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House of Lords

Thursday, 1st March 2001.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Methane Gas

Lord Jenkin of Roding asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why methane gas derived from landfill sites counts as part of the renewables obligation for electricity producers while methane gas from abandoned mines does not.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, coalmine methane is a fossil fuel produced in rock strata over millions of years. Methane at landfill sites is produced from recently deposited biodegradable material, and is replaceable within a generation. The statutory definitions of "fossil fuel" and "renewable sources" in the Utilities Act reflect this, and preclude the inclusion of fossil fuel in the renewables obligation.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, at present, out of about 900 abandoned mines, there are only five where operators are harnessing and burning methane gas? As this is a waste product which is over 20 times more damaging to the environment in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide, is there not an overwhelming case for giving operators more incentives to harness and use this noxious and dangerous gas, which at present escapes into the atmosphere?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the noble Lord is right about the harmful effects of coalmine methane. It is some 21 times worse than carbon dioxide. However, it cannot be said to be a renewable source of energy; I agree, therefore, that it cannot come under that category. There is an environmental case for seeing whether there are ways of encouraging greater use of methane by the industry. Indeed, my department and the DETR are examining, with the Association of Coal Mine Methane Operators, ways in which the Government might encourage industry to develop more sites. It may be an area in which the Coalfields Task Force and the Carbon Trust could be helpful.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, would it not be most consistent in terms of energy production, and environmentally sensible, if methane from closed collieries were treated in a similarly advantageous way to methane from landfill sites? It is the same gas; and, as the noble Lord said, it is very noxious.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I must disagree: it is not the same kind of gas. Both come from

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the bacterial breakdown of organic material, but coalmine methane is produced through carbonisation over millions of years and therefore cannot be treated in terms of renewable energy. If we were to do that, it would be difficult to argue that either coal or natural gas should also not be included as renewable energy. That would clearly be a farcical situation. However, as I said, there are good environmental reasons for examining this area, and that is what we are doing.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the coalfield areas. Are the Government giving special consideration in connection with this issue to stimulating the exploitation of methane from disused mines as a way of bringing more investment and employment into the coalfield areas?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, that is exactly what my department and the DETR are doing. We are examining possible ways of encouraging greater use of methane. The main argument is environmental. At present, there are five plants. The number would have to rise to 300 before it began to make any difference at all in terms of electricity generation.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, has any work been done on recovering methane from farm slurry tanks?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am not aware of any. I shall look into the matter and find out whether such work is being done.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, there is world-wide interest in the technology for using methane from coalmines. Will the Minister accept that if the Government are seen to support that industry in this country it would bring great benefits to the industry as a whole? Therefore, I should be relieved to hear that he is considering the creation of a new category for this operation.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, it is not a question of a different category. We should look at whether there are appropriate incentives for this product. We have major programmes relating to clean coal technology, encouraging its exportation to other parts of the world.

Lord Oxburgh: My Lords, on rigorous scientific criteria about which there is no question, methane from coalmines is a fossil fuel. Accepting that, is the Minister aware that this gas is steadily and continuously diffusing through the ground and leaking into the atmosphere by natural processes? Is he further aware that methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, but that during the chemical reactions involved in combustion--in burning it and extracting energy from it--it is converted into carbon dioxide and water vapour, which are much less harmful greenhouse gases? Does the Minister agree that this is a rare opportunity both to extract energy and to help the environment, and that it would be desirable to extend favourable tax treatment to endeavours to extract methane from mines?

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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am indeed aware that methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. One way of dealing with its harmful effects is to use it for the generation of energy. Therefore, as I said, there are strong environmental reasons for doing this, even if in terms of diversity of energy generation the arguments are not very strong.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, is the Minister aware that Germany changed its legislation on 28th March last year to ensure that methane gas from mines could be used towards the renewable objectives of the electricity producers; and that under those circumstances his Answer does not make sense?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, any country is perfectly entitled to do something which is illogical and stupid. That is no reason for this country to follow that particular path.

Lorries: Law Enforcement

3.7 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they have taken to strengthen resources directed to law enforcement in the road haulage industry as part of a package concurrent with the introduction of 44-tonne lorries.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Government have been working on a package of additional lorry enforcement measures in consultation with industry and unions in the Road Haulage Forum and its sub-group on compliance and enforcement. The package, which will cost 6 million over three years, includes projects: to increase the number of examiners available for roadside and other checks; to provide equipment to increase the scope and mobility of roadside checks, including weighing machines; to augment advice and education initiatives to prevent offending; to enhance data collection and analysis for targeting purposes; and to improve roadside inspection facilities.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I declare an interest as a member of the Commission for Integrated Transport, which recommended to the Government that 44-tonne lorries should be introduced--which I believe is happening this month. At the same time, the commission said that enforcement measures should be enhanced. Can the Minister confirm that the receipts from O-licences are running ahead of expenditure on enforcement?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct: 44-tonne lorries have been allowed on roads since 1st February, in line with the recommendations from the Commission for Integrated Transport. So far as concerns income and expenditure for Vehicle

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Inspectorate enforcement, the VI operates on a basis of revenue equalling costs. It is intended that, following consultation, the full cost of the additional enforcement to which I referred will fall on the O-licence income after a transitional period.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I welcome the extra enforcement measures that my noble friend the Minister just announced. Can he tell the House who will pay this 6 billion over three years--will it be the industry or the Government?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I believe that my noble friend misheard me rather grossly arithmetically: I said 6 million, not 6 billion. The figure is for the administration of the various enforcement enhancement measures to which I referred for extra examiners and equipment, as well as more adequate road-side facilities and their administration. The cost, which will eventually be an ongoing cost, will be covered by the income from the O-licences. We shall obviously have to have a fee review in order to achieve that aim. Such a review will take place later this year.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Home Office consultation paper on road traffic offences is not very encouraging, as it concentrates on penalties rather than the prevention of accidents in the first place? Why is the Minister not paying greater attention to the compulsory re-training of errant drivers?

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