Orimulsion

– in the House of Commons at 7:08 pm on 14th May 1992.

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Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley 9:14 pm, 14th May 1992

I am delighted to be able to make this, my first speech in this new Parliament, with you in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I welcome you to your new post. I know that you will fill it with distinction.

I should express my appreciation to Madam Speaker, who has given me the opportunity to raise this matter in an Adjournment debate so early in the new Parliament. We are debating an issue of considerable importance. I have restricted the terms of the debate to the burning of orimulsion at Padiham power station, although I recognise that the matter is of wider concern, because when I submitted my application just over a week ago I envisaged the debate lasting for the traditional half an hour. Instead, we have more time to debate the important issues that this subject raises. It is right that we should do so.

I know that several of my hon. Friends have already expressed wider concerns. Indeed, while Padiham power station is within the constituency and borough boundary of Burnley, the pollution that it may emit will drift and cause considerable problems in a much wider area, depending on the direction in which the wind happens to be blowing. Therefore, this is not just a local issue of concern; it affects a much wider area.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) would have liked to be with us tonight but, unfortunately, in the past 24 hours, major redundancies in the royal ordnance factory in his constituency have been announced. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate why my hon. Friend has found it impossible to be here for the debate. But for that constituency problem, of great importance and urgency, he would have been here to show his concern.

There is concern among both Labour and Conservative Members about the burning of orimulsion at Padiham power station. I know that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) asked a question about this yesterday and has issued a statement today. He has chosen not to speak in the debate tonight because he has not made his maiden speech and wishes to do so in a debate that is less restrictive than this one. His statement says that he has stressed to Ministers his concern that the burning of orimulsion would lead to an increase in the current sulphur level over Read and Simonstone", which are parts of the Ribble valley that are adjacent to the Padiham power station. The statement continued: because of this, he would not be prepared to support the burning of orimulsion at Padiham Power Station. That shows the widespread concern about the burning of orimulsion.

I would never read The Sun, but some time ago I saw on television a report of an article in that newspaper entitled "Black rain eats cars". It said that the rain ate through the paint on more than £6 million worth of cars because it had been affected by emissions from a PowerGen station in another part of the country. I know that the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) will try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak about this as well. That was my first hearing of the word "orimulsion". I did not know what it meant. The Observer ran articles on the subject, one of which identified orimulsion as a front-runner for the title of filthiest fuel in the world. Not long after that, I received a message telling me of a proposal to burn orimulsion at Padiham power station, in my constituency. I was extremely worried by that.

In fairness to National Power, let me say that it has kept me informed throughout. Indeed, I received some information about orimulsion from National Power yesterday: the company considers that it is a beautiful fuel that will solve many problems. BP-Bitor, the company that wants to sell the fuel, also sent me some literature yesterday.

Throughout the exercise, the company has supplied information to the local authorities and to me and has tried to allay our fears. None the less, given that the only available information comes from those who want either to sell or to burn the fuel. I am beginning to wonder whether that information is genuine and can be accepted without doubts.

Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution is still examining the exercise. Ultimately, it will lay down certain conditions, and will say either yes or no to the proposal. If any questions remain in my mind in regard to safety, however, and if I think that those questions cannot be answered, I shall feel that we must say no to the fuel. Safety is crucial.

Mine is not the only constituency involved. The wind may blow the pollution towards Pendle, and, when it blows from the north-east, it may drift over Hyndburn. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) is very concerned about that.

Photo of Greg Pope Greg Pope , Hyndburn

This is indeed a matter of major concern to the people of Hyndburn. Padiham power station is less than a mile from the boundary of my constituency. Is this not another example of the use of a cheap and dangerous fuel by a privatised industry that will put profits before people?

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. As he said, the power station is fairly near the boundary of his constituency; it is also on the edge of my constituency and the constituency of Ribble Valley. Part of the Hyndburn constituency is clearly visible just across the road, and parts of Pendle are not far away. The wind is not constant, and may blow at different speeds and in different directions.

In the previous two Parliaments I was a member of the Environment Select Committee and was involved in early reports that the Committee put out about acid rain. Those reports condemned the "tall chimneys" approach to dispersing emissions from power stations, but the proposals were initially rubbished: it was said that there were no problems with acid rain. Over the years views have changed, and I believe that it is now recognised that the Committee identified a real danger. Now we must be satisfied that we shall not increase the existing problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn made a valid point when he referred to the financial considerations. I was told by the press that they had been told that the Minister who would reply to the debate would be from the Department of Trade and Industry. The Government have done away with the Department of Energy: energy now forms just a section of the Department of Trade and Industry.

I welcome the Minister for the Environment and Countryside to his new position on the Treasury Bench. I am glad that a Department of the Environment Minister is to reply to this debate. If a Department of Trade and Industry Minister had been sent here, it would have increased people's fears that environment problems would not come first and would not be looked at as closely as other aspects of the matter. I repeat that I welcome the Minister to his new post. I had dealings with him on a number of other issues in the last Parliament when he had ministerial responsibilities in another Department. I am glad that the Government have chosen to recognise that this debate is concerned with environmental problems.

