Oil activities: transferable tax history

Finance (No. 3) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 4th December 2018.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 84, in schedule 14, page 260, line 15, leave out sub-paragraph (d).

The provision as drafted allows companies to transfer TTH worth double the value of anticipated decommissioning costs. This reduces the incentive for companies towards efficiencies in decommissioning costs and paves the way for decommissioning-related tax repayments far bigger than the companies are currently acknowledging. This amendment removes that provision.

Amendment 81, in schedule 14, page 261, line 29, at end insert—

“(aa) assessing the impact on employment, skills and the Exchequer from the asset’s production life and planned decommissioning phase, and”

Amendment 89, in schedule 14, page 261, line 42, at end insert—

“(d) includes an assessment of the impact on the Exchequer from the amount spent on directly employed and contracted staff by the seller over the production life of the asset to date; and the impact on the Exchequer from the buyer’s plans for employed and contracted staff up to and including the decommissioning stage.”

This amendment requires a decommissioning security agreement to include an assessment of the impact on the Exchequer from the amount spent on staff, in order for that agreement to be qualifying for the purposes of this Schedule.

Amendment 85, in schedule 14, page 268, line 40, at end insert—

“(aa) the amount spent by the purchaser in post-acquisition periods on new capital investment, major maintenance work, retraining of redundant staff, initiatives to reduce methane emissions or initiatives

This amendment, and amendments 86 and 87 incentivize capital investment by new purchasers in job creation and emissions reductions. Combined, the amendments limit the TTH which may be claimed to an amount equal to such investment.

Amendment 86, in schedule 14, page 269, line 3 at end insert—

“(c) the amount by which total post-acquisition qualifying investment exceeded the higher of excess decommissioning expenditure and the total TTH amount as calculated for the first activation period under paragraph 35.”

See explanatory statement for Amendment 85.

Amendment 87, in schedule 14, page 269, line 40, at end insert—

“(c) provided that the total activated TTH amount may never exceed the purchaser’s post-acquisition qualifying investment for the relevant TTH assets or TTH oil fields.”

See explanatory statement for Amendment 85.

That schedule 14 be the Fourteenth schedule to the Bill.

Clause 37 stand part.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Exchequer Secretary

Clause 36 and schedule 14 introduce a transferable tax history—TTH, as it has become known—mechanism, and clause 37 amends the petroleum revenue tax rules for retained decommissioning costs. Both measures will apply to oil and gas companies operating on the UK continental shelf, and to transactions that receive approval from the Oil and Gas Authority or relevant regulator on or after 1 November 2018.

These measures are designed to encourage investment in late-life oil and gas assets that are approaching the point of decommissioning, prolonging the life of the basin and sustaining jobs across the UK, but in particular in north-east Scotland. Decommissioning costs are generally incurred at the end of a field’s productive life, when taxable profits are not being generated. To provide tax relief for those costs, oil and gas companies within the UK’s ring fence tax regime can carry them back against taxable profits generated since 2002. That prevents decommissioning from being performed early for tax purposes, thereby helping to achieve the Government’s goal of maximising economic recovery of oil and gas.

When a new entrant without a history of taxable profits acquires an old field, there is a risk that the decommissioning costs of the field will exceed the taxable profits generated by the new owner, preventing effective tax relief via the traditional carry-back mechanism and leaving the buyer in a worse position than the seller would have been. That can make old fields unattractive to new entrants and deter much-needed investment in this important industry. That is a growing problem in an ageing basin, but one that we now believe can be resolved by our innovative TTH measure.

The change to the PRT rules addresses the increasingly common scenario of a seller retaining some or all of a decommissioning liability after selling a field. The PRT system currently requires the seller to remain on the relevant production licence to receive tax relief for any retained costs. However, doing so often requires complex tax structuring that serves no particular purpose other than to protect the seller’s tax position.

The changes made by these measures will create the right environment for much-needed new investment in our older fields. They will introduce a TTH mechanism that provides new investors with the certainty that they require about the tax relief they will receive for decommissioning costs. That will allow new deals to proceed, injecting new energy into a basin that still has 10 billion to 20 billion barrels of oil remaining. Initial feedback from the industry has been extremely positive—this change is already well received internationally and is helping new deals to continue.

