Memorandum submitted by Caroline Lucas
1. Following press reports on 1 October of an
announcement by DECC on that drilling is to be permitted at Lagavulin,
West of Shetland, I contacted Chris Huhne's private office to
ask how the announcement was made. There were no details of the
announcement made on the DECC website and, despite repeated requests
on how the announcement was made, I have still not been told.
On the date of writing I can still find no details of the announcement
or how it was made on the DECC website. It would be helpful to
know both how the announcement was made and why it was made in
recess, just a couple of weeks after the September sitting and
just ten days before the House was due to return on 11 October.
2. I wrote to the Secretary of State, Chris Huhne,
to express my concern that the announcement had not been made
to Parliament, thus denying MPs the chance to scrutinise. In response
the Secretary of State referred to his statement on the floor
of the House on 14 June on the issues surrounding the BP disaster
in the Gulf of Mexico. He also made reference to the work being
done by the Climate Change Select Committee. However, I responded
to point out that neither provided a substitute for a debate on
the announcement that drilling is to be permitted at Lagavulin.
3. On the work of the DECC Select Committee,
I understand that the Committee is not expecting to report until
the end of this year or possibly early 2011. It is scandalous
that the Government has taken its decision before the Committee's
Inquiry is complete. The very purpose of the Committee's work
is to assess whether there should be a moratorium on deepwater
drilling, as this from the Committee's website makes clear:
The Committee wants to find out about the safety and environmental
regulations of oil and gas operations on the UK continental shelf
- especially in the deepwater to the west of the Shetlands - and
the potential positive and negative impacts of a moratorium on
4. Turning to the 14 June Statement, the Secretary of State
clearly indicated that there was a need for detailed analysis
of the factors that caused the Gulf incident before exploration
begins in the deep waters west of Shetland.
For ease of reference the relevant Hansard
record of this is below: 14 Jun 2010 : Column 630 It is
my responsibility to make sure that the oil and gas industry maintains
the highest possible standards in UK waters, and I have had an
urgent review undertaken. It is clear that our safety and environmental
regulatory regime is already among the most robust in the world,
and the industry's record in the North sea is strong. However,
as exploration begins in deeper waters west of Shetland, we must
be vigilant. Initial steps are already under way, including a
doubling of the Department's annual environmental inspections
of drilling rigs. I will also review our new and existing procedures
as soon as detailed analysis of the factors that caused the incident
in the gulf of Mexico is available. That will build upon the work
already begun by the newly-formed Oil Spill Prevention and Response
Advisory Group. Given the importance of global deep-water production
during our transition to a low-carbon economy, I will also ensure
that lessons and practice are shared with relevant regulators
and operating companies.
5. However, the Committee will be aware, and
the Secretary of State acknowledged in his letter to me, that
US formal investigations into the factors that caused the Gulf
incident will not be complete until 2011. It cannot be called
"vigilant" to make the decision to permit drilling before
the review that you promise will take place can be undertaken.
6. In his letter to me, the Secretary of State
used the track record of offshore drilling in the UK as a justification
for the decision to go ahead with drilling at Lagavulin before
the Gulf investigation is complete. However, only a small percentage
of UK deep water wells have been sunk in the Atlantic Frontier
/ West of Shetland. It is not reasonable to say "West of
Shetland will be fine because we have dug hundreds of deep wells
in the UK and they've been fine" because the industry simply
doesn't have a significant experience of working in this region.
Working here is very different from drilling shallow wells in
the North Sea.
7. The oil industry has been reticent to develop
deep water West of Shetland because of its remoteness, the technical
difficulties in extracting oil and the high cost of doing so.
It is only because of recent tax breaks the previous government,
and now the coalition, have given to the oil industry to support
development of new unconventional UK fields that companies are
gearing up to go there.
The Committee will know that this is an extreme and hostile environment
with very deep waters (Lagavulin, though not the deepest ever
UK well - that was around 1,900m - is, at 1,569m, very deep and
technically very challenging), strong winds, currents, big waves
and cold temperatures.
8. The Committee will also be aware that the
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) this year issued a stern warning
over the increase in both serious accidents and spilled oil in
UK waters, labelling the industry's performance "not good
enough." The HSE's head of Offshore Division added, "I
am particularly disappointed, and concerned, that major and significant
hydrocarbon releases are up by more than a third on last year.
This is a key indicator of how well the offshore industry is managing
its major accident potential, and it really must up its game to
identify and rectify the root causes of such events."
Again, this represents another reason why it is not acceptable
to casually rely on the notion of a "strong track record".
9. To conclude, DECC granted drilling consent
before either the Select Committee scrutinising this policy area
had finished its inquiry and before the formal US investigations
have been completed. The announcement was not made to Parliament,
was not posted on the DECC website and I still haven't been told
how it was made despite repeated requests. The Government is rushing
ahead with new deepwater drilling with no care for a precautionary
approach and should be condemned for its actions. I very much
hope the DECC Select Committee will call for the Government to
introduce a moratorium on new deepwater drilling, at the very
least, until it has concluded its Inquiry and the US formal investigation
See http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmgeneral/deleg3/100720/100720s01.htm for