Infrastructure Bill [Lords]

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 5:24 pm on 8th December 2014.

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Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Conservative, Wealden 5:24 pm, 8th December 2014

I hope that those issues are entirely legitimate to raise within the planning process. Those matters should be looked at in that way to decide whether an activity is or is not appropriate, and I believe that the right processes are in place to ensure that that happens.

As the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, said, the proposed underground access is not exceptional; it already happens for cables, gas pipelines, tunnels and coal mining. As the debate is taken forward, I hope that we can reassure people that we are not doing something draconian or very different, but simply allowing a change that brings the activity into line with others.

I hope that the Bill can still be amended in one area, however, so that it addresses an issue of gas security at the same time. The focus on the North sea and shale gas highlights our vulnerability on energy security. As a country, we are already dependent on imported gas. Historically, the North sea was our gas-storage capability—when we needed more, we pumped out a bit more—which is why we have never stored the same volumes of gas as the French and the Germans. As we move into a period of dependency on gas imports, we need to look again at gas storage.

That is particularly true in the current climate, with the oil price where it is. The risk from the oil price’s being lower than it was just a few months ago is that the North sea will be harder to sustain in the longer term. It is one of the most expensive basins in the world, and there is therefore a risk that some fields will be closed down earlier. They will be abandoned, and it will not be possible to reopen them. At the same time, a low oil price—the gas linkage comes into that—means that UK shale may, because of its cost, be harder or simply not economic to extract. We therefore need to consider how to preserve our security of supply, which means looking again at gas storage.

We should pay tribute to, and recognise, the tremendous difference made by the liquefied natural gas terminals in the Thames and in south Wales, and the important contribution made by pipeline infrastructure from Norway—Langeled, for example—and what it has brought to this debate. However, looking back at gas issues over the past eight years or so, I think that we came too close for comfort during four winters, overwhelmingly because of factors over which we had no control.

The first time was in 2006, when there was a fire in our main gas storage facility at Rough. In 2009, there was the Russia-Ukraine dispute. Even though we were as far away in Europe as we could have been from those issues, gas was coming in through one interconnector and the same volume was going out through the interconnector next door to meet the demand in continental Europe. Eighteen months ago, the winter before last, we came within a few hours of running out of gas because the winter was so long and cold. We cannot leave the situation to chance. We need to take action now to guarantee our energy security for the future.

I believe fundamentally in market principles and approaches, but the market approach has not delivered the level of new investment that we would wish to see in this area. My right hon. Friend the Minister, who introduced the debate, well knows my views on this matter. We had a discussion a day or so after he took over from me as the Minister of State; I said that the one thing on which I wished we had done more was gas storage. I still hold that view today—perhaps even more strongly.