious place it may well be that the subsequent cost of pipes and the like are very much less than those required from storage under natural circumstances, which, as I say, may be geologically of advantage, but geographically of considerable disadvantage.

This may require not only great lengths of pipe but a boosting of the gas and the like with the end cost being the greater of the two. We would like the Minister to be in a position to assess the benefits of the one against the other whenever a proposition comes up.

It may well be that in 60 or 70 per cent. of the cases natural gas storage will show such evident advantages as to be the right choice, but, likewise, there may be 30 per cent. or so cases where manmade storage is, in all the circumstances, the correct choice.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Braine

I rise more in the spirit of inquiry than anything else. The emphasis of the Bill, of course, is on natural storage of gas in porous strata. My hon. Friend has referred to manmade cavities for the storage of gas. In some ways, I think it a great pity that this point was not considered at an earlier stage of the Bill. There are, of course, other means, as I understand, of ensuring storage, than those mentioned by my hon. Friend which are not covered by the Bill, namely, disused mineral works, such as salt mines which, I am advised, form satisfactory reservoirs for those purposes.

In fact, I believe that the chemical industry already utilises cavities of this kind for the storage of gases and would like to extend the practice still further. In a sense it is a criticism of the Bill that too little thought seems to have been given to this aspect of the problem. We are, after all, in a sphere of very rapid technological change. The right hon. Gentleman has shown tremendous flexibility so far in approaching these problems and I hope that he will not relax in this regard.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he can assure me that nothing will be done to impede, but that everything will be done to encourage, private industry to utilise these other methods of storage.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. John Morris)

I have been invited to be flexible in considering this Amendment, but I am afraid I must, for rather obvious reasons, most of which I have set out, disappoint hon. Members on the other side of the House. This new Clause has been moved as a declaratory Clause for the avoidance of doubt. In Committee we were grateful for the observations of the hon. and gallant Member for South Fylde (Colonel Lancaster), but I would point out again that this Clause is unnecessary. First, there are adequate powers for the gas boards to carry out such activities under Section 1 of the Gas Act, 1948, and the gas council will have the powers under Clause 1 and Clause 29, read together of the Bill.

All man-made storage like this can be carried out without provisions in this Bill. There is the man-made structure which the Northern Gas Board now has at Billingham. We have no wish to stop the industry from proceeding along such lines as the development of other structures like the porous strata we have been talking about. We wish to give it scope to develop in whatever manner it thinks fit. When the Minister considers proposals made to him from time to time he will, of course, have the benefit of the best possible advice to enable him to decide along which lines development should take place.

The object of the Clause is to place these man-made structures under the umbrella of the Minister, but I fear that this new Clause will not do that. It simply declares that if anyone is in doubt whether gas authorities have powers under the Bill and the Act to engage in the construction or excavation of storages other than in natural strata, they may set their minds at rest, because the powers are there.

All that this Clause will do is to declare what I submit is an existing state of affairs. If the Clause were accepted it would give to the Gas Council and the gas boards the power to acquire land compulsorily for man-made storage. But they already have those powers and they are not necessary. To give powers in this Bill would mean that the gas authority would be able to acquire rights to store gas on other people's land with- out buying the surface. That would be the effect of this kind of intervention.

We are, after all, dealing with an entirely different kind of structure when we are discussing man-made storage compared with what is essentially a new development in this country, the injection of gas into the porous strata of the soil. Confining my remarks solely to the powers that do exist for regulating the injection of gas into the natural strata of the soil—they are there and operate now. First, Section 72 of the Water Resources Act obliges the gas authority to obtain the consent of the river authority before injecting gas or any other substance which is noxious, poisonous or polluting. If the storage is an excavation from the surface the ordinary sanctions under the Water Act, 1945 and enactments by which it is an offence to allow gas to foul water will apply. In either case the gas authority will be liable to be sued for nuisance for any pollution of water. There are, in addition, other adequate safeguards with regard to the storage of liquid methane under the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act, 1928, as applied by Statutory Instrument No. 859 of 1957.

Having regard to those observations, I ask the House to reject the Clause. I sympathise with the objects of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, but I do not accept the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) that too little thought has been given in the Bill to this aspect. I repeat what I said in Committee and what I have said this afternoon, that the powers are there, and are adequate to deal with the problem. In the Bill we are dealing solely with legislation which is badly needed to control and supervise what is essentially a new development in this country.

Mr. Peyton

The Minister has received the thanks of this side of the House, particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine), to an extent which he personally did not deserve. I am sure that the Minister had other very important commitments, some of which he would have done well to have avoided. Undoubtedly, it was the Parliamentary Secretary who bore the main burden of getting the Bill through Standing Committee. With one or two very minor exceptions, which I am sure he himself deeply regretted, the Parliamentary Secretary showed himself to be most courteous and co-operative. We all owe him a great debt of gratitude.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Fylde (Colonel Lancaster) has raised an important point. Even though in the short-term the argument which has been adduced by the Parliamentary Secretary may be correct and justified in a narrow sense, I do not believe that it would be right for the Government to put this problem on one side and say that it has been dealt with satisfactorily and answered in full.

My hon. and gallant Friend has raised an important point about the balance of advantage between the two methods of storage—that in underground natural porous strata and that in some man-made cavity. There may well be developments in the latter. Indeed, I believe that some are now taking place. It may well be that it will become a reasonable and useful proposition to store larger and larger quantities in such cavities, and such storage in that case might well raise the sort of problems which have been dealt with in the Bill in regard to storage in natural strata.

Though the Parliamentary Secretary may be justified in saying that it is not now necessary to add to the powers enjoyed by the gas industry, I very much hope that the Government will continue to watch for any movement in the balance of advantage and make quite certain that the legislation on this matter is kept up to date. I want to make it clear that we on this side would certainly not approve of any extension of storage monopoly in regard to man-made cavities. Not all Governments have realised it in the past, but it is the responsibility of Governments to facilitate the operation of industry and at the same time to give the necessary measure of protection to the public and to the individual citizen.

I hope that before we leave the Clause the Parliamentary Secretary will be good enough to give the simple undertaking that he and his Department will not close their minds to any developments which may take place in the future as to man-made storages and will, if necessary, not hesitate to bring forward the necessary legislation.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. John Morris

Naturally, the Department will at all times watch these developments. My right hon. Friend will look at the balance of advantage, where-ever it lies, whether with man-made storages or with storage in the natural strata. My right hon. Friend has the power, when he looks at the development programmes of the gas industry, to authorise its development along certain lines. He has adequate powers to supervise the development that the industry suggests from time to time.

All I am saying is, first, that no legislation, as we now see the position, is required. Secondly, legislation would not necessarily achieve the object of the hon. and gallant Member for South Fylde (Colonel Lancaster). Thirdly, legislation is now adequate to meet the present needs of the industry, as I proved by the example I gave of the development which has taken place in the past in the Northern Gas Board's area.

Colonel Lancaster

In view of the assurances given by the Parliamentary Secretary, and of his explanation of the situation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.