HL Deb 25 February 1993 vol 543 cc331-3

Lord Hunt asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will heed the demands of environmental bodies that no further licences should be given to oil companies to prospect for oil and gas in Cardigan Bay pending an inquiry into the risks to the coastal and island environments of exploiting such resources in those waters.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

My Lords, there is no evidence of environmental damage through oil and gas exploration and production to justify a call to halt such activity in Cardigan Bay. Licence controls apply at all stages of activity and standards of environmental awareness and protection can be assessed and monitored.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer, but is she aware that no less than 10 organisations, including the CCW, which have various concerns for the protection of wildlife as well as the marine and coastal environment, have expressed unanimous concern about the respective operations in Cardigan Bay? Will she bear in mind that some of the blocks on offer are only a few miles off the coast and that, given the prevailing tides and winds, even minor spillages will cause serious damage to wildlife, particularly around Bardsey Island, and other offshore islands which are bird sanctuaries? Will she also bear in mind the inevitable access roads and storage facilities at points along the heritage coast and the environmental eyesore of oil rigs close offshore? Do not these features make an unanswerable case for an inquiry before further work goes ahead?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am pleased to be able to tell the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that the views of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee were sought before the blocks were offered for licensing in the present round. The JNCC initially opposed the licensing of several of the blocks off the Pembrokeshire coast but then agreed acceptably stringent conditions under which they could be offered. The department also consulted the Cardigan Bay Forum, which includes representatives, as the noble Lord knows, of a number of local and national environmental groups. Their views were taken fully into account. As I said in my original Answer, there is no evidence of danger from inshore drilling.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, what weight is given to the views of environmental bodies? Did the so-called Green Ministers ever discuss these matters on an inter-departmental basis? I am sure that the noble Baroness remembers that there is supposed to be a Green Minister in each department. Since this particular worry crosses departmental boundaries, can she say whether the Green Ministers ever discussed it?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am pleased to be able to tell the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that advice was sought before the blocks were offered for licensing. Before deciding the blocks to be offered the Government consulted other government departments, in particular the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment. Through the JNCC we receive advice from other environmental bodies and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government are fully concerned that the dangers of spillage are to be avoided at all costs.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, although full inquiries are essential, is my noble friend aware that experience in Scotland is reassuring? Exploration drilling has been carried out within the Minches, and several years earlier oil was discovered well within the Moray Firth and has since been produced from an oilfield only 13 miles from land, with no ill-effects but with benefits to local communities; and the dolphins still romp in the waves there near my home.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, it is impossible for me to give a more direct and knowledgeable view than my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. There is not only the resident population of dolphins in those waters; there are also significant sea bird concentrations. I am sure that my noble friend will agree that it is important to remember that in the past 10 years the oil and gas industry has contributed £63 billion to government revenue.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, will the noble Baroness ensure that when licences are considered in future for Cardigan Bay and other environmentally sensitive areas, the immediate environmental impact and also the longer-term economic impact on the economies of the local communities are assessed? Would it not be much more convenient if any onshore development were to take place well away from heritage coast areas and that such consideration should form part of the planning process?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am pleased to say to the noble Lord that these matters are taken into consideration. I am concerned here with the licensing of the blocks, but in no instance are other concerns ignored.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to a number of departments which are concerned about these matters. Can she say whether the Secretary of State for Wales has given approval to all these developments?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am sure that such activity would not take place in those waters without the knowledge of the Secretary of State for Wales.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I regret that the noble Baroness is not as clear as she might be. It is not a question, as she said, of his interest in the matter. Has he given his approval?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, identifies my inability to give a direct yes or no. I shall certainly find out and write to him.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that in my capacity as president of the CPRW, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Wales who promptly passed on the letter to the DTI, saying that it was none of his business? Does that not mean that the Welsh Office was simply not consulted on the matter? Furthermore, voluntary bodies such as the CPRW and the Government's own advisory body, the CCW, who have expressed to the Welsh Office their opposition to the project, have been told that they have to apply to the DTI. What does that say about the Government?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am pleased to tell the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that it says that the Government work together. It proves that the Secretary of State for Wales is well aware of the activities of the DTI in these licensing rounds. I am pleased that he was able to pass on the correspondence to the DTI.

Baroness White

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that those of us who are familiar with Cardigan Bay and the sensitive area there, including the islands of Bardsey, Skomer and Ramsey, which are all protected islands, consider that it should be a place of last resort for trying to obtain non-renewable resources of energy and argue that that that area should not be sacrificed to current commercial interests? Does the Minister agree that it is only if one is in really desperate need of those resources that one should take risks with the very sensitive maritime area of Cardigan Bay?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I understand fully the concerns of the noble Baroness and other Members of your Lordships' House. But it is not considered that we are taking risks with the area. The evidence suggests that there has been no damage to the environment from inshore drilling. Perhaps I may add that the Welsh Office was consulted before the blocks were licensed and its views were fully taken into account.

Baroness White

My Lords, some of us have experience of what happened at Milford Haven: similar things may happen in Cardigan Bay.

Noble Lords


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