The latest estimate for remaining recoverable oil reserves at the proven plus probable level is 1,290 million tonnes, which compares with previous estimates of 1,475 million tonnes made at the end of 1982, and 1,980 million tonnes made at the end of 1977.
Does that decline of about one third during the past 10 years cause my right hon. Friend to be disappointed with the rate of success of recent exploration drilling? In view of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) earlier, will my right hon. Friend repeat to the Chancellor that the tax regime should in no way inhibit such drilling in the immediate future?
With two years' depletion, the amount of proven and probable reserves in the North sea for both oil and gas has increased, so that trend is very encouraging. As my hon. Friend says, the amount of activity in the North sea in terms of drilling, exploration and development plans, either approved or in the pipeline, could not he more encouraging. As for his point about tax, the reaction that I receive from all the companies about the regime in terms of the economy as a whole and the tax regime in the North sea is positive. They have one or two points to make about the Chancellor's proposals and they put those fairly and forthrightly.
If the Minister is saying that the reserves have fallen by something approaching one third during this period, does that not mean that Britain's balance of payments will worsen as a result of the ability to use those reserves and sell some of that oil abroad? If that is the case, and if there are to be dwindling receipts from oil revenue, does it not make nonsense of allowing imported coal into this country, thus making the balance of payments deficit even worse?
Unusually, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was listening to my answer to the supplementary question. I said that during the past two years, despite that two years' depletion, the proven and probable reserves in oil and gas had increased. I am very encouraged by all the activity that is going on. We shall have oil and gas reserves well into the 1990s and towards the end of the 1990s at least.