The Opposition are concerned, however, that the Government do not intend to introduce a new green Bill. We were told before the election that there would be a new environmental Bill. We believe that they have chosen not to introduce such a Bill because their view is that green issues have a lower priority than cash.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

The Minister says, "No." The Government have to prove their case. I believe that over the four or five-year term of this Parliament our fears will prove to have been justified. If, however, we can accept in good faith what has just been said by the Minister, we shall be happy. It would be good to know that green issues are important to the Government.

The Government still have a 40 per cent. stake in National Power. If they chose to do so, they could, by means of their shareholding in National Power, direct policy. However, they choose not to do so, and that is extremely worrying. National Power is in competition with PowerGen, which has already obtained permission to use orimulsion at certain power stations. Therefore, National Power quite rightly says that if PowerGen is allowed to use this cheap fuel on an experimental basis, it, too, should be able to do so. The point, however, is that PowerGen carried out those experiments before the Environmental Protection Act 1990 was passed. I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill. The Environmental Protection Act represents a tremendous move in the right direction. It did not go as far as the Opposition would have wished, but I repeat that it represents a major move in the right direction.

The question is whether the provisions of that Act will be applied to the Padiham power station and Pembroke power station proposals. The new competition within the industry means that the privatised companies have to compete with each other. That worries many of us. The use of natural gas for the generation of electricity at peak times in, say, January may be sensible, but one has to question its use at other times of the year. National Power argues that natural gas is a good fuel to use for the generation of electricity because it is clean, not a polluter. However, it then goes right to the opposite extreme of opting for a cheap fuel that would cause major pollution problems.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Gentleman knows that today I received an answer to a question about the Pembroke power station that dealt with this issue. It reveals the confusion to which the hon. Gentleman just alluded. If the change of use proposed for the power station in Burnley is the same as that proposed for Pembroke, two approvals will be required from the Department of Trade and Industry—one for planning permission to extend the building and the other from Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution to authorise the burning of orimulsion. It is possible that then there would be a planning public inquiry which, this answer tells me, would be set up and decided upon by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. That was a bit of a surprise to me. There is to be no proper consideration of fuel in any form of inquiry, and presumably that is what the people of Lancashire and south-west Wales would want. An inquiry would mean that the entire matter would be raised in one debate. That would alleviate many fears in Wales and the north-west.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point. The issues involved in the use of this fuel are too important to allow proposals to be considered in such a bits-and-pieces manner, in different parts of the country and not necessarily in the same way. The hon. Gentleman referred to the possibility of a planning inquiry. I do not know whether matters would be dealt with differently in Wales, but the fact that this point is to be decided by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry raises fears about whether environmental issues or money will be the main factors. That is extremely worrying.

Whether energy provision is publicly or privately owned, I believe that the Government have a right to determine what fuel sources should be used and in what percentages. Energy is so crucial to our everyday lives in industry, commerce and at home that it should not be left to a competitive private sector and free market forces. There is a fundamental difference of view on that aspect.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Does my hon. Friend agree that when Britain is suffering severely from a trade deficit it seems extraordinary that, as a result of Government policies, we are now importing 15 million tonnes of natural gas, 20 million tonnes of coal and, if the orimulsion proposals are allowed to go ahead, God knows how many million tonnes of orimulsion? All that will damage the balance of trade and cause disaster to the coalfield communities.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

My hon. Friend must have been reading my mind, because I was about to deal with that. When we have our own resources, it seems crazy that we should import orimulsion, coal and perhaps increasing quantities of natural gas, all of which imports worsen our balance of payments. The Government say that they can manage our economy; yet even though we have had our own massive resources of oil and gas over the past few years, we still have a huge trade deficit.

The environmental issues are crucial. Far too many questions are unanswered. Many people are worried about whether we know all the questions that we should be asking. That may seem a strange thing to say, but we are talking about a brand new fuel and we do not know the long-term implications of its use. It may be that, although we are currently focusing our attention on important environmental matters, they may not be the most important matters. I am concerned that, even though we may use the fuel on an experimental basis, there may be a problem. What do we do if, in 10 years, a Minister has to come to the Dispatch Box and say, "I'm sorry, but because we have been allowing that fuel to be burnt at Padiham power station, we have a terrible disaster in Rossendale and Darwen"? I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms. Anderson) is present.

