On the OGA’s functions regarding the disposal of gas by flaring, what does the Minister think is the best arrangement for the regulation of flaring and for ensuring that it is undertaken in the safest and most environmentally acceptable way, and in a way that is most conducive to the overall purpose of a platform? The schedule states:
“The OGA’s consent is required for natural gas to be disposed of (whether at source or elsewhere)…by flaring, or by releasing it unignited into the atmosphere”,
and so on.
The schedule also states:
“This section applies to all natural gas of the United Kingdom, whether obtained there or in territorial waters, or in areas designated under the Continental Shelf Act 1964”,
which suggests that the proposed new section applies to the flaring of all natural gas in the United Kingdom, whether onshore or offshore. I might not have read the provision entirely correctly, but if it does apply to all natural gas flaring in the United Kingdom in general, then the role of the Environment Agency in looking at how such flaring works might need to be added to the schedule, given the agency’s proper interest and indeed expertise, in particular in respect of the environmental considerations of flaring that under the schedule as drafted appear to be deputed entirely to the OGA.
I do not seek to overturn the schedule, because it is an important part of the process of getting the OGA under way, but that particular part of the proposed new section appears to be a lacuna on how the function is undertaken. Has the Minister considered, formally or informally, the role of the Environment Agency in the process? Might a function onshore also apply to a function offshore? I seek clarification from the Minister, so we may be as clear as possible that where flaring is undertaken it is done so with the best possible safety and environmental safeguards. Safeguards should also have a relationship to the purpose of the exploration or extraction in the first place.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. As he is aware, although the Wood review looked only at offshore oil and gas, it acknowledged that there were synergies between offshore and onshore. We agree that there are such synergies. In particular, the licensing regimes, technologies and necessary regulatory expertise are all similar. We therefore decided that the OGA will take on a larger range of regulatory functions than originally envisaged by the Wood review.
The clause and the schedule provide for the transfer of DECC’s functions in relation to oil and gas to the OGA, covering offshore oil and gas licensing and regulation, but not health and safety or environment; onshore oil and gas licensing and regulation for England, but not health and safety or environment; carbon capture and storage; and gas storage and unloading. We will transfer the powers that at present lie with the Secretary of State and are exercised by the OGA as an Executive agency. As we have just discussed, an Executive agency has no separate legal identity and so exercises powers that are conferred on the Secretary of State. For the OGA to carry out its functions, the powers will therefore need to be transferred to it as a Government company through legislation.
The Secretary of State’s regulatory functions in relation to the environment will not be transferred, but will stay with DECC. The regulation of health and safety is undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive, and that will remain so. Powers will need to be transferred to the OGA so that it can fulfil its remit. Those include powers to award petroleum licences, issue consents for related activity and regulate third party access to upstream petroleum infrastructure.
With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s particular point, venting is agreed to under licence, but that is determined by safety reasons. Those functions will be under licence to the OGA—so it will take on some of those licensing functions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. May I press the Minister for a bit more detail on why the offshore safety directive regulator will remain within DECC under the proposals? In other countries, where an oil and gas authority—or similar—has been set up, that part has also been outsourced to a separate, independent regulator.
As we have made clear, these were very specific recommendations of the Wood review—namely, that there needs to be tripartite co-operation between the industry, the regulator and the Government. In the UK, health and safety and environmental functions are taken on by independent regulators. Careful thought was given to where the boundaries should lie, and therefore health and safety and the Environment Agency will continue to have roles to play.