TTH will allow companies selling oil and gas fields to transfer some of their tax payment history to the buyers of those fields. The buyers will then be able to set the costs of decommissioning the field against the TTH to generate a repayment. It should be noted that that should not be an extra cost to the Exchequer, as the repayment only replaces what would otherwise have been made by the seller. It will level the playing field between sellers and buyers of oil and gas fields, encouraging investment by providing new entrants with certainty on the tax relief available for their decommissioning costs. The new investment into the basin as a result of TTH is expected to increase tax receipts from the sector by £75 million over the scorecard period.

The clause also makes changes to enable petroleum revenue tax relief when a seller retains a decommissioning liability. A tax deduction will now become available to the buyer where the seller subsequently incurs decommissioning expenditure or where the seller contributes to the buyer’s decommissioning costs. That will simplify the way that older oilfields can be sold to new investors and help to prolong their productive lives. Before turning to the amendments, I thank all hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Aberdeen North, who participated in the discussions that led to this important measure, which we believe will help the community around Aberdeen in particular, but also those across the country.

Amendments 81 and 89 seek to amend the definition of a decommissioning security agreement within the TTH legislation in schedule 14. Decommissioning security agreements are specific commercial agreements that provide assurance to partners in a field for which funds will be available for decommissioning. The proposed changes to the definition would make the decommissioning security agreement required for a TTH election incompatible with the industry standard decommissioning security agreement, which, in our opinion, would make TTH elections impracticable and unworkable for the vast majority of our oil and gas fields, which rely on the well-established and respected industry standard agreement. TTH has been carefully designed to leverage estimates of decommissioning costs, which are already used in decommissioning security agreements, taking note of the history of the agreements. The agreements are confidential and, as one might imagine, highly commercially sensitive and are typically shared only between the joint venture partners and HMRC, in accordance with taxpayer confidentiality.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy)

Will the Minister tell us a little bit about the process that the Government went through in creating the Bill, and the work done between the Government and industry to ensure that the legislation works?

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Exchequer Secretary

Yes, I will turn to that. As the hon. Lady knows—she participated in and attended at least one meeting I held in Aberdeen with the Oil and Gas Authority and stakeholders—we have carried out a great deal of careful consideration and consultation with the industry, because TTH will succeed only if it works for both the buyers and the sellers. Our sole objective is not to raise revenue for the Exchequer but to extend the life of the basin and to create jobs and investment for an important part of the United Kingdom.

The new investment encouraged by TTH will prolong the life of the basin, which has 10 billion to 20 billion more barrels left, helping to protect the hundreds of thousands of jobs I have already mentioned. We believe that the amendments would introduce counterproductive additional requirements and inhibit the use of TTH. I urge the Committee to reject them. They may be well intentioned, but they would be contrary to the objective of the measure.

Amendment 84 would limit the maximum amount of tax history that a seller can transfer under a TTH election. The TTH legislation currently caps the maximum amount of tax history that can be transferred under a TTH election to double the decommissioning cost estimate agreed for a decommissioning security agreement. Decommissioning costs are inherently uncertain and can increase significantly for reasons outside the control of the operator and for reasons that were unknown at the time of the sale. For that reason, they are typically subject to a very large range of accuracy. For fields still years away from decommissioning, the range often includes a 100% cost increase. TTH has been designed to be compatible with this regularly accepted range of estimates and to ensure that the buyer cannot end up in a worse position than the seller.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy)

I agree with the Minister’s point about fluctuations. Does he agree that the cost of hiring boats has fluctuated massively over the past five years? If we had looked at this in 2010, we could not have predicted the fluctuations in just that small but nevertheless incredibly expensive area for oil and gas companies.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Exchequer Secretary

The hon. Lady speaks from her deep knowledge of this area. It is absolutely right that some costs have fallen, particularly since the fall in the oil price, which has driven significant efficiencies in the sector, but other costs are rising. New technologies are coming on board. Taking on a project that entails such uncertainty while being tied to a single estimate of decommissioning costs, without a wide range as we have allowed in the measure, would be a major disincentive for a buyer coming in to one of these projects.