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson , Rossendale and Darwen

This issue is of great concern to my constituents. They have —and have had for many years—a deep interest in environmental matters. The proposal will worry them deeply if it proceeds, which is why the Labour-controlled Rossendale borough council voiced its strong opposition to it. I fully support that stance.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

My hon. Friend underlines the point that I am making. There is concern now but in 10 years' time, if a Minister from whichever party had to say, "We are sorry, but there is a disaster in Rossendale or Pendle", or wherever it may be, what on earth would we do? It would be no good saying that the authorities acted in good faith but had no idea of the implications. Therefore, unless the Minister can say that we are absolutely certain that using the fuel is 100 per cent. safe and that there can be no problems at all, we must say that we are not prepared to allow it.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Will my hon. Friend cast his mind back to what he said a few minutes ago about chimney emissions causing acid rain and about that finally being acknowledged? I recall the very dim and distant days when I first started work at the generating board. I recently checked its annual report—and the Minister should listen to this if he is also listening to experts.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I was not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman was not. The generating board's annual report for 1962 or 1963, annnouncing the new single stack chimneys under the heading "Clean air", said that as its new contribution to cleaning the air it would use one chimney per power station with one flue. It believed that the chimney emissions would hurtle out at such a temperature and speed that they would rise into the upper atmosphere and do no harm at all. That was what the chimney emission experts said in the 1960s but they were, in fact, announcing the invention of acid rain.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

My hon. Friend is right. In all the time that I served on the Select Committee on the Environment—which was an excellent Committee under a Conservative Chairman, Sir Hugh Rossi, who is no longer with us—it produced some extremely good reports on long sea outfalls, chlorofluorocarbons and other issues. All those reports were initially rubbished and thrown into the waste bin, but a few years later people saw some truth in them and realised that they contained issues of which they should take note. There is a parallel to tonight's debate because, at the moment, we do not know all the facts about orimulsion.

Orimulsion is a fuel based on the bitumen from the Orinoco delta in Venezuela. BP Bitor is a joint company involving Venezuela and BP in this country. The bitumen comes from the ground in massive quantities and is mixed with water to make it transportable. The fact that it is mixed with water and is an emulsion causes particular problems when it is burnt in the combustion process to create energy. If the combustion process is not right and if there is a large amount of water with the emissions, will it return to earth more quickly? What other problems could be caused? That is one example of the problems that we face.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen mentioned her local authority in relation to the proposal for Padiham. Local authorities such as Burnley. Hyndburn, Pendle and Ribble Valley, Rossendale borough council, Lancashire county council and others in the immediate area are all working together and expressing similar concern to HMIP. They are all unable to find experts independent of BP or of National Power to give them advice on what they should suggest objectively to HMIP. That has been the difficulty for them and for anyone trying to make constructive proposals to deal with the request to burn orimulsion at Padiham power station.

Friends of the Earth say that the burning of orimulsion could fail to meet EC directive 80/779 and they believe that it could fail to meet the terms of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Orimulsion produces 20 per cent. more sulphur dioxide and a higher percentage of respirable dust than residual fuel oil.

Padiham power station was considered for burning orimulsion because it was built as a coal-fired station, and then became oil-fired, then one generator was returned to coal and the other was hardly used; so, relative to the age of the power station, the second generator set is fairly new.

A difficulty emerges. Of course sulphur emissions can be reduced if action is taken, and if HMIP insists on measures to deal with the emissions and all the problems with other emissions, whatever those happen to be. The problem that arises is that National Power—or, in the case of the other proposals, PowerGen—may say that the measures are too expensive, and the companies are not prepared to carry them out.

Knowing how the Government work, I suspect that they may say to National Power, "Okay, we will bend the rules and allow you to go ahead anyway." They will consider the Environmental Protection Act in terms of BATNEEC—best available techniques not entailing excessive costs—and agree that the costs are excessive, and allow the companies to go ahead. That is a grave worry, so we shall be interested to hear what the Minister says about it.

Friends of the Earth are worried about the percentage of heavy metals—which is higher than that in residual fuel oil—such as vanadium, and the carcinogenic metal, nickel. Some of those metals will be destroyed during the combustion process, but the evidence is clear that a larger percentage than with oil or other fuels will be emitted into the atmosphere. Such emissions can have implications even more serious than those of sulphur. I know that National Power says that that is not true, but I do not believe that the company has yet proved its case sufficiently to convince other people. There are more worries about the heavy metal emissions than about the sulphur because of their long life and the gradual, cumulative effect over the years.

I asked earlier how much National Power would invest in Padiham. That sum must, of course, be considered relative to its life span. The power station may have another 10 years left—12 years at the most. How much more money are people prepared to invest in it? That question does not mean that I am not concerned about the jobs at the power station. I fought to keep it, and I want to see it survive—but not as a safety hazard to the people who work in it and the wider public.

I know that several other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so although there are many other items that I could raise, it would be wrong for me to prevent other people from making a contribution. It is important to show the wide concern about the proposal. I shall say only a little more, and then allow other people to speak. We certainly want the Minister to have adequate time to respond.

To quote an item from English Nature, Dr. Farmer said: The burning of Orimulsion planned by National Power can only increase ecological damage caused by acid rain". The World Wildlife Fund and the Countryside Commission have written to HMIP objecting to the proposals to burn the fuel. That shows the concern of a wide spread of people and organisations involved in environmental and ecological matters. They are concerned about acid emissions, the implications for soil and water, for plant and water life—and, of course, ultimately, for human life as well. We all hope that HMIP is carrying out its duties towards the public under the Act, but there are some question marks, because what happens is not seen out in the open.

