HC Deb 12 July 1995 vol 263 cc934-6
6. Mr. Tony Banks

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what are the most recent communications he has had concerning the disposal of Brent Spar. [32121]

Mr. Eggar

I have had meetings and communications as appropriate with Shell on that matter.

Mr. Banks

Is it true that the Government did not consult the Natural Environment Research Council regarding the disposal of Brent Spar, and that they took advice mainly from the Scottish Office?

As we now know that, according to the Government's own figures, 32 oil rigs will reach the end of their useful life during the remainder of the century and that 13 of them might end up being dumped at sea, can the Minister really assure the House that environmental considerations are uppermost in his mind and that dumping something at sea is more environmentally advantageous than bringing it ashore? The rigs were made onshore; surely they should be dismantled onshore.

Shell is worried only about its budgets, its income and its money. It is not at all concerned about the environment. It is about time that the Government shared the feeling of the great majority of people in the country that dumping at sea is unacceptable.

Mr. Eggar

There were, of course, three years of extensive studies carried out by Shell. The major document is now in the public domain, and has been since 16 February.

The Brent Spar is now moored in a Norwegian fjord. Shell is inviting an independent inspection entity, DNV, to inspect and analyse the allegations that have been made by Greenpeace and to report on them fully and independently.

As for the environmental damage that the hon. Gentleman claims will be done to the deep sea and the Atlantic, I shall quote Dr. Tony Rice, an independent scientist and probably the leading independent deep sea biologist in the country, who said that the most likely impact of deep sea disposal of Brent Spar was the death of a number of worms on the sea bed".

Mr Banks

indicated dissent.

Mr. Eggar

It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. The leading independent deep sea biologist said that, and that it was equivalent to the number of worms that would die on the ground during construction of a quarter of a mile of motorway. In his career in the House, the hon. Gentleman has taken up many lost causes, but taking up the cause of the Atlantic deep sea worm seems beyond even him.

Mr. Dover

Can my right hon. Friend confirm two things—first, that whatever method of disposal is decided on will be less environmentally pleasant than the one that has been irresponsibly thrown away by Shell and, secondly, that the cost to the taxpayer will not be greater than it would otherwise have been?

Mr. Eggar

I can confirm that Shell has informed me that the additional amount—in excess of the cost of deep sea dumping—will not fall on the taxpayer but be absorbed by the company. That is as it should be.

Future methods of disposal will now be studied. Shell came to us with the best environmental practical option. I expect it, in any proposal that it makes to us in future, to reach the same high standards of proof on the best environmental way to proceed as it did in reaching the decision that deep sea dumping was the best way to proceed. I would not rule out the option of deep sea dumping for the Brent Spar in future.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham

In view of the fact that, of the 14 reports passed by Shell to the Department of Trade and Industry, only two actually referred to onshore disposal options and, of those two, only one was referred to by Shell in its own best practical environmental option, does the Minister accept that, instead of simply leaving the matter to Shell, what we need to allay public anxiety is a properly set up independent commission to consider onshore disposal options?

Mr. Eggar

I have already made it clear that Shell has agreed to commission a completely independent audit of the Brent Spar situation and I am sure that it will ensure that the results of that independent investigation are made public. I am also intending, subject to the necessary commercial confidentialities—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] That is the way it has to be. I also intend to publish the studies that have been carried out by Shell. It is clear that more studies will have to be commissioned in future months, even years, and I shall do my best to ensure that they also are placed in the public domain. I think that that is what the House would want.

We have a common interest in ensuring that the Brent Spar is disposed of in the best manner possible from an environmental point of view. The hysteria that has flowed from the Greenpeace campaign is not the best basis for taking serious decisions.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

Does the Minister accept that, when Shell in Germany failed to endorse the disposal of the Brent Spar in the Atlantic, it left a massive gap in the Minister's credibility? He was the only one who continued to champion the environmentally damaging option, and he is now commissioning reports that he should have received a long time ago.

Mr. Eggar

That is absolutely typical of the hon. Gentleman. First, he misrepresents the position of Shell (Germany) and, secondly, he clearly prefers the opinion of Shell (Germany) to that of Shell (UK).

Dr. Spink

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is highly unlikely that Shell will produce a compulsive case in favour of dismantling the rig onshore on environmental or economic grounds? If, perchance, there is an acceptable case for disposing of the rig onshore—either vertically or horizontally—will my right hon. Friend ensure that the work is done in our country so that our people get the jobs?

Mr. Eggar

My hon. Friend is right: there are very difficult technical issues concerning the way in which a platform storage buoy, which is designed to be vertical, can be moved to a horizontal position and then towed inshore to shallow water for disposal. That is a major environmental issue on its own.

As to where any work would be carried out if onshore disposal proved acceptable, that is clearly a matter that Shell would have to put to the United Kingdom Government. Shell has made it clear that it will discuss any disposal option with the United Kingdom Government rather than any other Government, and we will examine the type of issues that my hon. Friend has raised.