HC Deb 26 June 1978 vol 952 cc1022-5
7. Mr. Jim Lester

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what recent estimate his Department has made of likely future demand for British coal in (a) United Kingdom power stations and (b) other EEC power stations.

Mr. Benn

The energy policy Green Paper forecast that coal will retain its major role in electricity generation at least until the end of the century. This is the policy of the Government. Imports of power station coal into the Community are at present about 26 million tonnes a year, of which some 22 million tonnes comes from third countries. This represents the market in which the National Coal Board may compete for a share.

Mr. Lester

Is not that second figure critical, since it is important for the future well-being of the British coal industry that we establish a share of this market overseas and avoid the peaks and troughs which we have had in the past? Will the Secretary of State take into account that, while we are negotiating a good position for our own coal industry, this entails some give and take on other issues where he is taking a different line? Essentially, we must get this market for our coal, but it entails negotiation, as has happened in other areas—particularly on oil as well.

Mr. Benn

I think that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in saying that as overwhelmingly the largest and cheapest coal producer in the Community, within existing Community energy policy guidelines, which I support, we ought to see an expanded market for British coal within the Community. However, to link with that, as we move towards self-sufficiency, the proposal that we should agree to the control of our refinery policy is quite another matter. That is what it is about, and the House should be under no illusion.

An attempt was made by the Commission to take control of our refinery policy, by guidelines for throughput and so on, which would have been very damaging to us in another area. I believe that the respect which I owe as now the senior member of the Energy Council of the Community is to advocate sensible policies and to oppose policies which are not sensible. That seems to be the only basis on which we can go forward.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

Does my right hon. Friend accept that Britain could make an enormous contribution to EEC energy resources if the British electricity grid could be connected to the European grid? We should therefore be virtually exporting our coal by wire. What progress has been made on negotiations in this area?

Mr. Benn

I agree with what my hon. Friend has said. We have had discussions about the matter for some time. A statement will be made, but I cannot make it today. There has been a link under the Channel.

This reminds me of one point. I might make in general, that the amount of cooperation in Europe that now goes on outside the EEC, through bilateral arrangements of that kind, URENCO, or the other co-operative arrangements on energy, far exceeds the degree of work done within the Community itself. This example is a very good one, and I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support.

Mr. Forman

As coal still has little more than half the total bulk combustion market within the United Kingdom, is it not time the Government did more to use their influence to see whether coal could progressively take a larger share of the rest of the bulk combustion market now occupied by gas and oil respectively?

Mr. Benn

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. He has been very logical and helpful in his presentation of his energy arguments. I think that he is absolutely right.

As the House knows, I am disinclined to see—indeed, I am opposed to—the building of more oil-fired stations in this country. In answer to another supplementary question a moment ago, I made the point that it was sensible to look at alternative strategies based upon the burning of indigenous coal that is dug as the base load, with nuclear power. I am having the economics of that examined.

The recently announced research and development programme, in which we talk about gas and coal, oil from coal and coal for petrochemicals, provides a secure base for our mining industry, which will be the foundation of this country's energy strength long after the gas and oil have run out. Nobody should be in any doubt. It is not merely a matter of electoral votes from the miners, as is suggested; it is the basis of our energy strength for the future. That is what the defence of the coal industry is about.

Mr. Kelley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the contribution of coal towards meeting the energy requirements for electricity generation was largely laid down by the European Coal and Steel Community some years ago? To what extent has he intervened in the decisions made since to improve the contribution of British coal to the electricity generation industry?

Mr. Benn

I have not been very successful—and neither have others, including the Commission, who have advocated this—on the expansion of the coalburn within the Community. I am very disappointed that I have not. But as regards our domestic policy, where the matter is within our own control, there seems to me a very powerful case—particularly if one has a large investment programme in the coal industry, as we have, at £4 billion—for being sure that one's policy caters for the utilisation of that coal as far as possible at the expense of imports, particularly imports of oil.

Mr. Tom King

Is the Secretary of State aware that we find it impossible to dissociate in our minds the continuing reports of failure to agree on any proposals in the Energy Ministers' meetings from the total lack of good will felt towards him in Europe in these discussions? Do not the significant failure to agree on coal going into Community power stations and the rather serious reports of the CEGB corporate study and its disagreement on future coalburn pose serious concerns for the mining industry?

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman espouses not only every complaint by an international oil company against British oil policy but every complaint by the Commission or other member States against British policy on oil and energy. There is a strong connection between the two, because if the Commission were to take control of our oil policy the main beneficiary would be the oil companies, as they would no longer be subject to the policy that we have pursued.

I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the atmosphere and the mood in Brussels. Britain is the major energy producer of the Community, and is seen to be such. We have played a most active part in the Euratom loans, the coking coal arrangements and the JET programme in trying to develop an energy policy that meets the needs of the Community, but we have not on that basis thought it right to transfer responsibility for energy policy from the British Government, answerable to Parliament, to the Commission. That is the only issue between us.

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