The Minister could answer the questions tonight by saying that the Government will not allow the proposal to go ahead unless they are 100 per cent. certain that the fuel can be burnt safely and that there are no unanswered questions. The Minister may say tonight that he believes that the best way forward in considering the burning of the fuel is to allow a public inquiry at which all the many important issues and the other issues that will be brought out in this debate can be properly aired and properly considered. Everyone will then have the full facts. That is why this debate is so important.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

I will call the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) next. Although I fully understand that he may want to make remarks about his predecessor and that he may want to express other pleasantries, I must point out that it will be necessary for him to stick to the main subject of the Adjournment debate.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger , Pembroke 9:45 pm, 14th May 1992

I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment. I wish you well in your office as, I am sure, do all other hon. Members.

I am the first Labour candidate to be elected to the House for Pembroke since 1966. I am also the first Labour Member for the reorganised Pembroke constituency which was established after the 1979 election. I will try to keep my traditional comments brief, because we are debating an important issue and I do not want to take up valuable time.

I pay tribute to my immediate predecessor, Mr. Nicholas Bennett, who was undoubtedly a hard-working Member of Parliament. That was recognised by the Prime Minister in his first reshuffle when he appointed Nicholas Bennett the Under-Secretary of State for Wales. I wish Mr. Bennett well. I understand that he is determined to return to this place. All I say to him is that I wish him well as long as he is elected in a safe Tory seat and not in a Labour seat. He inherited a majority of almost 10,000 from his predecessor, Mr. Nicholas Edwards, who is now Lord Crickhowell. He was a distinguished Member of the House and served well as Secretary of State for Wales for a long period in the 1980s. Lord Crickhowell is now the chairman of the National Rivers Authority.

I will go briefly through the problems that Pembroke faces which are apposite to our debate. Pembroke has many wonderful things going for it, especially its coastline and its national park. Generally, it is a most beautiful constituency and I have been lucky to live there for 21 years. I intend to stay there as Member of Parliament and certainly as a resident. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) knows the area well because he is a regular walker in the unique Pembroke national park.

Photo of Mr Rhodri Morgan Mr Rhodri Morgan , Cardiff West

That is enough of that.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger , Pembroke

That is enough of that.

Although we have many benefits, we have serious economic problems. The Milford Haven estuary has one of the largest petrochemical installations in Britain. It has three oil refineries and an oil-fired power station and is a major port in any terms. However, Esso decided to close its refinery in the early 1980s. The Milford fishing industry has been in decline and has now gone into receivership. I understand that the vessels have recently been sold to Irish interests.

We have had major closures in the defence industry, which is a major employer, and we now face the possibility of RAF Brawdy and RNAD Trecwn closing with massive unemployment consequences involving between 1,200 and 1,500 people which in a rural constituency is rather like major cities having 5,000 or 10,000 redundancies at once.

Against that background, I will describe how carefully the local authorities have considered the application by National Power to burn orimulsion at the Pembroke power station. With the greatest respect, I have to say that Pembroke power station is a giant in comparison to Padiham power station, which is more a minnow in terms of size of combustion plant. Pembroke is a 2,000 MW station.

National Power plans to import up to 3 million tonnes of orimulsion and burn it in Pembroke power station. As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has said, not only does orimulsion have a high sulphur content per unit, but it has a 30 per cent. water content and therefore a much lower calorific value than ordinary heavy or residual fuel oil. In other words, one must burn half as much again to obtain the same amount of energy and, in doing so, one creates half as much again of sulphur dioxide emissions.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley said, sulphur dioxide is a major cause of acid rain. He referred to the problems in his constituency and in neighbouring constituencies. However, with regard to Pembroke, we are not simply talking about a local, regional or national problem; we are talking about an international problem.

If National Power receives the go-ahead without installing flue gas desulphurisation, which would virtually eliminate sulphur dioxide emissions, the Germans and the Scandinavians will be on our backs complaining, quite rightly, that Pembroke power station is massively increasing acid rain problems in their countries.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) has already raised the issue of acid rain deposition in his constituency and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West has explained that the National Rivers Authority is expressing grave concern about the catchment areas in the Cambrian mountains, in the Elan valley reservoir area and in tiny pools. The N RA fears that if orimulsion is burnt in Pembroke power station without flue gas desulphurisation, the sulphur dioxide deposits will greatly acidify the streams and rivers that currently support salmon and trout fisheries. That is a major problem for north Lancashire, south-west Wales and Pembrokeshire, and it spreads throughout Europe.

My constituency has the highest level of unemployment in Wales. The current figure is 5,200. I am sensitive to statements or practical implications that could affect unemployment in my constituency. I should love to see unemployment plummet in my constituency, but I am a realist. We have a major problem and a dim future when we consider what is on the horizon, particularly in relation to the defence industry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West, in his capacity as Opposition Front-Bench spokesman on energy, have spoken to the workers at Pembroke power station. The workers recognise that there will be a serious environmental problem if orimulsion is burnt in the power station without the proper pollution controls.