Let me address the concern inherent in the amendments about disincentivising cost-reduction, or that the measure, in providing such a wide field, would make it unlikely for buyers to try to reduce the cost and therefore would gain higher tax relief as a result. I think the buyer will retain a strong incentive to minimise total costs, as they will be liable for meeting the remainder of the decommissioning costs. The amendment is therefore unnecessarily restrictive and would harm TTH.

Amendments 85, 86 and 87 and schedule 14 would change the TTH activation mechanism to restrict decommissioning tax relief on a field, so that it could not exceed the level of new capital investment made by a purchaser. Decommissioning costs generally occur at the end of a field’s life, when its reserves are exhausted and new capital investment will not result in further economic recovery of oil or gas reserves. For many purchasers it would therefore not be practical to make significant capital investment during the decommissioning process.

Furthermore, requiring the purchaser to match what can be very high decommissioning costs with an equal level of new capital investment could easily bankrupt many of the smaller operators that we want to take part in the industry. The best way to ensure that we get new investment into the industry, to protect jobs and create new ones, and to maximise economic recovery of our natural resources, is to have an effective TTH mechanism. That is exactly what we believe we have achieved, as a result of the deep consultation that we have conducted with industry, which I will explain in a moment. The amendments would make TTH completely unattractive and ineffective. I therefore urge the Committee to reject them.

In answer to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North, I will briefly summarise the steps that we have taken to consult with the industry since TTH was announced at Budget 2017. Even prior to Budget 2017, the topic had been discussed with stakeholders for some time. We have built on numerous discussions held between July and December 2016, by issuing at the time of the Budget a discussion paper on tax issues affecting late-life oil and gas assets. We received 28 detailed responses and then held an expert panel, working with the industry to design the measure. I myself held two meetings in Aberdeen this year with the Oil and Gas Authority and stakeholders. Draft legislation was published over the summer on L-day, for technical consultation with the industry. We received further feedback as a result and much of that has been incorporated into the final legislation. Although there are always ways to take the measure further, we believe we have reached a point where the industry is satisfied and welcomes the steps we have taken.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Trade unions have argued that more conditions need to be attached to TTH to bring it in line with OGA and maximising economic recovery objectives, and for broader commercial behaviours, which should include minimum compliance with UK employment law—workers being paid and employers paying tax and national insurance. Did that form any part of the discussions with the industry and stakeholders?

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Exchequer Secretary

I do not think we spoke specifically with trade unions but we did speak with a wide range of industry stakeholders. To return to TTH, its purpose is not to give an incentive to industry that it would not ordinarily have. The owner or operator of one of those fields would already be able to take advantage of those tax reliefs to set aside decommissioning costs, but they would be difficult to sell on to a new operator. This measure will make it much easier for new entrants to enter the market, for fields to continue or be developed further, and for jobs to be created that would not ordinarily be created. We believe that this is a win-win for all involved: for the Exchequer, which will make modest additional receipts as a result, for industry, and for all those employed in north-east Scotland—I see the hon. Member for Aberdeen North nodding. I believe this measure will be widely welcomed and well-received by all stakeholders in the industry.

The best way to get new investment into our industry is, as I described, to protect jobs and maximise the economic recovery, and we believe that we have reached that point with this measure. The Government take their environmental responsibilities seriously, as we described when debating the previous clause. We have legally binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Climate Change Act 2008 and the system of carbon budgets it sets out, as well as the Paris agreement that we ratified in November 2006. Nothing in this measure takes away from our efforts elsewhere, but we want the UK oil and gas industry to continue to thrive. It has been through a difficult period following a significant reduction in the price of oil, and that price has fallen once more since the Budget. That industry makes an important contribution to the UK economy, supports more than 280,000 jobs, and provides around half our primary energy needs. To date, it has paid around £330 billion in production taxes. By introducing these changes for late-life oil and gas assets, we hope to encourage new investment in the UK continental shelf, and I commend the clause to the House.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Shadow Minister (Treasury) 10:45 am, 4th December 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I look forward to speaking on behalf of the Opposition, and I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am particularly pleased to speak to our amendments to the clauses and schedule that relate to transferable tax history, and I hope that the Minister will answer some questions on the proposed measures.

