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11.23 pm

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) on winning tonight's debate. He has done more than secure an Adjournment debate; he has become the champion for Great Yarmouth on many issues. I hardly ever enter a Division Lobby without being lobbied by my hon. Friend on behalf of his constituents and he is welcome to continue to do that. He has a particularly pioneering vision for employment possibilities in his constituency and we should all follow his example.

I was amused and encouraged by my hon. Friend's reference to a third way--a particularly resonant political theme at present--and the way in which he introduced it into the debate. He proposed the recommissioning of oil and gas installations as a third way between land disposal on shore and disposal at sea. Recommissioning should not be confused with decommissioning. It involves reuse rather than dismantling and presents a practical option which should be considered seriously.

Government policy is to presume in favour of and encourage the land disposal of redundant North sea oil and gas installations. Studies have shown that, in practice, most offshore installations will be brought on shore for reuse, recycling or disposal. The majority will be brought ashore and, as my hon. Friend suggests, reuse may then be the most attractive option for decommissioning.

It is, of course, for the operators to produce detailed proposals for the decommissioning of any particular installation, taking into account all the applicable environmental regulations and policies. Recovered equipment can be reused by the same company, sold to another operator in the UK, or even exported. As my hon. Friend said, not all equipment and structures will be suitable for reuse. Some may not provide the necessary fatigue life for economic reuse and others may simply be old technology, so the option of scrapping and recycling steel and other metals must continue to be available.

Nevertheless, it has been estimated that most gas platforms in the southern North sea are suitable for removal in one piece. Indeed, it is interesting to look at the experience in the gulf of Mexico, where, although platforms tend to be smaller than those used in the North sea, some 40 per cent. are reused. It is happening already and has been found to benefit the operators and the contractors who refurbish the platforms. Of course, it also

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benefits the environment. Finally, lower costs, achieved through the reuse of platforms, mean that economically marginal fields are more likely to be developed.

There are approximately 250 offshore oil and gas installations on the UK continental shelf. The majority will reach the end of their useful lives during the next 25 years, but the peak years for decommissioning activity are expected to be between 2003 and 2012. Only a handful of platforms are likely to be decommissioned each year over the next four or five years, but there will be some demand for recommissioning in the near future. For example, the owners of the Maureen platform have recently advertised its imminent availability for recommissioning, and the Balmoral field's semi- submersible is on the market for reuse when production ceases.

It makes quite a difference, of course, if platforms are designed for reuse. I am glad to inform hon. Members that many designers and fabricators take that approach. If they can build into the design the possibility of reuse, we are halfway to resolving the problem and technological solutions can be built in. As a result, some structures have very long life cycles. For example, the British Petroleum Harding field has a jack-up platform which can be moved between developments, and Conoco's Viking-Phoenix field is using a new generation of gas gatherer minimum facilities platforms that are designed with a working life of 20 years. During that time, they will be recovered and moved to other fields when required. Reuse has been built into the design.

It is also helpful that the industry has learnt a lot about the science and engineering of fatigue assessment and structure requalification. Future buyers will have assurances about the long-term structural integrity of the products. Advanced monitoring and inspection techniques will allow companies to estimate the remaining life of the platform and topsides to assess the potential for reuse. That is welcome.

I commend the efforts of the Great Yarmouth recommissioning partnership. The port of Great Yarmouth is the principal operations centre for the southern North sea and has over 30 years' experience of gas exploration and experiment. It has participated in the load-out of numerous offshore structures and has provided quayside construction facilities to the industry. Many operators have based their southern North sea operations in Great Yarmouth. Nearly 5,000 employees work in and around Great Yarmouth in the supply chain, employed by companies such as AMEC, Kvaerner and the Wood group.

The Great Yarmouth recommissioning partnership has a strong base on which to build. The partnership includes the university of East Anglia, Amoco, AMEC, Kvaerner, UK Waste, the chamber of commerce, the Great Yarmouth port authority and other local and regional authorities and official bodies. They have been able to put

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together a comprehensive picture of requirements for the removal of structures in the southern North sea and are offering the additional element of the recommissioning of equipment and jackets, so opening up possibilities for more of the currently marginal fields to be developed. That is economically and environmentally advantageous. Rather than the big companies simply hitting the big wells and then clearing off, I want the full exploration of marginal fields. The partnership can help to make it economic to develop marginal fields and get maximum use from existing fields, rather than moving away when they are only half exploited, ensuring that the UK continental shelf is properly, sensibly and environmentally sensitively exploited.

All the participants in the Great Yarmouth recommissioning partnership are fully aware of the need to take a medium to long-term view of the market for decommissioning and recommissioning and have identified the infrastructure required to meet the market demand. Most important, they have committed substantial amounts of money and resources to the project. It is an excellent example of partnership between private and public bodies, which we regularly talk about. We want to encourage partnership between local authorities and private sector companies, along with the public port authority. It is a model for other towns.

Technology has not been forgotten in the partnership. As the Minister responsible for science, engineering and technology, that is dear to my heart. I do not think that we can emphasise technology enough. New techniques are being introduced to facilitate recommissioning. I particularly welcome the fact that the Great Yarmouth Recommissioning Partnership has successfully attracted to Great Yarmouth a company that will offer and develop further a technique new to the North sea that can provide a competitive alterative to heavy lift vessels in many cases. My Department is at hand to give advice to the partnership if it wants to take further any applications for research funds. We shall give full support and back-up in the light of my hon. Friend's requests and his positive and imaginative approach.

In conclusion, I congratulate members of the Great Yarmouth Recommissioning Partnership on getting together to work in this area so positively and for spotting a market opportunity that may provide significant employment in Great Yarmouth in the early years of the next century. That is foresight. They are also dealing with new technology and addressing the need to tackle environmental challenges while providing employment. It is what I call a three-term equation of win, win, win. I commend the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth for wider consideration. I shall certainly do my best to take them further.

Question put and agreed to.

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