HC Deb 26 June 1978 vol 952 cc1011-4
1. Mr. Michael Spicer

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when next he plans to meet representatives of oil exploration companies.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Bean)

The Minister of State and I regularly see representatives of oil exploration companies. Only last week my right hon. Friend saw members of the Association of British Exploration Companies—BRINDEX—which represents the interests of the smaller United Kingdom companies.

Mr. Spicer

As a result of those meetings, is the Secretary of State better aware that the Government are now putting seriously at risk the future exploration and development of the oil in the North Sea as a result of the unattractive conditions which they are imposing on bidders in the sixth round auctions?

Mr. Benn

No, I do not accept that at all. I have heard the Opposition say this at every stage over the last three years. Every breath of criticism has been amplified by the Conservative Party as a warning of imminent disaster. It has always been proved false in the past, and it will be proved false in the future.

Mr. Ioan Evans

When my right hon. Friend meets the exploration companies, presumably he will be meeting the BNOC, which has a first-class record of exploration. Will he encourage it to increase its activities in the years ahead? Will he also ensure when he meets the EEC Ministers that BNOC's activities are not inhibited by developments in energy policy in the EEC?

Mr. Benn

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. BNOC brought the Thistle field on stream and had a welcome discovery recently. It is a safeguard for our national interest in the development of the North Sea. On the second question, I have made it absolutely clear both to other Ministers in the Community and to the Commission that the British Government regard the continued development of our oil policy as a vital national interest.

Mr. Viggers

When the right hon. Gentleman meets the oil exploration companies, will lie discuss with them the latest projection by independent oil analysts that the contribution to current account from oil this year will be not £2.7 billion but only £1.5 billion? Will he give his estimate of the reasons for this very disappointing result and estimate the contribution to the shortfall which has been the result of BNOC being five months late in bringing Thistle on stream?

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. In bringing the oilfields on stream—that is to say, getting the platforms properly situated and bringing them on stream—there have been technical difficulties and some slippage, but that has nothing whatever to do with BNOC. It has affected many fields apart from the one field, Thistle, which BNOC has brought on stream. I think that the hon. Gentleman is confusing the delays caused by the extremely difficult physical, geographical and climatic conditions with consequences which have flowed from our oil policy.

Mr. Madden

In view of the severe industrial and economic difficulties which Britain has suffered as a result of membership of the Common Market, can my right hon. Friend give a clear assurance that Britain will retain the benefits from North Sea oil and will not see them go to the Common Market?

Mr. Benn

I repeat what I said a moment ago. I have read Press reports and know that there are schools of thought in the Community which would like to attack our oil policy. I have made it absolutely clear to the Commission and to member States that this policy, which was developed with an eye to our international obligations, must be maintained and upheld. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind about that.

Mr. Tom King

May I say how much we on this side of the House welcome the announcement of the discovery of BNOC and welcome any new discovery in the North Sea and the benefit it will bring for the nation? We look for further discoveries in view of the quality of the acreage which has been given to BNOC as an operator. In connection with the sixth round discussions, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm the importance that he attaches to maintaining the confidence and trust relationship between the Department of Energy and the oil companies? In that connection, what comments has he made on the concern expressed to him that allocations of further operatorships to BNOC will not be given until companies have said which they regard as the most promising acreages?

Mr. Benn

I am grateful for that. Indeed, I think I should place on record that I think it is the first time I remember the hon. Member saying anything about BNOC in a favourable light. I hope that the whole House has noticed this turn in events, coupled with the hon. Gentleman's slightly resentful suggestion that the block in which BNOC found the oil had been specially prepared for it, which is quite untrue.

We are, as the hon. Gentleman knows very well, in the middle of a bargaining round of negotiations about the sixth round in which I published my proposals and am in receipt of comment. I shall be announcing the decision. As on all the other occasions when we have been engaged in trying to improve our national position, the Opposition of the day have always chosen, for reasons best known to themselves, to espouse every little anxiety and to seek to amplify it in a way which causes one to gain the impression that they do not wish British control over the oil to be extended.

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