As the Minister outlined, the clause creates a mechanism for companies that are buying equity in UK oil and gas fields to acquire the tax histories of the selling companies and use them to reduce the future decommissioning costs of those fields. The Government’s intent, as we understand it, is to extend production from late-life oil and gas fields in the UK by encouraging their purchase from companies that are no longer willing to extract from them by companies that are. The Government seek to achieve that by overcoming what they believe is a barrier to sales—namely the concern that new companies will not make enough profit from the field to pay for future decommissioning costs. Transferable tax history will allow the buying company to draw on the taxes paid by the previous owners to claim the maximum tax relief possible for decommissioning.

The Opposition believe there are a number of fundamental flaws to the proposals. Transferable tax history is fiscally irresponsible. It expands the very tax breaks that put the Exchequer on the hook for exorbitant future decommissioning liabilities, which the Government have set aside no money to pay for. It creates perverse incentives, providing a windfall for companies exiting the North sea, and it fails to ensure a long-term commitment from incoming buyers on workers’ rights, capital investment and emissions reductions for the benefit of the UK. It also totally disregards the UK’s role in avoiding catastrophic climate change, and does nothing to address the urgent need for a just transition to a low-carbon economy.

With that in mind, amendments 81 to 89 seek to ensure that no transfers are approved that increase taxpayer liability for decommissioning tax-related rebates. They would also limit TTH transfers to current estimates for decommissioning costs, thus ensuring that transferable tax history does not spiral and is no higher than estimated for current reliefs. The Bill currently allows companies to transfer tax history that is worth double the value of anticipated decommissioning costs. The UK taxpayer is already committed to footing the Bill for a staggering £24 billion of the estimated £64 billion decommissioning costs in the coming decades, despite the massive profits made by oil and gas companies from the North sea. Do the Government expect the £24 billion decommissioning bill to double to £48 billion over the life cycle of TTH? The UK cannot keep spending revenues that it knows it will have to pay back and that are derived from oil we cannot afford to burn, yet TTH doubles down on those policy failures. If that is not addressed now by ring-fencing a portion of oil revenue to prepare for those costs, our fiscal and environmental future will become hostage to oil revenues.

The most staggering thing about this measure, which perhaps the Minister will confirm, is that the Government have set aside no decommissioning fund to deal with the consequences of these promises. As it stands, our share of decommissioning costs is completely unfunded, and a consequence of short-term priorities and incentivising investment decisions that have been taken regardless of long-term fiscal planning and environmental exigencies. Will the Minister explain the long-term fiscal strategy for dealing with those costs when they inevitably land on the taxpayer in the not-too-distant future?

The Government’s arguments appear to rest on the assumption that additional decommissioning tax rebates will be compensated for by higher revenues from oil and gas fields, generated by increased investment and production by buyers. There is, however, an alarming lack of evidence to support that assumption, and detailed modelling of the long-term impact on decommissioning costs is conspicuously absent. Indeed, it could be argued that TTH reduces the incentives for the buying companies to increase production and generate more revenues, so have the Government considered the potential implications of that? It is perhaps unsurprising that the Government have provided no data on how much additional decommissioning rebate the Treasury might give away due to TTH, and neither have they undertaken any analysis of what would happen in a future scenario in which the oil price changes. Will the Minister commit to conducting such analysis and present the results to the House?

In our view, the measure reduces the incentive for companies to move towards efficiencies and decommissioning costs, and paves the way for decommissioning-related tax repayments that are far bigger than those companies are acknowledging. The clause is representative of the Finance Bill as a whole: it fails to deliver for the people of this country who are so desperately in need of investment in our public services, and instead it favours tax cuts for the wealthiest corporations, with the taxpayer left vulnerable to huge potential payouts. Our amendment would remove that provision and ensure that runaway decommissioning costs will not become a taxpayer risk.

