Clause 85 - Exploitation of areas outside the territorial sea for energy production

Energy Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 8 June 2004.

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Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes 11:00, 8 June 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 173, in page 64, line 38, at beginning insert—

'( ) It shall be the paramount concern of the Secretary of State to ensure that all possible measures are taken to preserve the marine environment.'.

The Minister will be pleased to know that this is a probing amendment, so he need not worry about any untoward activities. I am sure that he will not accept the proposal, and I shall not press it to a Division. Apart from anything else, he will object to the word ''paramount''.

It is opportune to raise the issue of the marine environment early on in consideration of this part of the Bill. The Minister will know that hon. Members on both sides of the House are worried about the protection of the marine environment, and many were disappointed at the failure of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), which was lost in the House of Lords. The Government recognise that it is necessary to ensure adequate protection for the marine environment, although in general terms none exists at present.

The development of renewable energy sources in the marine environment will obviously have an impact on it. That environment is very important as it covers 71 per cent. of the globe, and 80 per cent. of all life on earth—creatures large and small—is found under the ocean's surface. The marine environment is particularly susceptible to pollution and to disturbance, which affects not just plants but mammals and other animals, many of which are found in British waters.

The amendment's purpose is to find out how the Minister views the interaction of the development of renewable resources with the marine environment. What balances is he putting in place? What steps has he taken to ensure that the marine environment is properly protected? What guidance will be issued by his Department or the regulator? What will he do to ensure that problems do not arise from the development of renewable resources offshore? Many of us want that development to happen, but we also want to ensure that the marine environment is properly protected.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I shall reserve my comments on the UN convention on the law of the sea to the clause stand part debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge on his attempt, to which I hope he returns, to introduce a Bill on the marine environment. My initial reaction to the amendment is that the issue is so important that it should be covered by separate legislation. In the clause 84 stand part debate, I mentioned that little regard is paid by the Department to other interests and referred specifically to ship owners. Sustainable development of the marine environment is important, so it will be interesting to see what regard the Department pays to it.

The amendment draws attention to the fact that, although the Department of Trade and Industry is the lead Department on energy, other interests germane to the Departments for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for Transport, such as shipping, have not been paid sufficient regard to. The marine environment is so important that I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge succeeds in introducing a Bill to deal with it in detail.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I shall also pose a few questions and reiterate points made by the hon. Member for Vale of York. Although I support the general thrust of the amendment, I am slightly concerned about the use of the word ''paramount''. There are many other interests

in the seas as well as the marine environment. I am thinking particularly of fishing, which may be affected by the generation of wind offshore. We might come to that later. What is the Minister's overall strategy for the marine environment in relation to other industries carried out offshore?

There has been an increasing tide of opposition to onshore wind for various reasons. Many of us feel that offshore wind provides an opportunity for renewable energy without the problems involved with onshore wind. However, I would hate the same tide of opposition to rise against offshore wind because a system is not in place to deal with concerns over the marine environment and over other interests that operate in the North sea, such as fishermen, the oil and gas industries, and shipping.

Photo of Mr Richard Page Mr Richard Page Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

I am glad that the hon. Member for Lewes has said that this is a probing amendment, because he would run into troubles with the use of the word ''paramount'', as the hon. Member for Angus says. That word hit the political lists in the context of the invasion of the Falklands, when the wishes of the Falkland islanders were said to be paramount, according to the Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher. That helped to pave the way for the invasion, but that is another matter and I know that you would rule me out of order if I developed it, Mr. Sayeed. However, everyone reached for the ''Oxford English Dictionary'' to find out exactly what ''paramount'' meant, and it means that everything else is secondary.

If the amendment had been not probing but one of the wreckers that the hon. Member for Lewes periodically produces, it may have caused some excitement. However, it gives the Minister a golden opportunity to put on record what the Government hope to achieve in improving the marine environment.

