HL Deb 09 June 1998 vol 590 cc870-1

2.44 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking following the recent representations made by American power companies about coal-powered generating stations in the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Clinton-Davis)

My Lords, the Government have noted carefully all the representations which have been made during the review of energy sources for power generation. The review is still under way. The Government will make an announcement when a conclusion is reached: we hope that this will be soon.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer. Can my noble friend confirm reports that the Government intend to arrange for the generators to take 26 million tonnes of coal a year for the next five years? Further, in view of what he said, can my noble friend say whether the Government believe that electricity from gas-fired power stations really is cheaper than that from coal-fired stations, especially when one has to take into consideration the huge cost involved in building new gas-fired stations? Finally, how much importance do the Government place on security of supply, bearing in mind that the generally accepted reserves in this country would last about 100 years?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, my noble friend is tempting me to anticipate the conclusion of the review which, as I indicated, will shortly be forthcoming. However, I fear that I must disappoint him in that regard. The point about security of supply to which my noble friend alluded is something which falls to be dealt with in the review.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, can the Minister indicate what the position is with regard to the coal-fired power stations at present? Are they all in operation or have some been mothballed? Further, if they are in operation, where do they stand in the merit order bearing in mind that they must all be written down virtually to nil?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Lord's detailed question, especially as he asked me about all coal-fired stations. I shall be happy to write to the noble Lord on the subject, or he may prefer to table a specific Question for oral answer.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, I have a purely factual question for the Minister. Does the noble Lord have any estimate of how many billions of pounds have been spent over the past 40 years in trying to prevent the decline in the coal industry at no benefit to coal miners and with a great deal of distress to taxpayers?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I should like to have those facts at my fingertips; but, unfortunately, I have not.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister confirm that the Government's policy is to have a moratorium on the building of gas-fired stations with a view to helping the coal mining industry? If so, and if that remains so, what can these American power companies do to affect us? What is the real threat?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the term "moratorium" is incorrect because it implies that no consents would in fact be given. There are exceptions based on reasoned requests which are being considered, especially with regard to CHP projects. Again, I cannot go into any further detail because I would be anticipating the outcome of the review.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that any arrangements made to solve the problem will be transparent with all costs being identified?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, this Government are significantly more transparent in their operations than their predecessor.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, in view of the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, in which I believe he said that 100 years of supply was assured in coal, can the Minister tell the House what is considered to be the assured lifetime of supply of our natural gas?

Lord Clinton-Davis

No, my Lords; I cannot give any assurance in that respect. Such factors will be set out in the review. I do not have that information with me at present. However, I urge the noble Baroness to be a little patient. It will not be long before the review is published.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, in view of the threats which are now being received from American companies, can my noble friend the Minister comment on another important matter which will be discussed in the consideration of the report which is soon to be issued: namely, whether the Section 36 consents are legally binding?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, as far as I know, they are.