HC Deb 25 July 1988 vol 138 cc5-7
4. Mr. Chapman

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the daily loss of oil and gas volumes as a result of the Piper Alpha disaster; and what proportions of the total United Kingdom production these represent.

Mr. Parkinson

At the time of the disaster the daily oil production of the Piper Alpha platform was 120,000 to 130,000 barrels a day. Some 150,000 therms of gas per day were also produced and sold to British Gas.

Five other fields linked to Piper, producing an additional 180,000 barrels of oil and 350,000 therms of sales of gas per day, are currently shut down, but should be back in production within a few months. The total combined loss in daily production of Piper and those other fields at the time of maximum impact is equivalent to about 12.5 per cent. and 1 per cent. of total United Kingdom production of oil and gas respectively.

Mr. Chapman

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving the House those figures. Does he agree that however serious the disaster is from an economic point of view, it is of paramount importance that the safety of those working on our rigs and winning valuable resources from under the North sea is the main issue, and that nothing must be done to prejudice their safety? Would he like to take this opportunity to comment on whether those figures, serious as they may be, have had a bad impact on our balance of payments, or whether they are not as bad as was first thought?

Mr. Parkinson

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon Friend—I am sure that the whole House does—that safety in the North sea must be of absolutely prime importance.

On my hon. Friend's second point, I read today an estimate that it would cost about £500 million a year to our balance of payments. We regard that as excessive. It is based on the assumption that the fields associated with Piper will remain out of action for the rest of the financial year. We believe that they will be back in action well before then. Our estimate of the impact is something less than £300 million.

Mr. Salmond

Does the Secretary of State accept that the environment and safety provisions in the North sea originated when early production from the North sea was an overwhelming priority? Might it not now be time to review that priority and the safety regimes?

Mr. Parkinson;

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a number of different bodies take part in certifying the platforms and safety in the North sea. The independent certification authorities are responsible for the equipment and construction of the rigs; the Department of Transport for the safety arrangements, fire detection and fire fighting; the Civil Aviation Authority for the helicopters; and that under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which was extended to the North sea in 1977, my Department's inspectorate carries out its duties in the North sea. Therefore, a substantial range of different bodies check different aspects in the North sea. I have set up the inquiry. If the inquiry recommends that things should be done differently, we will accept those recommendations

Mr. Barry Field

I understand that the advice of my right hon. Friend's Department on the durability of North sea oil supplies featured heavily in the minds of the military planners when establishing the amount of the tonnage required to service this country during time of armed conflict. In view of this dreadful disaster, will my right hon. Friend review that strategic advice.

Mr. Parkinson

I had not planned to do so to date. I hope that my hon. Friend heard my earlier answer, in which I pointed out that, at worst, the loss of production is about 12.5 per cent. of our total oil production and that we expect that figure to fall sharply when the associated fields come back on stream, which we expect to be within a few months.

Mr. Doran

The Secretary of State has already mentioned the public inquiry into the Piper Alpha tragedy. Many of the victims' relatives and survivors will wish to be represented at that public inquiry, which may be important to their compensation claims against whoever is responsible. Bearing in mind the precedents of other public inquiries, will the Secretary of State consider extending legal aid or meeting the costs of that representation for those victims and survivors?

Mr. Parkinson

I cannot commit the Government to doing that at the moment, but I am aware of the other precedents and am giving the matter serious thought.

Mr. Cormack

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his promise to accept the inquiry's recommendations will be reassuring to many people?

Mr. Parkinson

The overwhelming priority is to have a regime in the North sea that is as safe as possible. If the inquiry identifies ways of improving the present regime, of course we will adopt them, because we all have a prime interest in safety

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