Orders of the Day — Energy Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th July 1973.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery , Honiton 12:00 am, 19th July 1973

We have had an extremely interesting debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Douglas) on a tour d'horizon of the fuel problem. He conducted it with that degree of competence that we have come to expect of him.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) and the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) more on being able to raise the subjects they wish to discuss in this debate on the oil crisis, thus allowing them to go to sleep a little earlier than they might otherwise have expected. I am certain that they will forgive me if I spend the greater part of my time answering the hon. Member for East Stirlingshire.

With as much sensible force as I can summon at two o'clock in the morning, I should like immediately to look the hon. Member for East Stirlingshire in the eye and say that I resent his uncharacteristic accusation that the Government were making complacent speeches about energy policy. I would reject that completely. My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and I for a number of months have been making it clear that we do not regard it as an energy crisis.

There are problems in energy supply. There always have been problems and I think that they are likely to continue for many years. The Government have proved that they are not complacent about these problems, as is evident when we consider what has been achieved during this year.

Perhaps I may break off here for a moment to rectify an omission on my part and apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before you leave the Chamber. I omitted to ask the permission of the House to speak a second time. It will be within the recollection of hon. Members that I had only recently been on my feet replying to the previous debate. May I rectify that omission and continue to speak with the leave of the House?

As a Government we have taken some of the most major steps attempted by any administration at any time in the reorganisation of the coal industry. At the same time we have fulfilled the obligations that we set ourselves for the restructuring of the nuclear power industry which is now corning to fruition. We have continued with our policy regarding electricity generation. As the House knows, detailed consideration is now being given to the fuelling of the next lot of electricity generating power stations. All these matters make for a major co-ordinated fuel policy.

In some aspects of his speech the hon. Member for East Stirlingshire was unnecessarily condemnatory of our position regarding nuclear-powered electricity generation because, when mentioning what the Japanese and the Germans were doing, he neglected to point out that we are still ahead of the world as 10 per cent. of our electricity generation comes from nuclear-powered stations. No other country can claim that record.

The hon. Gentleman went on to demand that the reactor choice should be proceeded with and implied that this matter ought to have been finalised by now. As he knows, a nuclear power advisory board in the new structure is being set up to advise the Government on a number of items, a major one being reactor choice. To suggest that we are slipping behind the rest of the world does not take account of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry last August when he outlined the work with which we would proceed in dealing with the examination and updating of the AGR, the further design and construction of the steam generated heavy water reactor, the further consideration and contract dealing with the safety considerations of light water reactors and the continuation of the HTR experiment to ensure that we could consider and update it within any consideration of reactor choice before turning to the fast breeder. The second fast-breeder reactor at Dounreay will be coming on stream, we hope, later this year. We should not, therefore, underestimate the considerable activity of the Government in this area.

Energy is a vital support to our civilisation, and the proper working of our economy depends upon getting adequate and secure supplies at the lowest possible cost, taking account of social as well as commercial factors. There has been a lot of talk about an energy crisis and we believe that this has been overdone. To put it into proper perspective, it is important to distinguish between the two different energy supply problems—the short-term supply difficulties and the longterm rundown of world reserves of conventional fossil fuels.

The risk of short-term difficulties is always with us. It could be caused by technical breakdowns, action by overseas suppliers and delivery problems. The best protection is to have good stocks, a diversification of sources of supply and a readiness on the part of the Government to take emergency action if a real shortage develops. We have already taken steps on each of these fronts. There is the Coal Industry Act, there is the EEC directive requiring member States to have 90-day oil stocks by 1985 and there is the Government's policy of rapidly developing the North Sea oilfields. These represent a substantial diversification in sources of supply.

The longer term problem of finite resources of conventional fossil fuels is a more complex problem. There can be two basic responses to it. Either encourage increased exploration or develop new energy sources, including the nuclear power. The Government believe that it is right to adopt both approaches in parallel. That is why we have gone for rapid development in the North Sea. We have taken steps to moderate the run down of the coal industry. On a world scale there are vast unconventional sources of hydrocarbons. It is technically possible to extract oil from oil shale, tar sands or even coal if the price is right. There is the possibility of large quantities of oil and gas which will be found in deeper waters in many other areas throughout the world. There is also the factor of secondary recovery where, as the price of oil rises, its extraction becomes an economic proposition.

So many people when analysing the problems of the future fail to take into account the way in which the discovery of hydrocarbon fuels has responded over the last 40 years to the increase in demand.