Moving on, amendments 81, 85 and 86 seek to incentivise capital investment by new purchasers in job creation and emissions reductions—two crucial things that the Bill does not address. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that no clear plan has been set out by Government in the Bill to ensure a commitment to continued investment and employment from incoming buyers. Will the Minister tell us what plans he will put in place to ensure job security? Will he consider making TTH transfers conditional on maintaining employment levels? Similarly, will the Government consider limiting TTH claims to incoming companies’ investment in infrastructure, maintenance, retraining and methane reduction?

The irony of TTH becomes clear when looking at that last point. The stated aim of TTH is to prolong the life of North sea assets, yet it has the potential to do the opposite, reducing incentives for incoming companies fully to develop late-life fields. Currently, a new entrant to the North sea would have to ensure several years of production to generate sufficient taxable profits fully to carry back decommissioning losses. TTH removes that incentive. Rather than ensuring sufficient production, should the oil price dip, a company can simply claim against transfer tax history.

Far from ensuring stable future investment, the irony is that TTH has the potential to subsidise the cost of an early exit should the oil market turn against the companies, thereby making UK jobs in that industry more, not less, vulnerable to market conditions. Amendments 81, 85 and 86 limit the TTH history that may be claimed to an amount equal to such investment, ensuring that the measure will not result in increased future liabilities for the Exchequer. They will also act as a starting point for addressing issues of job security and the environment, which I will come on to in more detail.

Amendment 89 builds on ideas that the Committee has already discussed, and extends them to a decommissioning security agreement. It would require such an agreement to include an assessment of the impact on the Exchequer of the amount spent on staff in order for the agreement to qualify under the schedule. The amendment seeks to encourage transparency and accountability between the seller and the buying company, ensuring that the cost of staff, and expectations for staff retention levels, are made clear, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

There are a number of additional questions about the clause. The first expands on the issue of workers’ rights. Although the Government may argue that transferable tax history is a way of protecting jobs by extending the life of those assets, research by Oil Change International, Platform and Unite, which represent those workers, found that major North sea tax cuts over the last 40 years have not led to higher employment, and neither did tax rises reduce employment. Will the Minister say what the net flow of revenue has been between the Treasury and North sea oil and gas companies over the last three years? It seems clear that those companies have used the raft of recent tax cuts not to create new jobs—160,000 have gone in the last three years—but to enrich their shareholders.

How can the Government ensure that TTH will work in the interests of workers employed on those assets? No clauses in the Bill provide safeguards for workers’ jobs and workplace rights—it seems that the benefits of TTH will go to the private owners of oil and gas companies, and that the clause has been drafted in their interests alone. We argue that it is the Government’s responsibility to promote the stability of jobs in the region, and to ensure they are protected once smaller businesses take over the running of those sites. Will the Minister commit to conduct an analysis of the stability and security of those jobs, including the impact of the provisions, and to share that with the House?

Secondly, there is a huge concern about the environmental consequences of TTH and the encouragement of further exploitation of oil and gas in the North sea. The Government have yet properly to explain how the proposed policy fits with the UK’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement. Despite the continued claim that the UK is a global leader in taking action to meet those targets, the Government’s policies continue to fall far short of their green rhetoric. Climate science states clearly that to avoid global warming of more than 1.5°, at least 80% of known oil and gas reserves must stay in the ground. Every nation bears some degree of responsibility for leaving a portion of its fossil fuel reserves untouched.

Rather than assessing purely commercial viability, we should also assess how much remaining oil and gas in the UK can be exploited within the confines of the Paris climate agreement. It would therefore be helpful to know if and how the Government intend to assess the compatibility of TTH with that agreement. Do the Government have a view on how much of the UK’s remaining 7.5 million barrels of discovered undeveloped oil and gas resources can be equitably developed if we are to play our part in meeting the Paris goals?