I have referred to sulphur dioxide and the problems that it is already causing in Europe. Unfortunately, the Black forest is literally black at the moment as a result of acid fall-out. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley also explained that, while orimulsion contains sulphur, it also contains heavy metals such as vanadium and mercury. A planning application was originally before the Department of Energy and is now before the Department of Trade and Industry. It was made because National Power plans to install four large dust precipitators to remove the particulate material from the flue.

I have here a document produced on behalf of Dyfed county council by Gibbs Environment, an independent consultancy. It states clearly that, even with the so-called state-of-the-art filters which National Power plans to put on the stack, there will still be a significant increase in the amount of dust emitted from the stack. As it is such fine material, part of that dust will be heavy metals such as vanadium and mercury. In certain concentrations they are carcinogens and they undoubtedly cause asthma and the like. There are great fears among the local populace, because the dust would be a local rather than regional, national or international fall-out.

The document was produced by scientists, not politicians. It also says that because the fuel has a large water content it is possible that local clouds of not sulphuric but hydrochloric acid could fall, given the right climatic conditions or, for Pembroke and the surrounding areas, the wrong climatic conditions. There could be local acid rain fall-out within the national park and the towns of Pembroke, Haverfordwest, Milford and so on.

The scientific evidence is overwhelmingly against the proposal. The scientists are saying not only to the county council, the Pembrokeshire Coast national park and South Pembrokeshire district council but to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the National Rivers Authority and the Countryside Council for Wales, all of which have registered objections, that there should be a proper public inquiry and investigation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley has said. This is a new fuel. We must look differently at the way in which we treat the flue gas emissions from the stacks. In Germany, Denmark, Japan, Spain, Italy, Canada and the United States, Governments insist on full flue gas desulphurisation and state-of-the-art filtration systems before orimulsion can be burned neat.

The problem for National Power is simply, as was said earlier, that its competitor PowerGen took over the Ince B power station on Merseyside. The Central Electricity Generating Board had been running an experimental burn of orimulsion at that power station when the takeover took place. PowerGen has been allowed to continue it. In that respect, I have a great deal of sympathy with National Power; its competitor has been allowed to burn orimulsion without flue gas desulphurisation, special filters or anything else, because it started burning the fuel before the Environmental Protection Act 1990 came in, along with the various controls and reviews involved in that legislation.

PowerGen is in the same market as National Power, yet National Power is faced with the possibility—I hope that it is a distinct probability—that if it is ever given permission to burn orimulsion it will be only with full FGD and proper state-of-the-art filtration. Let us be honest: National Power is competing not only with PowerGen but with coal and gas. Surely Conservative Members appreciate the concept of the level playing field. If flue gas desulphurisation is not fitted at Pembroke power station, at Padiham or anywhere else, there will be no level playing field. Cheap fuel is being brought in and it will produce massive amounts of acid rain. There are distinct possibilities of heavy metal fall-out and local acid rain because National Power is not willing to make the investment—I admit that it would be large—to put in FGD.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger , Pembroke

I know that other hon. Members wish to speak and I shall try to be brief.

National Power is, understandably, looking towards burning orimulsion full time at Pembroke power station. Following the hike in crude oil prices in the early 1970s, the station has never been able to run in the way for which it was designed, which was as a base-load station burning heavy fuel oil supplied by the adjacent oil refineries. National Power wishes now to turn the power station into a base-load station burning orimulsion. It says that if Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, or the Government, do not impose what are in my opinion the necessary pollution controls, it will wish to run the station—all the four units—to produce up to 2,000 MW of electricity. It says that it is unwilling to make the investment in flue gas desulphurisation, purely for commercial reasons.

I suggest that if it is commercially viable in the United States, Canada and Germany, where orimulsion is being burnt by private generators, to make the investment. it is similarly viable in the United Kingdom. There is no doubt that National Power is trying to get away with burning orimulsion on the cheap.

I want to see employment continue at Pembroke power station. If orimulsion is to be burnt in the United Kingdom, there must be all the necessary pollution protection that is now available. There should be a level playing field for National Power and PowerGen. There should be a level playing field also throughout Europe, which will extend to our German competitors or colleagues, call them what you will.

At Pembroke power station there are 300 employees, but a cut is planned for March, 1993. The management has said that if orimulsion goes ahead 80 or 90 jobs will be lost instead of 150. Even if permission is granted by HMIP, the present 300 jobs will not be secure.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley for raising an important issue and giving me the opportunity to draw to the attention of the House the grave problems that Pembroke faces.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Order. I understand that the Minister would wish to reply at 10.10 pm.

Photo of Mr David Shaw Mr David Shaw , Dover 10:04 pm, 14th May 1992

I congratulate the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) on making his maiden speech in the difficult circumstances, on this occasion, of trying to be non-controversial. I congratulate him on his fair and well justified comments in paying tribute to the previous Member for Pembroke, Nick Bennett. We all know that elections are won or lost; we know also that many colleagues work very hard as Members of this place, and Nick Bennett certainly worked very hard for his constituency. I look forward as undoubtedly other hon. Members do to hearing from the hon. Gentleman in future.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) on securing this debate which is of considerable interest across the party Benches. There is concern about the use of orimulsion whether in his constituency power station or other power stations. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is here beside me taking considerable interest in the proceedings on behalf of his constituents.

