HL Deb 20 April 2004 vol 660 cc272-6

(1) Where a consent is given under section 36 of the 1989 Act for the construction of a renewable energy installation in —

  1. (a) tidal waters and parts of the sea in or adjacent to Great Britain up to the seaward limits of the territorial sea; and
  2. (b) waters in a Renewable Energy Zone.

The Secretary of State shall, before that consent is brought into force, publish a schedule for the decommissioning of that installation.

(2) Whenever a renewable energy installation, as defined in subsection (1) ceases to be operable for any reason the Secretary of State shall activate the decommissioning schedule unless he considers there are particular reasons not to do so."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I apologise in advance to noble Lords, because I wish to return to this important amendment, for which I have waited patiently all afternoon and evening.

The passage of the Bill has been, for me, one disturbing revelation after another. According to a Written Answer on 30 January this year by Mr Timms, demand rose by 2.7 per cent per annum in the 20 years from 1982 to 2002. UK supply capacity from conventional sources—coal, oil, our own natural gas, nuclear and hydro—is falling and that will continue for the next 10 or more years. According to my noble friend Lord Gray on 7 January, the 32 per cent of our current supply that comes from coal will be eliminated by 2016 if emission constraints are enforced. He went on to say that by 2020 only one nuclear power station will be operational—and nuclear currently provides 23 per cent of our requirements.

By 2020, at historical expansion rates, demand will have grown from 344 trillion watt hours in 2002 to some 511 trillion watt hours and we shall have lost nearly 50 per cent of our current generating capacity. I have been brought to realise, as have other noble Lords, that if that situation of falling supply and growing demand continues, Ofgem is tasked with holding consumer prices or lowering them even further. Surely that is interfering with market forces and bodes ill for the Commissioning of fresh sources of supply. To make matters worse there was a clear indication from the Minister, when challenged by my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith on 29 March (at col. 1140 of the Official Report) that under present rules climate change levy will be charged to all established sources of supply, including wind farms.

Recent press comments and on the radio, to say nothing of the TV programme, "If … the lights go out", have all highlighted Britain's growing dependence on imported fuels, especially coal and gas from Eastern Europe. There has also been informed comment about the intervention by China in the world commodity markets, particularly in coal, iron ore, steel and gas. It is felt that it has already hardened prices and is likely to force them up even further.

But the Government, as we have debated the Bill, will not come off the fence with regard to nuclear production. Until they do, there will be no expansion of it. While no direction is given on the subject, planning even to replace the supplier we are losing is almost impossible.

All this adds up to a desperate, frightening and dangerous scenario. Can the Minister say what powers the Secretary of State can command without having to introduce fresh primary legislation and without having to declare a state of emergency to reduce demand over a period should our supply be jeopardised? Should the gap between the anticipated maximum supply and demand fall to, say, 5 per cent. can he order the population to turn lights off or reduce the domestic use? I am thinking of something similar to the hose-pipe ban brought on in the time of drought.

I think that the Government have to decide whether and how to ensure that wind power will be used as a primary source of supply. One of my fears is that the views in many of our beautiful high areas—miles from off-shore wind—views will be changed by the addition of thousands of wind turbines. My other great fear is that the levels of monitoring and control over that wind farm development are not adequate. Perhaps in some instances greed might triumph over conservation, which leaves groups such as the RSPB, Greenpeace, the WWF and others to highlight the liberties being taken. In such circumstances, I believe that there would be a public backlash against the use of methods which involve heavy engineering in harnessing wind, water and wave power—something we do not want to see.

Radio 4 has run a series entitled "Costing the Earth". On 8 April, the subject was coastal erosion. I understand that the programme reported that we export more than I million tonnes of marine aggregate each year to the continental coastal countries which have banned extraction of their aggregates in their own coastal waters because of the effect that is having on coastal erosion. The reason given for the use of our marine rather than land aggregates is, I understand, that it is cheaper and easier to extract from the seabed and because the level of monitoring and control is so much lower at sea. If that is not true, I should be grateful for the Minister to confirm that. It is being suggested and if it is true it is a worrying scenario.

Decommissioning is but one aspect of the off-shore wind turbine business, but the Government refuse to ensure that a would-be developer produces a decommissioning commitment in the form of an approved timetable plan before—and I stress the word "before"—he is granted planning permission. The Government make great play of the current friendly arrangements with those who own or run oil platforms around our shores. However, those companies have been in business for a considerable length of time and have large resources of their own.

In contrast, I understand that much of the finance for developers of wind farms will be from venture capital and the resultant companies will be liable to financial instability. It is possible that they could be. The Bill does not specify the sanctions that will apply to those who fail to implement a satisfactory decommissioning scheme in the event that it is necessary.

The noble Lord, Lord Whiny, wrote to me on 6 April and I am grateful to him. The letter was helpful, but it raised additional concerns which I have raised tonight. In the letter, he said that the relevant consents will contain a condition stipulating that the object in question may not be installed in the sea until such time as a decommissioning programme has been agreed with the Secretary of State. But what is to stop the developer simply getting on with doing it? He has obtained his planning consent, his turbine and his necessary wires and connector and there is a business to go ahead. What is there to constrain him?