Ultimately, this issue ties into the Government’s wider policy of maximum economic recovery, by which they have committed to extracting as much oil and gas as is commercially viable. Recent reforms, such as tax reduction and the decommissioning relief deed, as well as the proposal before us, are designed to make ageing marginal fields attractive to investment, even if that means reducing the per barrel tax take or subsidising decommissioning costs to improve corporate returns. That approach is wholly inappropriate in a climate-constrained world, and it is entirely inconsistent with the Paris agreement, which requires not only a moratorium on new exploration, but the winding down of a substantial portion of current projects. In short, we need sustainable economic recovery, with Paris-compatible maximum-production targets, and a strategy to determine which combination of oil fields can most safely, efficiently and equitably exhaust the UK’s quota.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy)

To clarify, is the Labour party position now no longer to maximise economic recovery?

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I sat on the Bill Committee for the setting up of the OGA three years ago, and we put forward amendments for sustainable economic recovery. I recall that the Scottish National party and the Conservative party favoured maximum economic recovery. That was a difference of opinion between the two sides back then.

Thirdly and finally, there are huge risks for the taxpayer. Those risks are acknowledged by the Office for Budget Responsibility, which concluded:

“The underlying tax base is volatile and the behavioural response to these relatively complex tax changes is uncertain. We have assigned this measure a ‘high’ uncertainty rating.”

Ultimately, the policy is based on a gamble on the future oil price. Independent expert research commissioned by Global Witness states that there could be a loss of over £3 billion in tax revenue for the Exchequer over 10 years, as compared with the tax take if TTH is not introduced.

Transferable tax history has an impact on the results of investment decisions only when oil prices are relatively low. When the prices are above $50 a barrel, the impact of and need for transferable tax history is less, or even nil, since the higher prices tend to mean higher taxable income to the acquirer, who would generate enough new taxable income on their own to cover decommissioning costs.

Transferable tax history effectively provides acquirers with a hedge against lower oil prices. It jeopardizes future tax returns to incentivise investment in fields that are likely to be less efficient and with lower yields, without any consideration of climate limits or guarantees on jobs. Why is the Exchequer willing to push that cost on to the taxpayer, rather than on to the multinational companies that make vast profits from production every year and are seemingly unwilling to share them with their own workers?

At some point, decommissioning-related tax breaks will exceed revenue from the dwindling field production, wiping out the remaining tax revenues available from the North sea. In 2011-12, the Government collected £11 billion in taxes from the North sea. Current figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility project that it will be £1.2 billion this fiscal year. At what point do the Government expect the UK to reach the tipping point?

Historically, Conservative Governments decided to privatise our oil and gas industries, and the tax take from North sea oil was funnelled into tax cuts skewed to the wealthiest. We now have no say in how the profits are used, or how and when the oil and gas industry structures are to be decommissioned. By contrast Norway, for example, created a sovereign wealth fund—the Government Pension Fund Global—built off the surplus revenues of the Norwegian oil and gas sector. Transferable tax history continues with the opposite approach, by which Conservative Governments give huge tax cuts to the biggest corporations and encourage the exploitation of our natural resources, with no guaranteed long-term benefit to society as a whole. It tells us everything we need to know about that policy that the richest man in Britain, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, is currently holding exclusive talks with US oil major ConocoPhillips on acquiring assets in the North sea, and will benefit from those tax breaks, despite his majority stake in Britain’s biggest privately owned company, INEOS.

The assumption underpinning TTH appears to be that deals for late-life assets will not happen without financial support, and companies will abandon the fields early rather than accept what they consider a low bid. Most other countries permit oil production on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. If a company is unwilling to develop a UK oil field fully, would the UK not be better to block early abandonment or re-award the permit to someone prepared to invest in the continued production, rather than bribing them with public money?

The Government have many questions to answer, starting with those mentioned today, to reassure us that transferable tax history is a justifiable risk for our economy and our environment. I hope the Minister can provide some answers.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy) 11:00 am, 4th December 2018

It is not often that I will be found in Committee agreeing with clauses in any Government Bill—least of all in a Finance Bill. However, on clauses 36 and 37, I agree with the provisions on transferable tax history and thank the Government for including them.