I consider offshore energy generation not a disadvantage, but something to protect and improve the marine environment. The way that North sea oil rigs have operated, with their exclusion zones and the heating of the oil coming through, has provided growth and a breeding stock. A complete environment has been created in the Caribbean by toppling various rigs to form artificial reefs. They have developed the opportunity for fish to breed and grow in safety, which has helped to supply fish to the fishing industry.

Played sensibly, offshore development can be a boon to the marine environment, and I look forward to the Minister spending the next 13 minutes telling us exactly how we will ensure that it helps the environment in the North sea.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

I mean to ensure that the Minister does not have 13 minutes to reply.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Lewes tabled the amendment, because it allows us to probe important aspects of the marine environment that will be affected by energy extraction and development in coming years. For some years now, I have been a member of the Royal Society's pairing scheme with university science departments, and this year I have been paired with the chemistry department at the university of Southampton, which is my local university.

The year before, I was with the institute of oceanography at the university of Southampton, where I learned a great deal about the damage that has been done to the sea bed as a result of oil and gas extraction over the years and about the damage that we might do in future. Few people know that there has been a disruption to the coral colonies in parts of the north Atlantic, which has seriously damaged the marine environment. Now that we know about it, we can do something to stop it.

Looking to the future, particularly with regard to wind farms, there will undoubtedly be an impact on the marine environment, which we may not take account of if we do not bother to find out what we are doing before we do it. If we are fortunate enough to achieve the technical innovation to generate wave power, I daresay that we will again be disrupting the marine environment—there has been severe disruption wherever tidal electricity schemes have been constructed.

Only last Saturday, I was on the barrage de la Rance at St. Malo, looking at how Electricite de France has reworked its public exhibition area so that people can understand the importance of tidal flow energy and the contribution that it can make to the economy. That scheme came on stream in 1967 or 1968, but it has had a new lease of life, while we are told that discussions are still going on about a Severn barrage.

There is no doubt that such developments have a substantial impact on the marine environment.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

The hon. Gentleman is talking about tidal barrages, which clearly have an enormous effect on the marine environment, but to the best of my knowledge, no one is talking about developing tidal barrages for marine tidal stream power. We are talking about underwater machines that will have a minimal effect on the marine environment, and I hope he recognises that.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

Of course, although, as I have just pointed out, the Severn barrage is still on the cards. It has by no means been written off. However, it is also true that underwater generation facilities cause a disturbance of the tidal flow. That can lead to changes in the sea bed, which must lead to changes in the marine life on the sea bed. We have seen that in terms of mineral development and extraction around our coast. The Crown estates have put an enormous amount of work into that and have produced some excellent publications, which are available and, I believe, were sent to hon. Members. They were certainly sent to me. The Crown estates are conscious of the damage done by the exploitation of sea bed developments.

Also, in my constituency is the headquarters of the Trust for Wessex Archaeology, the biggest commercial archaeologists fulfilling contracts where there is marine archaeology interest—notably in the Solent. The disturbance of the marine environment has archaeological as well as biological consequences. I am glad that the hon. Member for Lewes has tabled the amendment, and I hope that the Minister can reply briefly to all the points I have made.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (e-Commerce & Competitiveness) 11:15, 8 June 2004

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewes for tabling this probing amendment, and I am sympathetic to the concerns raised by him and other members of the Committee. As he intimated, the amendment's precise form could cause us problems.

Clause 85 will establish the renewable energy zone beyond territorial waters and put in place a framework to enable development of the renewable energy zone. However, it goes no further. It does not pre-empt any decisions on the scale or location of any energy development that may be considered. Such matters will be dealt with separately as part of the strategic planning framework, which is in place to ensure that the development of our offshore renewable energy resources is managed properly and with due respect for the marine environment.

The framework incorporates safeguards for consideration of the impact of proposed renewable development on the marine environment. I agree with what all hon. Members have said about the importance of that consideration. We have put the safeguards in place to ensure that those concerns are properly addressed. I will now outline the safeguards that are in place.