Orimulsion at Padiham has considerable interest for my constituents. As the hon. Member for Burnley said, some time last year there was a major incident with orimulsion at Richborough power station in Thanet, South which is close to the major town of Deal in my constituency. Some £6 million worth of motor cars were damaged with the result that there is considerable interest wherever orimulsion is burned.

The problem was first raised with me in my constituency last year. Since then I have raised the issue with Ministers, PowerGen and British Petroleum, and I have visited the BP chemicals operation at Sunbury where there is a very good video, which I commend to hon. Members, that explains a great deal about orimulsion. It would relieve many Members of their anxieties, some of which are unfounded when considered against the details. I am concerned that much of the detailed information about orimulsion has not come into the open. Many aspects need to be explained to Members of Parliament and members of the public. I hope that the Minister can reassure us with information in his speech.

Last year I wrote both to the Minister and to Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution about orimulsion, hoping to secure a meeting with HMIP and believing that by now it might be an independent agency with some of the openness and benefits that such an arrangement brings. I was saddened that after considerable delay the reply came from the Minister's office, not HMIP. I hoped that the reply would fix a time and date for a meeting, but I am still waiting. I believe that it will be a ministerial meeting with HMIP present. I am not too fussed about the arrangements, but I want to have the benefit of questioning Ministers and HMIP at a meeting. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley would like to be present as, I am sure, would other hon. Members to get at the facts.

I shall try to be as brief as I can. So far my research has shown that, although orimulsion has many plus factors, it has negative ones, too. The plus factors are that the fuel burns efficiently in small, nearly perfectly formed droplets. Because of that, the dust emissions appear to be considerably less and safer than those of other fuels, such as coal or oil A further advantage is that orimulsion results from British technology. I do not want to be particularly controversial, but I should chastise the Labour party a little. Labour Members often go on about the need for research and development, and one of the benefits of orimulsion is that it is the result of British research and development. BP has been successful in using its research and development with the Venezuelan Government and oil company to produce a fuel that has many benefits, although possible disadvantages. A further benefit is that large quantities of orimulsion are available at an acceptable price. Therefore, orimulsion brings benefits in terms of price and availability to the British economy.

The negative factor is that sulphur dioxide emissions can be considerable and that if inefficient procedures operate in the burning process, as happened at Richborough, there can be large amounts of sulphur trioxide. When mixed with water in the atmosphere, sulphur dioxide and sulphur trioxide produce sulphurous and sulphuric acids. A combination of those apparently produced the smut that landed on cars in Richborough. We must be concerned about those smuts in respect of the health of constituents.

I hope that, when replying, the Minister will mention the problems of HMIP and the aspects of commercial confidentiality that have been cited in letters to me and about which I am concerned. Much of the secrecy that normally operates in respect of commercially confidential information should be swept aside in this case and the files, including those of HMIP, should be opened up. Hon. Members should have the opportunity, on behalf of their constituents, to examine the matter fully.

I am glad to have had this opportunity to speak and I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley on raising the subject.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Minister (Department of Environment) (Environment and Countryside) 10:11 pm, 14th May 1992

This is one of those rare parliamentary occasions. The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) said that he was surprised that a Minister from the Department of Trade and Industry would not be replying to the debate. I am from the Department of the Environment. I am glad that on this occasion a Minister of State is able to answer, because we are discussing an important subject. I am also happy to note that, a new hon. Member having made his maiden speech, the most senior Minister available in the House is able to congratulate him. I fulsomely congratulate the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger).

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) said, many of us were good friends of Nick Bennett, who was an outstanding Member and a very good ministerial colleague. So I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Pembroke pay a warm tribute to him. I was also pleased with his remarks about his constituency. It is customary to say that one looks forward to hearing much more from a maiden speaker. On this occasion, I began to realise as he was speaking that he really knows the subject, whereas I have come to it new and have had to swot it up in recent weeks. The hon. Gentleman therefore will not take it amiss when I say that I hope that I shall not have to reply to him in future debates, considering that he is such a master of the subject. Others who do not have to reply to him will be pleased to hear his contributions. I congratulate him.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

I intervene at this stage simply because none of my hon. Friends will have an opportunity in this debate to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) on his maiden speech. We echo the Minister's comments. My hon. Friend made a fluent and well informed speech. At the same time, I commiserate with my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who has been present throughout the debate but has not had an opportunity to speak. He was the only one of my hon. Friends present to whom I did not refer. I thought that he would have an opportunity to speak.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Minister (Department of Environment) (Environment and Countryside)

I, too, regret that the hon. Gentleman did not have a chance to take part in the debate. It is clear from the number of hon. Members present for an Adjournment debate how much interest there is in the subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) tackled me on the subject outside the Chamber, before the debate commenced. I appreciate that there is much concern about the issue.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Burnley for raising the matter, although I suspect that many people outside, like me until a few days ago, would have said, if asked to give an opinion about orimulsion, that it was the latest home decorating product. For many others, particularly those living near power stations where the fuel is burnt, or where it is proposed to be burnt, it is a serious matter of deep current concern. So I am pleased to have this opportunity to reply to the debate.