The letter also raises an issue discussed in our debate on 23 March at cols. 638–39; that is, the existence of a choice of legislation under which a developer can seek the various approvals that he needs. The implication is that he can get round the less pleasant aspects of this Bill by using another one. I am aware that the Government, faced with amendments voted for in this House, sometimes fail to bring them into force and simply continue to use old legislation as empowerment for statutory instruments.

I feel that the picture that I am painting and, indeed, the response to the noble Lord's letter have highlighted a serious threat. The RSPB particularly raised this issue with me. It says that everything laid down in the Bill leaves both the Secretary of State and the developer with considerable leeway about how open they are about proposals for the decommissioning of installations. I know that the Government are seeking a more flexible process, but what kind of environmental factors and scientific considerations do they envisage could make it undesirable to remove structures from the marine environment once they have reached the end of their operating life?

We spoke about this issue at length during Grand Committee and Report. However, at this stage, I do not believe that the Government have allayed my fears, and that is why I have reintroduced the matter tonight. I apologise for having taken a little while in going through it, but this is the last chance for me to do so in this House before the Bill goes to another place.

I shall be content if the noble Lord acknowledges that I have raised issues that the Government may like to consider further, and I do not intend to divide the House. The noble Lord's letter to me clearly states that the Government have it in mind to ensure that the laid-down regulation will be in place. However, that will be after consent has been given and I do not understand why consent should not be given before the plans are put forward for consideration. I beg to move.

11 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Baroness gave a rather sweeping introduction to the amendment. At one point, I was slightly concerned that she was not speaking to the amendment with which I thought we were dealing. Nevertheless, we have reached the point where I can now relate to the earlier discussion and the correspondence.

My first point is that the noble Baroness's amendment deals with one pattern of consent, whereas our scheme, which is set out in Clauses 107 to 116, gives more comprehensive coverage, dealing not only with the Electricity Act but also with the Transport and Works Act.

Secondly, I shall more or less repeat the words of the letter. In relation to any relevant consent for the renewable energy installation or any related electric line, the object cannot be put in the water until such time as the decommissioning programme has been approved by the Secretary of State. Therefore, the consent is subject to the provision of a decommissioning programme to the Secretary of State. There is no point in looking in detail at decommissioning before the project is consented because that effort will be wasted if the consent is not given. However, the scheme under Clauses 107 to 116 will apply as soon as the project is consented; in other words, the requirement to provide a decommissioning programme will apply prior to that consent being implemented by putting the installation in the water.

Therefore, I do not believe that the spectre that the noble Baroness foresees of people going ahead with building all kinds of horrific things at sea which are not accompanied by a viable decommissioning programme really arises. The amendment as it stands envisages that the Secretary of State must publish a decommissioning programme. As I said, the Bill gives the power to the Secretary of State to require the submission of a decommissioning programme, although that is discretionary. While we expect her to make full use of those powers as a matter of routine, the flexibility is also helpful. But in any case, it is primarily for the person with the consent to produce the decommissioning programme to be submitted to the Secretary of State for her approval. The person responsible for the installation will provide the decommissioning programme, subject to the Secretary of State's approval. So, there are all sorts of problems with the approach suggested by the noble Baroness.

There is a misunderstanding that the consent could be implemented without the decommissioning requirement and also that the amendment would apply to all forms of consent. The amendment is more restrictive than our provision, which includes the safeguards that the noble Baroness seeks. I am quite happy to engage in further discussions. I do not think that her amendment does the job she seeks. The Bill as it stands does it better.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister and have been throughout. Obviously, he realises that we have genuine concerns and that there is a need to protect the environment. The reason I spread my nets very wide to start with was that the running down of nuclear and the Government's desire to push quickly the growth of wind farms will have huge implications for marine life. We talked about that in earlier amendments, so I shall not go over the ground again. If our demand were going to reduce, then the seriousness of it would not be so great.

However, because there will be increasing pressures on this type of energy source in the future, I thought that it was important to spread the net wider.

I do not know much about business, but it seems to me to be an odd way to go about matters for one to get consent and then to come back and justify how one is going to decommission something at the end of the day. But I accept what the noble Lord has said. I also accept if one is not successful in one's bid that one has wasted time. Perhaps I can draw a parallel, which the noble Lord will know well. On the agricultural schemes, which he and I deal with on a regular basis, that is one of the risks one runs. One does a lot of work in trying to put in one's application, knowing full well that one may not actually get it granted anyway. I think the noble Lord knows why I have come that way.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for saying that we can discuss the matter further. The one thing that has come out of the Bill, and which has been highlighted in the amendments today, is the need to have regard also to the marine environment. My noble friend raised the whole question of fishing and of navigation, but certainly the protection of marine environment and our wildlife, which is so dependent on circumstances for future growth, is important. At this stage, I think I will have to say that it is over to my colleagues in another place when the Bill gets down there. I thank the Minister for his response and certainly will come back to him on the issue. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 [The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority]:

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 30: Page 151, line 2, leave out paragraph 4 and insert—