HC Deb 14 April 1980 vol 982 cc768-70
5. Mr. Skeet

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what steps he now proposes to take to encourage oil and gas exploration in the North Sea.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. David Howell)

The Government propose to continue with their present policies which already show signs of stimulating an improvement in the level of exploration.

Mr. Skeet

Does the Secretary of State believe that advancing petroleum revenue tax by 25 per cent. in one year is an incentive? Does he also believe that reserving to BNOC an option to take 51 per cent. of the available oil and gas is an incentive? Does he further believe that giving small operators no special incentive to operate in the North Sea will be in their interests?

Mr. Howell

None of these points has got in the way of the increased incentive momentum that we are now seeing in exploration. I am confident that, when the announcement on the seventh round is made, that will provide further momentum and that we shall see a considerable stepping-up in exploration and development in our North Sea programme. I recognise my hon. Friend's concern, but I do not believe that any of these matters have acted as substantial disincentives in achieving the momentum and the increased expansion in our North Sea programme which we all want to see.

Mr. Flannery

Does the Minister agree that we have done sufficient exploration now to indicate that there is ample oil coming from the North Sea to stop us worrying unduly about the Middle East? Does he agree that groveling apologies by the Foreign Secretary to Saudi Arabia are no longer necessary because we have so much oil now coming from the North Sea?

Mr. Howell

I think that the hon. Gentleman is mixing up a number of questions. First, exploration now means oil in eight, nine or 10 years, because that is the length of time that it takes to develop an exploration well. Therefore, we have to think ahead about oil supplies.

As for oil availability now, I think that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the quality of the oil that we produce, the match with our refineries and the need to enter into world trade in oil, involve us both in exporting and importing oil. Therefore, it is in our interests to see a stable world oil market, stable prices and stable trade on the basis of good relations between other countires.

Mr. Emery

In considering future action to deal with production in the North Sea—and as there is no question on the Order Paper about this matter—can my right hon. Friend say anything further about the safety requirements and problems of semi-submersibles following his statement in the House just before the Easter Recess?

Mr. Howell

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is nothing on the Order Paper about this matter. I undertook to him and to others to keep the House informed. I am today answering a written question on progress so far in relation to the inquiry being held by the Norwegian authorities into the "Alexander Keilland" disaster. From that he will learn that, although the inquiry is entirely in Norwegian hands, we are being kept closely informed. Obviously, at each stage that we learn about information relevant to the accident, we shall immediately apply it to our inspection surveys of our semi-submersibles.

Dr. Owen

In the light of the Secretary of State's reply, will he now give the House some indication when we may expect a debate on the Burgoyne report? If the Norwegian commission is likely to take some time, will he take it that we should not consider it reasonable to withhold a debate from the House? We should have the debate before the com- mission reports, if it is a matter of some months away.

Mr. Howell

This is a bit off the question, but I note the right hon. Gentleman's views. The timing of a debate is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I am sure that he will note—indeed, I shall call his attention to it—what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

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