HL Deb 26 June 1986 vol 477 cc414-7

3.10 p.m.

Lord Molloy

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 what research is being undertaken to combat the problem of acid rain in order to enable the United Kingdom to make more use of the substantial coal reserves without damaging the environment.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment oversees a substantial programme of research aimed at establishing the causes, effects and possible cures for acid deposition. The Natural Environment Research Council and the Meteorological Office also carry out research into these aspects of the problem.

Research and development work on improved combustion technologies which reduce emissions is being undertaken by the Central Electricity Generating Board and British Coal. In particular, they are working on the evaluation of flue gas desulphurisation processes; on coal cleaning technologies; and on the development of the pressur-ised fluidised bed combustion process, the slagging gasifier process and the use of low nitrogen oxides burners.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, may I say that that is indeed an encouraging reply? Would the noble Lord not agree that there also seems to be room for a great deal of interplay and co-operation? Would he not further agree that since the Chernobyl disaster there are very luminous question marks about nuclear energy, and that if we could conquer acid rain, that would mean that Britain would have a massive accumulation of reserve power that would be very worthwhile developing?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, if I caught the order of the noble Lord's supplementary questions correctly, my answers are yes, yes, no, yes. Perhaps I should explain the "no", which was on the future of nuclear power in this country. I would agree that it is something that we have to be continually vigilant about, but it should be put in its perspective. From 1970 up to March 1985 there have been 746 deaths associated with the coal-mining industry and only 10 in the civil nuclear industry, none of which related to radiological hazards.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that in so far as these matters are coming under examination in depth by environmental scientists, their conclusions will not be rendered more valid by bringing them under political pressure to produce the answer of yesterday?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for that supplementary question. I, too, heard the answer of my noble friend Lord Brabazon yesterday. I must say that some of the questioning in these matters is, in my view, a little premature.

Lord Northfield

My Lords, the Central Electricity Generating Board's complaint on this matter has been that the costs of protecting the environment have proved too high for the electricity producing industry. Has that problem been overcome? Is the Central Electricity Generating Board now more willing to install the sort of suppressors and so on which will prevent the sulphureous emissions?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, although the CEGB is continuing research into flue gas desulphurisation, its current estimate is that retro fitting would cost some £1.6 billion and add approximately 8 per cent. to 10 per cent. to the cost of electricity. This is why its major effort in research is in new burning technologies, to which I referred in my original Answer.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, have the Government evaluated the work of US scientists who concluded that if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the present rate, there will be permanent and irreversible changes in the world climate which will result in the raising of ocean levels by several metres? What would be the effect of this on a country like the United Kingdom with a large coastline?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the sea level is something that goes up and down through natural causes, irrespective of the greenhouse effect to which the noble Lord refers. Of course, we take very seriously any research paper on this subject which emanates from any part of the world.

Lord Parry

My Lords, would it not, in fact, alter the balance between "wet" and "dry" in the Government?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Government consist of people, not of land.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Minister say, in relation to the number of deaths from nuclear power and those from coal mining, whether those figures include deaths through uranium mining? Secondly, following the reply he gave, may I ask him to confirm that there is absolutely no reason why in future coal-fired power stations should not be built, because if desulphurisation plant is included, they will not be a danger to the environ-ment through acid rain?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, no. The regrettable deaths to which I referred in answer to the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, did not include uranium mining, as uranium is not mined in this country. I was talking about deaths in this country and I was making what I believe is a valid comparison so far as coal-fired stations are concerned, I have no reason to believe that they are not an option for the future.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, did I understand the Minister to say that there was collaboration on the question of acid rain? Does he mean collaboration with other European countries; and can he tell us to what extent this collaboration has taken place?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in my previous answers I was referring particularly to collaboration between the various organisations in this country. But so far as other European governments are concerned, the United Kingdom plays a full part in research being carried out under the auspices of the UN/ECE convention on long-range transboundary air pollution through the European monitoring evaluation programme, which includes monitoring emissions and deposition and work on effects.

Other research is also being carried out within the European Community. For example, we are participating in an exercise on the early diagnosis of forest decline with reference to atmospheric pollutants with scientists from the Netherlands and the Federal Republic of Germany. We have also written to the governments of several European countries proposing bilateral arrangements for the regular exchange of information on the content of our respective air pollution research programmes. The CEGB and British Coal are also funding a £5 million research programme with the Royal Society and the Swedish and Norwegian Academies of Science on surface waters acidification programmes.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, I came in a little late on this Question. May I ask the noble Lord, if it has not already been asked, whether he appreciates that the emissions from knocks, in other words, from cars, are as important in acid rain as the sulphur?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, with respect, I think that that is wide of the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, in addition to the environmental bodies which have been consulted in this matter, can the Minister tell me what are the findings of the research department of the Forestry Commission on the effect of acid rain on the forests of this country and of Scandinavia as a result of emissions from power stations?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as I understand it, somewhat indefinite; but, if I may, I shall take the opportunity to write to the noble Lord.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, in the impressive list of research that the noble Lord indicated as being done in this matter, he mentioned pressurised fluidised bed combustion. Would he not agree that this is one of the most promising ways of dealing with this problem and that it has been in hand for a number of years? Will he indicate when we can come to the commercial application of this process?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords; I would certainly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that this looks by far the most promising avenue at the moment. But of course it is still at the experimental stage. Development of a commercial-scale plant could be some 10 to 15 years off, depending on the progress with research.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that this discussion has been very useful and that most people would applaud what this House has done this afternoon? Therefore, could he not perhaps have discussions with his noble friend the Leader of the House as to whether one day we might have a fuller debate on this vital subject?

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