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8.3 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): My constituents will welcome the Bill. Even Britain's most easterly constituency is part of the UK, of Europe and of the world. We share a common interest in preventing environmental damage in pursuit of a sustainable future. Pollution is the sharp end of environmental damage and dealing effectively with it must be at the heart of any environmental policy. I am pleased that the Bill emphasises the reality that pollution--particularly of the air and of water--respects and recognises no national boundaries. Flows of air and water do not stop at border controls.

It is important to give force to the Europe-wide directive, and it is fitting to do so in the week of the elections to the European Parliament. Our approach must be integrated across the countries of Europe. Everyone must sign up to the same standards, and enforce them to the same degree. The European Union has the tasks of ensuring that standards are enforced to the same degree in every country, and of showing that that is so. Many people in the UK are still convinced that other countries do not enforce standards to the same degree as we do. I do not know whether those allegations are true, but the belief is commonly held, and the EU must address it so that we may all be confident that regulations are equally enforced. We need higher standards across the EU, and a level playing field on which our businesses can compete.

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Integration is also important to the approaches taken by individual Governments towards addressing the various forms of pollution, the regulations that govern operators, and the Government machinery for enforcement of regulations. If all that is integrated, we shall have an effective system that businesses involved can cope with and manage.

I want to focus on the relationship between environmental management and economic well-being, particularly as it affects my constituency. Waveney has particular reasons for welcoming improvements in the tackling of pollution. First, we are a coastal constituency, and tourism forms a major part of our economy. We have many attractions, but the basis of our tourism is clean beaches, clean sea water and clean rivers in the Broads national park. I am proud that since 1988 we have attained 51 beach awards and 13 European blue flags. Lowestoft was voted the best beach in the country by the English Tourist Board in 1991, and it still holds the title because the competition has not been run since then. More than 4,000 jobs are involved in tourism, and we have a clear interest in preventing pollution of our oceans and the North sea.

In 1978, an oil tanker shed some of its load, causing oil sludge on our beaches in north and south Lowestoft. A clean and healthy marine environment is also a necessity for good fisheries. Preventing pollution in seas around the country would be good for our fishing industry, which is particularly important to Lowestoft. Despite the gloom and doom we hear about fishing, I believe that we have a bright and sustainable future. Our main company has invested £3 million in a new trawler, which it would not have done unless it believed it had a future. The Bill will help to ensure that fish can breed in our marine environment.

When we implement environmental regulations, it is important to ensure that affected industries can adjust to change. We cannot afford to destroy businesses along the way. Let me offer a brief example that is currently causing concern. Anglian Water is implementing a current European directive, and Lowestoft fish merchants are concerned about what is happening in Grimsby.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment the fact that fish merchants face an increase in their sewage bills of 1,000 per cent. because of the way in which Anglian Water is implementing the directive. No business can cope with that, and my fish merchants are worried because a new sewage treatment plant is coming and they may be faced with the same problem in a year or two's time. A means must be found of managing the change, and I hope that my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend can find a way to resolve the situation. If they cannot, people at the Lowestoft fish market, on which our economy is heavily dependent, will continue to be worried.

That example illustrates the need to gain environmental advances without economic disbenefits, particularly in areas of high unemployment. Hon. Members who have studied the league table of unemployment in travel-to-work areas will know that a large number of coastal towns appear among the worst 20 areas.

My constituency has jobs in tourism and fishing. Another major source of employment is the offshore oil and gas industry, as is the case in several other towns

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around the coast. Therefore, we must carefully consider how the Bill relates to that important source of employment with its 350,000 jobs nationally, and given the 16 per cent. of industrial investment that it makes.

The industry has stated up front that it wants to play its part in developing an expanding environmental regime for offshore operations in partnership with the Government. It does not wish to run away from environmental responsibility. Indeed, during this debate I managed to take part in a meeting upstairs where the Minister for Energy and Industry was discussing that matter. He said that since he has been in office the industry has taken action in advance of legislation, which shows its attitude.

However, I wish to bring one or two concerns to the attention of the House. One concern is the means by which we reach the desired ends. Offshore installations vary because of geographical strata, technology, infrastructure and so forth. When trying to reach those ends, it is important that we consider installations on a site-by-site basis and recognise that different provisions should be made for different cases in relation to persons, circumstances, areas or locality.

I was heartened by the Minister's remarks on that subject at the beginning of the debate, when he mentioned flexibility and approaching matters on a site-by-site basis. We have to meet the desired ends, but there are different ways of doing so. We do not want the blanket application of specific technologies. There will be different solutions for different installations to reach those ends and that must be an important aim for the Government.

My second worry concerns the dreadful acronyms involved and the fact that BAT, or best available techniques, is to replace BATNEEC--best available technology without entailing excessive costs. The remarks of the noble Lord Whitty in another place and of the Minister this evening are heartening. They have confirmed that costs will form part of the new BAT regime, but it would be helpful if the Minister could make that absolutely clear when summing up. It will take away some of the worries and fears if, when seeking the best available technological solutions, we have regard to cost and the fact that it will not be excessive.

One cost with which offshore installations will have to deal is that of emissions from offshore combustion units. That will form part of the estimated additional £300 million that the industry feels the Bill will cost it. The industry questions one aspect that is related to combustion units and whether the cost involved will bring about significant improvements. A recent study carried out by the Norwegians--who, as we know, have a good environmental record--concluded that

That study was carried out in March 1999 and was called "The Contribution to Nitrogen Deposition and Ozone Formation in South Norway from Atmospheric Emission Related to the Petroleum Activity in the North Sea." It showed that emissions from the British and Norwegian sectors

    "contribute less than 5 per cent. each of the measured . . . values for coniferous trees during the growth season."

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    If we are to compare emissions from combustion units with those from coniferous trees we must think seriously. I am not that familiar with the study and I do not understand all the science behind it, but that is a point worthy of consideration.

In searching for better environmental standards, we must always ensure that we get the best bang for our buck, to use the slang expression--that we make the most difference environmentally for the costs that will be incurred. Furthermore, in the consultation papers an appeals system was outlined for the onshore sector, but was apparently not suggested for the offshore sector in the Department of Trade and Industry paper. Natural justice would suggest that there ought to be an appeals procedure for that sector, too.

These are important matters for the British offshore oil and gas industry. The remarkable thing about that industry is that it is still here. Twenty years ago, people said that we would have run out of oil and gas by now, or that it would no longer be viable to extract it. The industry is still here because costs have been reduced so that marginal fields can be exploited. We need to get the cost balance right so that we can continue to exploit the resources that are left for 30 years or more. Now, 60 per cent. of the operation in the North sea involves gas, which is a relatively environmentally friendly fuel. It is important that we are able to extract and use up all or most of that gas--that finite and valuable resource--while the infrastructure is there. It would be very good environmental husbandry to take out that gas while we are able to do so, and that is why we need to consider costs alongside the important environmental advances that the industry also agrees need to be made.

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