We live in a world where the market for fuels is constantly changing. Since the oil crisis of the mid-1970s and the increases in oil prices and generally greater volatility of the oil markets that followed it, the choice of oil as a fuel for power generation has become increasingly unattractive, as hon. Members pointed out. That is especially significant because, unlike, say, road transport, there are several other competing sources of energy which power generators can use. We have therefore seen a progressive decline in the utilisation of oil-fired power stations, such as Pembroke and Padlham, although they still play a part in the generation of our electricity.

Against that background, it is easy to understand the appeal of a new fuel, competitively priced against other fuels, available in large quantities and capable of being burned in oil-fired power stations with relatively minor modifications. Such, we gather, is the situation with orimulsion, a bitumen in water emulsion produced in Venezuela, where huge reserves are said to exist. That fuel is now being marketed around the world—in Europe under a joint venture with British Petroleum—with, as hon. Members said, some success.

However, if the world today is characterised by a lively, ever-changing energy market, it is also witnessing an upsurge of concern for the environment. Significantly, we are now less than a month away from one of the most important environmental events ever held, the Earth summit in Rio. We are seeing a welcome growth in environmental awareness and concern here and abroad, which is affecting more and more areas of our daily lives. It is quite right that that is the case.

Energy production is one such area. The days when we could produce power by burning whatever fuel was most easily and most cheaply available, with little regard to environmental effects, are mercifully long gone. But now, more than ever before, the environmental aspects of power generation are a central concern in the energy industry. It is therefore right that any proposal radically to change an aspect of the industry, especially one involving a new fuel source, should receive careful, thorough scrutiny from an environmental perspective. It is no accident that this debate is being answered tonight by an Environment Minister: it is a sign, 1 assure hon. Members, of the importance that the environment is playing in the consideration of this new fuel.

May I digress for a moment? I also assure hon. Gentlemen that we are proceeding with drafting our Environmental Agency Bill. It has not been put on the back burner, and we shall seek the earliest legislative opportunity to push ahead with it.

As a general rule, the electricity generators should be left to decide which fuels to burn and in what quantities. The hon. Gentleman may disagree with that philosophy, but subject to compliance with the non-fossil fuel orders, it is an operational matter for the companies. We now have a competitive electricity market with a number of new players. We also have a powerful regulator which oversees the operation of the market and safeguards the interests of consumers.

However, like all other large-scale industrial processes, power generation is a source of pollution. For example, power stations account for about 70 per cent. of the United Kingdom's major sources of sulphur dioxide, one of the main causes of acid rain. Another reason why I am pleased to answer this debate is that I represent Penrith and The Border in the Lake district, where we, too, know a bit about acid rain. It is vital to exert proper control over the industry, given its implications for the wider environment. Thanks to the actions of my predecessors, that is exactly what we now have.

The electricity generators, like other polluting industries, are subject to the rigorous system of integrated pollution control introduced under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 which is a unique first in Europe. It is no exaggeration to describe this as one of the toughest pollution control regimes in the world. It puts the United Kingdom at the forefront of environmental protection.

For example, we are playing a crucial part in the European Community's efforts to extend the principle of integrated pollution control throughout the EC. Pollution control knows no national boundaries. It cannot be artificially compartmentalised, especially when a single process may release pollutants into more than one medium. It therefore needs a broad, integrated approach, and that is exactly what we now have.

The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend spoke of the possible harmful effects of the burning of orimulsion. Even if I were able to, I am sure that the House would not thank me for going into a complex, technical explanation of the results of orimulsion combustion. I think that 1 could match the hon. Member for Pembroke on that. Thankfully, we have experts far better equipped to do so. However, I can confirm that, while on some counts orimulsion compares favourably with other fuels, it does give cause for concern on environmental grounds. In particular, the emission levels of some heavy metals, especially vanadium and nickel, are significantly higher than other fuels, and orimulsion does release more sulphur dioxide than other fuels per unit of energy produced.

It is therefore vital to ensure that any proposal to burn that fuel is carefully considered from the environmental perspective. I am happy to confirm that that is exactly what is happening. The combustion of fuels in power stations is one of the processes controlled by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, under integrated pollution control, and no orimulsion—or, indeed, any other fuel —can be burned in any power station without its authority.

I am pleased to note that, despite the concerns voiced tonight, no one has questioned the integrity or the rigour of HMIP. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Dover said about a meeting, and I will consider that possibility. However, I want jealously to guard the independence of HMIP. If that means that I have to refuse meetings with Members of Parliament, I hope that the House will understand the valid reason for doing so.

