European Council
Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions
3:30 pm

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Photo of Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown (Prime Minister; Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the question of supplies of oil for the future. That is concerning all countries. Not only do we need stability of supply, but, even as we move into nuclear and renewables, we will need a constantly rising supply of oil. That means that we must ensure that the demand for oil is met by supply, otherwise the price will go up again. We are, therefore, looking at what supply of oil there is, and we are trying in the North sea to increase the production that is available from some of the smaller marginal fields as well as from some of the fields that have previously been explored and developed but not exhausted.

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Mandy Meikle
Posted on 21 Oct 2008 11:23 am (Report this annotation)

Having skimmed yesterday's Work & Pensions debate, during which John Hemming raised the issue of 'peak oil', I was saddened by the apparent lack of recognition of the dire need for energy demand reduction. Oil is the most energy-rich of the fossil fuels, with gas and coal not far behind. We simply cannot replace the energy contained within these fossil fuels, which represents the accumulation of millions of years worth of natural energy (solar and tectonic), with current technology, whether renewables or nuclear. However, we can and must reduce energy demand.

So firstly, we will never replace oil energy on a like-for-like basis. We have to reduce energy demand and many groups are proposing ways to do this (e.g. Greenpeace and CAT's Zero Carbon Britain report). Given that, globally, some 84% of oil goes into transportation fuels, transport is the most important change we need to see in society - transport of people, food and goods. We have to localise production of essentials, which includes food. I was pleased to hear Radio 4 report on the Fife Diet yesterday, a scheme where some people in Fife are living on food from Fife as much as they possibly can. With the growing Transition Towns movement, which has also been reported on Radio 4, I know there are many communities rising to the challenges which Government seems incapable of addressing, namely energy demand reduction.

Secondly, if the world turns to nuclear power, the available supplies of high-quality uranium ore will deplete more rapidly. As lower quality ores are used, so the energy return diminishes. This means that less energy is actually gained from the process as more energy is required in the processing of uranium. Furthermore, uranium is not indigenous to the UK and requires importing from countries who may decide it's more prudent to use it for their own electricity generation.

I do not believe nuclear power to be commercially viable without massive Government subsidy (including for construction, insurance and clean-up). The Governments of the world seem to find money for wars and for bailing out banks, yet they seem unable to find even a fraction of that money for preparing for our future. We need to localise energy also, including electricity generation. This can be done by decentralising (i.e. sourcing energy locally) and by efficiency measures such as Combined Heat and Power (CHP), where the heat wasted by power stations is captured and used. CHP is not new - Battersea Power Station used to feed wasted heat into a district heat system decades ago.

Another often-ignored fact about nuclear power is that it requires a relatively isolated location with a good supply of cooling water and in the UK this means a coastal location. What is the point of extending nuclear power stations on sites which may well be under water in a century - long before they cease to be radioactive?

I want to finish by highlighting another concern I have (sorry there are so many!). The Government also seems keen on a new round of coal-fired power stations and the promise of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to reduce emissions. PM Brown says "we are trying in the North sea to increase the production that is available...from some of the fields that have previously been explored and developed but not exhausted" and I think it is important to raise the fact that injecting CO2 into old oil fields has been carried out by the oil industry for years. It's one of the methods of enhanced oil recovery. I have written to BERR and EAC asking if anyone has worked out how much additional oil would be gained from the North Sea by injecting CO2 captured from coal-fired power stations into old oil fields but no one seems to know. I would be grateful if you could tell me what research has been done on this. I shall write to my MP about this also.

Rather than talking about 'energy security' and 'diversifying energy supply', let's talk about reducing energy demand because if we do that, we may just be able to provide real energy security for the UK from a diverse range of renewable resources and set an example to the rest of the world.

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