HL Deb 04 July 1984 vol 454 cc276-8

2.47 p.m.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the need for all relevant facts to be available to Parliament and public (including trade unions) if future energy policy is to be soundly based, Her Majesty's Government will now require the NCB to publish full details of their estimates of recoverable coal reserves in Britain, their wherabouts, and the cost of mining them.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy (The Earl of Avon)

My Lords, the National Coal Board estimate is that it has operating reserves—coal which is proven and accessible—of 5 to 6 billion tonnes. It is for the NCB to plan its extraction of those reserves. In doing so the board will obviously take into consideration all relevant factors, including in particular the expected costs of production relative to the forecast selling price of coal and competing fuels.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, while we all respect the sincerity of the Government's non-interventionist bigotry, would it not be a good thing if they required the board to publish details of where the reserves are, as asked in the Question, as well as the noble Earl's estimate, and the cost of working each particular geographical reserve? Would it not be a good thing if they paid attention to the urgent suggestion of a recent report of the Select Committee of this House to that effect? Might not full publication of the facts serve to lessen the tendency of the British public to tear itself to pieces in the dark, as it is now doing?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I do not think that there is, as it were, an intention to hide this; it is a question of how it can best be done. I would welcome further discussions between the National Coal Board and the British Geological Survey to clarify, and, if possible, to resolve their different approaches to this matter. I am not sure that this need require Government intervention.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, having regard to the fact that our recoverable reserves stretch at least as far into the future as the Industrial Revolution stretches into the past, might it not be otiose to waste time estimating recoverable reserves in terms of centuries?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, that is why in my original reply I was very careful to give details of those reserves which are actually accessible.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

But, my Lords, surely under present circumstances—and, indeed, in terms of the foreseeable future—it is not good enough for the Government to say that this is a matter simply for the coal board, since energy policy overall is clearly a matter for Government. Is it not necessary to bear in mind these long lead times and the fact that we shall run out of oil and gas reserves in the fairly near future? Would it not be correct for the Government to estimate and to identify the reserves that we have, so that plans can be made and the reserves can be extracted, not only for burning in power stations, but also for coal gasification and liquefaction, which we shall certainly need within the next 50 years? Planning really is necessary at this stage.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I thought that the noble Lord, in his wide-ranging survey, underlined the difficulty of his planning approach, which I would consider to be more interference. The Government's approach is to encourage the maximum economic exploitation of our energy resources, not by central direction, but by clearing the way for producers and consumers to reach the best possible understanding in the market. Our aim for coal is a future secured by a massive investment programme, designed to produce coal at a price at which customers at home and abroad will increasingly buy.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is not my noble friend aware that immediately the National Coal Board provides the relevant facts from its special knowledge. those facts are denied by individuals for reasons which are very much their own and are very partisan?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I should not like to enter into that discussion at this moment.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I am sorry to come back on this, my Lords, but is it not a fact that to build a coal liquefaction or a coal gasification plant needs perhaps a 10-year lead time, and such facilities and such programmes as this cannot be left to the forces of the market?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, a research and development programme is continuing in both these fields.

Lord Gormley

My Lords, can the noble Earl tell me how he can reconcile two prices of fuel? Are they going to remain constant, or are they going to fluctuate up and down?—because coal today can become cheap or it can become expensive. Is he in favour of a deliberate guaranteed price policy?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, the Government believe that the coal industry can have a good future if it can bring its costs under control and become competitive in the market place. They believe this, not because of any assertions about quantity, but because of what our best mines, operating with known coal reserves, are capable of doing today.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, will the noble Earl not agree, in response to my noble friend's supplementary question that, in fact, the Select Committee of this House specifically suggested and recommended that the Department of Energy should play a part in ensuring that an authoritative assessment is made of coal reserves in this country on the same basis as oil and gas? From the noble Earl's earlier reply, it seems that the Department of Energy is backing off that responsibility.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, there was a report and, as I said in my earlier reply, the noble Lord is quite right. The Government are not sure at the moment whether they should intervene in this. However, we are keeping it under review.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, would the noble Earl not agree that, in assessing the size of our recoverable coal reserves, an important question is the cost of recovering them? Since a very large part of this cost is wages, if any such figure is to be given, should it not be given against a scale of wages, as, obviously, if the wages are high, the amount of valuable coal which can be recovered will be considerably lower?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, as I said in my initial response to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, there are a lot of factors which are taken into account. Price is one and, of course, suitability is yet another.