The inspectorate has received applications from National Power to burn orimulsion at its Padiham and Pembroke power stations, and from PowerGen to continue to burn orimulsion at its Ince and Richborough power stations. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Pembroke for mentioning electrostatic precipitators. At Richborough, the requirement to use electrostatic precipitators means that particulate emissions are exactly half what they would be if the station were burning coal. Furthermore, HMIP has required total sulphur dioxide emissions from both Ince and Richborough to be no higher than they would have been if the power stations had been burning fuel oil at full load.

All those applications are currently under consideration. I cannot predict the outcome of the inspectorate's deliberations; indeed, it would be wrong of me to try. I have heard what has been said in the House tonight. I heard the comments about flue gas desulphurisation, but that is a matter for HMIP to determine. I am sure that the House will appreciate that, as any appeal would fall to be considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, it would be wrong of me to comment on the merits of the applications.

Photo of Mr David Shaw Mr David Shaw , Dover

My hon. Friend has made a valid point about the independence of HMIP. However, I am still concerned to clarify with him the extent to which Members of Parliament can actually question and become involved, as some hon. Members have, in the technical details. 1 sense that on both sides of the House there is a desire by Members of Parliament, who may not be technically trained but who have some limited technical understanding, to get down to the details. Do we have access to HMIP or do we have to go through a Minister? How can we actually get at the details?

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Minister (Department of Environment) (Environment and Countryside)

Perhaps the best thing would be if I produced a note showing the status of HMIP. That might satisfy all hon. Members. All the data sent to the HMIP go into the public domain and its decisions go on to the public registers. Anyone is entitled to send information to it for consideration and deliberation before it comes to a decision. It might also be helpful if I describe in that note the relationship that Members of Parliament could have with HMIP.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

Will the Minister give us an assurance that, if HMIP says that orimulsion cannot be burnt unless certain conditions are met and National Power, or PowerGen, says that it cannot afford to meet those conditions, it will not be overridden?

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Minister (Department of Environment) (Environment and Countryside)

There is an appeal system, which I cannot prejudice by giving any guarantee about whether something will or will not be burnt. I am certain that HMIP will not hesitate to stipulate the provisions of whatever pollution abatement equipment it considers necessary as one of the conditions of any authorisation it grants. In reaching this decision, HMIP has a duty to ensure that, for example, any statutory air quality standards are not exceeded.

Concern has particularly been expressed at the possible damage burning orimulsion might do to the environment, regardless of any abatement measures which HMIP may require. Indeed, the hon. Member for Burnley has argued that its importation and use by the power industry should simply not be allowed. As I have said, I cannot accept the imposition of blanket restrictions of this kind. Provided the protection of the environment is properly taken into account, the Government consider that the generators should be granted the freedom to operate in the marketplace, without such unnecessary interference. We take the dangers of polluting emissions very seriously indeed, and those who doubt this should examine our record on acid rain.

For various geographical and historical reasons, acid deposition and its harmful effects were not always recognised as a major problem in the United Kingdom. If we go back far enough in time, of course, the scientific understanding that we now have of such matters simply did not exist. We should take that point on board. Our island status and the measures, such as tall chimneys, taken to protect our main population centres meant that we did not always view this problem in quite the same way as some of our neighbours.

I am happy to report that those days are long gone. The United Kingdom is now playing a full part in international efforts to reduce the emissions which contribute to acid deposition. We have already made great progress. For example, our emissions of sulphur dioxide, one of the two main acid rain-causing gases, are down by almost 40 per cent. from 1970 levels. But we are not resting there—we agree that we need to do more.

We are therefore implementing fully the European Community's large combustion plants directive, under which we are committed to reducing our 1980 levels of emissions of sulphur dioxide by 60 per cent. by 2003 and of nitrogen oxides by 30 per cent. by 1998. The United Kingdom's national plan for implementation of the directive sets out specific annual emission limits for both National Power and PowerGen. I must stress that there is no question of the use of a new fuel such as orimulsion at a particular plant being allowed to cause the limits to be broken. Greenpeace's concerns are wrong.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Minister (Department of Environment) (Environment and Countryside)

No, I must get on.

We have spoken about the public concern about proposals to burn orimulsion. I hope that what I have said this evening will offer some reassurance to those concerned about this issue. These applications will not go through on the nod. Under our new legislation, the applicants will have to conform to requirements that are tougher and more detailed than any that we have seen before. I can also confirm that public participation is another crucial element in our pollution control apparatus. National Power's applications for Pembroke and Padiham have been advertised to the public and put on public display.

A substantial number of representations have been received and the inspectorate will take these carefully into account in reaching decisions on the applications before it. If an authorisation is issued, it will be placed in the public registers—held by HMIP and the relevant local authority —as will key documents relating to the operation of the plant such as any monitoring data on releases to the environment which are required to be supplied to HMIP as a condition of authorisation.

I recognise that the proposal to burn orimulsion at Padiham—and elsewhere—is a cause of genuine concern in many quarters. I hope that what I have said will reassure some people. The electricity generators must be free to make operational decisions, but at the same time they must also meet rigorous environmental standards. Our pollution watchdog is scrutinising these applications and will insist—

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.