Orimulsion

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:11 pm on 14th May 1992.

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

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.