Orders of the Day — Coal Industry Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd November 1959.

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Photo of Mr Woodrow Wyatt Mr Woodrow Wyatt , Bosworth 12:00 am, 23rd November 1959

I find it a little strange to be congratulating two maiden speakers, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) and the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Matthews), after having been away from the House for so long myself, but I should like to say how impressed I was by the very thoughtful and carefully worked out speech of the hon. Member for Meriden and how very much I and, I think, everyone in the House, enjoyed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East, a speech which was full of humour and knowledge, robustly and pungently delivered. I am sure that further contributions from both the speakers we have just heard will be awaited with considerable interest.

My stimulus to speak in this debate is that I now represent a constituency in which there are between 8,000 and 10,000 miners. If it were not for those 8,000 to 10,000 miners, I should not be here this evening. This debate, however, has more than just an interest for the miners in my constituency or in other constituencies in the country, because the subject we are discussing is a national matter. It is more than a matter of concern to people representing mining interests of one sort or another.

I have been staggered by the irresponsibility of the Government over the whole subject of fuel. I suppose that I should not have been staggered, but I have been away for four and half years and I had forgotten how complacent and indifferent they were to any sort of planning. The Government do not want a fuel policy. They do not want to stop the inflow of imported oil to this country. They are quite willing to let the whole thing be settled by the free choice of the consumer, without giving any guidance at all. They are prepared to see 300 years' supply of coal wasted and, to some extent, lost because they think everything will work itself out somehow.

The Government are blinded by a smattering of science which they do not understand and by the propaganda of the oil companies. They believe that they can more safely rely on the miracle of nuclear energy and cheap supplies of oil than on the vast quantities of natural carbon deposits below our feet. They are really like a gathering of monkeys sitting on a heap of coconuts who decide to import coconut oil because they cannot be bothered to open their own coconuts. The theory is that, as oil and nuclear energy are new. and as the coal industry is old, we can abandon She old and apply ourselves to the new. This is rather like deciding to give up drinking milk because somebody has invented Coco-Cola.

How safe will it be to reduce our coal production? At the Second International Conference on Atomic Energy at Geneva last year, it was agreed that, by 1970, atomic energy would supply less than 1 per cent. of the world's power needs, only a fraction of the world's requirements and our own. It may be thirty years before atomic energy can be relied upon to provide any substantial load of power. Meanwhile, oil is running out fast. This is something which the oil companies do not tell potential customers when they are buying oil-burning appliances.

The consumption of oil in the world is going up by 7 per cent. a year. In ten years, we shall be using double the amount of oil we use today. In twenty years, the world will be using four times the amount of oil it uses today. That may be an underestimate of the increased rate of consumption of oil year by year. At the moment, in South-East Asia, people are using 5 gallons of oil per head of the population per year. In China they are using only I gallon per head of the population per year. In Britain, on the other hand, we use 122 gallons of oil per head per year and in America the figure is 600 gallons. It is very unlikely that this tremendous disparity between ourselves and the underdeveloped countries in the use of oil will continue much longer In twenty years, there will almost certainly be a major oil crisis in the world.

The proved reserves today are only 40,000 million tons; and even the wildest estimates of future discoveries do not put the total amount of oil in the world at more than 200,000 million tons A good deal of that is in areas which it is extremely difficult to drill and exploit.

In twenty years' time, the oil companies will be down to about the last thirty years of their supply at the rate of consumption which will then have been reached in the world as a whole. If that rate of consumption increases beyond the next twenty years, it will be much less than thirty years' supply that they will have left. Several consequences will flow from that. The oil companies may reduce their exploitation of new fields because they will not be able to see the necessary return for their capital outlay in exploiting those new fields, and they will certainly have to charge a great deal more for the oil that they will then be producing. All those people who have now fallen for the oil companies' propaganda and have installed oil-burning equipment will be in serious difficulties.

Of the big three countries—Russia, America and Britain—we are the most vulnerable, because America and Russia have the largest internal deposits of oil and our supplies come mainly from the Middle East. Even in America, the situation is not very healthy, because the Americans regard themselves increasingly as major importers of oil. Even if the Government have not dislocated our oil supplies from the Middle East by another Suez adventure, the Middle East oil countries will be reluctant to go on supplying us with unlimited quantities of oil, because they and the other underdeveloped countries will want to use some of it themselves.

Even on the short-term view, however, is oil likely to continue to be cheap? As has been said during the debate today, the price structure of fuel oil is completely artificial. It depends entirely on a balance between the amount of petrol consumed in motor transport and the amount of the residual product which is then sold as fuel oil, because fuel oil is a joint product with petrol. At the moment, the motorist is quite unwittingly subsidising the destruction of our basic industry, coal.