First, we are about to implement the EC directive on strategic environmental assessments. Before the directive came into force, reflecting the Government's commitment to safeguarding the environment, the DTI carried out a strategic environmental assessment of the three areas of the sea—the greater Wash, the outer Thames estuary and the north-west of England—earmarked for round 2, which is the second phase of offshore wind farm development.

As a result of the assessment, a coastal buffer zone with a minimum width of 8 km, but extending to 13 km in areas of particular sensitivity, has been excluded from development in all three areas. It was anticipated that the development proposals coming forward, due to their scale, could have disturbed birds and had an impact on inshore fishing—the hon. Member for Angus has rightly drawn attention to fishing interests—and on recreational activities. The potential visual impact was also recognised. The same process of strategic environmental assessment would apply to any new areas identified within the renewable energy zone for future development. Only after that would developers be invited to apply for a site lease.

Secondly, developers awarded site leases would still be required to conduct a comprehensive environmental impact assessment for their particular site and apply for development consent, as is the case for the developers who have already been offered site leases by the Crown estates. The developers need to conduct the environmental impact assessment before seeking consent from three Departments: Trade and Industry; Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and Transport. As part of that process, we expect developers to engage in a dialogue with environmental NGOs and other groups, such as those representing fishing and other marine interests, which are likely to have an interest in the development.

Thirdly, before any project can go ahead, DEFRA must issue a licence under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, and will scrutinise licence applications very carefully. If necessary, it will attach conditions to any licence granted, such as to monitor the impact of any development on its surroundings. In addition, where there are nature conservation interests of European importance involved, there must be an assessment of all plans or projects likely to have a significant effect on the conservation interests of those species or habitats.

In accordance with requirements under the EC wild birds and habitats directive, no plan or project, including wind farm developments, can proceed where it will have an adverse effect on the conservation status of the species or habitat concerned, unless no alternatives exist and an overriding public interest case can be made. Even where such a case can be made, compensatory measures would be required to redress any damage.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

May I ask the Minister about the mechanics of government? He mentioned a number of Departments that are involved, including the DTI, the Department for Transport and DEFRA. He might also mention the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which I imagine has a planning role in the wider sense. Can he satisfy the Committee, first, that the synergy between the different Departments is such that the environmental objectives can be delivered and, secondly, that for those wishing to develop, the plethora of Departments does not represent an unnecessary hurdle?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (e-Commerce & Competitiveness)

The hon. Gentleman asks me to respond to criticism from both sides. That is quite fair, but it is clear from his question that there is a balance to be struck, which we think we have got right. Each Department that I described has a specific part to play, and it is important that all the interests, of which account will be taken by such scrutiny, are represented.

Equally, all the Departments that I mentioned are party to the sustainable energy policy network and are part of the reality of achieving the commitments set out in the energy White Paper. I think that the balance has been set at the right level. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that there are risks of impeding development or of letting things go through that ought not to. However, it will be necessary for each specific project to have all three consents to progress.

There is a robust process in place with a number of stages of consultation, so that decision making can properly ensure that the environmental impact of offshore renewable energy development is minimised. I welcome what members of the Committee have said about the importance of that. Of course, there is no such thing as totally impact-free development, not only in relation to the marine environment or to other users of the sea. We cannot guarantee to ''preserve the marine environment'', in the words of the amendment, because clearly there will be an impact.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the difficulties involved with the word ''paramount''. There certainly are for Britain very considerable natural resources offshore—reference has rightly been made to wind, waves, tidal currents—to produce electricity in a sustainable way and without pumping carbon into the atmosphere, thereby helping to meet our goal of cutting CO2 emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050. Offshore renewable technologies have a big part to play, and these measures will make a big contribution to the UK effort to tackle global warming. Global warming itself poses a serious threat, specifically to the marine environment, as members of the Committee know all too well.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. It is useful to set the scene as we go into consideration of this part of the Bill, and we have had some useful exchanges. Having heard that response, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.