I first raised the issue of transferable tax history on the record in March 2016 in Westminster Hall. The debate was led by Peter Aldous, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the offshore oil and gas industry. It is an active all-party group and does a huge amount of lobbying of the Government. I am sure the Chancellor is sick of hearing from us about things to make the industry more effective and maximise economic recovery, as we have been discussing. We have regularly proposed transferable tax history since we first discovered that the industry was concerned.

I will give a little background on the importance of transferable tax history and the reasons why we have called for it. There are smaller oil and gas fields around the central ones. The decommissioning of the central oil and gas field results in secondary oil and gas fields, and the smaller pools around the site, no longer being accessible without the building of significant new infrastructure. It is therefore important that, whenever the Oil and Gas Authority takes decisions about which assets can and should be decommissioned at a given time, it does so in the full knowledge of the knock-on impact. We need to ensure that we continue to have access, for example, to the small pools that are not economically viable now but are likely to be once the technology has improved. Decisions about decommissioning must be taken with full knowledge of the knock-on impacts.

The other thing that must be taken into account with decommissioning is the effect that removing assets might have on future carbon capture and storage plans. It is incredibly important that some pipelines are kept in place for the carbon capture and storage systems that are currently in train to be viable. That is another thing the Oil and Gas Authority must consider when it decides whether a field is ready for decommissioning.

One recent issue is that big operators that own a huge number of oil and gas fields, some of which are reaching the end of their economic life, must put in enhanced oil recovery mechanisms to get the rest of the oil out, which means working at higher pressures and temperatures. Big companies that have a huge number of operations in the North sea and around the world will not want to put in the necessary effort to maximise the recovery from the asset. It will think, “Actually, we are not fussed about this asset. Potentially we should just decommission it.”

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Shadow Minister (Treasury)

When the deliberations were taking place with the Government, was any consideration given to climate change, the Paris agreement and the sustainable level of oil extraction? Was the fact that we will need to leave a substantial amount of oil in the ground— 80% by some estimates—to ensure we play our part in tackling climate change and remaining within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change targets taken into account?

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy)

The SNP position and the Government position is to maximise economic recovery. Oil extraction does not have a particular impact on carbon levels. It is not about oil extraction; it is about what is done with it afterwards. Carbon capture and storage, for example, has a major impact on reducing the emissions that are produced when oil and gas are used. We have been pushing very hard on carbon capture and storage. If the extracted oil is made into tarmac or plastic products, it would not cause the emissions that would be caused if it is put into a car or turned into heating oil.

The Government have taken steps on electric vehicles and the Scottish Government are doing incredible things to promote them. They are increasing insulation in houses, because domestic heating is a significant contributor to climate change. A lot is being done in this space, and it has been recognised that Scotland has the most ambitious climate change targets in the world.

All of our oil and gas fields will be decommissioned at some point. That is how this works. It was always going to be a time-limited industry, because eventually the oil and gas that can be recovered economically will run out. Once an oil and gas field is decommissioned, there will be no jobs associated with it anymore, and there will be none of the anciliary services, so it reduces the amount of employment. A new player may come into the market and want to take on a field that is not a major asset for a big oil and gas company—it would rather decommission the field because it has had enough of it and cannot be bothered with it anymore. Transferring the asset on to the new company means that, however much technology it uses, jobs will be associated with the asset—there will be no jobs if it is decommissioned. We will still get the decommissioning spend and the jobs associated with decommissioning—we will just get it later. The continuing jobs on the asset will be a good thing.

Vision 2035 is the Oil and Gas Authority’s vision, which has been picked up by the industry. It is still not talked about enough, particularly by parliamentarians. We are doing our best to raise its profile, but more hon. Members could do more. Vision 2035 is about what we want the oil and gas industry to look like in 2035. Hon. Members will understand that it is hugely important for the north-east of Scotland because of the significant percentage of jobs supported by the oil and gas industry, but it is important throughout the UK. A huge number of companies throughout England provide widgets—I tend to call goods widgets—that are used in oil and gas. If we do not have a successful North sea operation, those widgets will not be bought or used in the north.

Vision 2035 is about anchoring the supply chain. It is about a system where, once there is no viable oil and gas left in the North sea, we can continue to have oil and gas jobs anchored in the north-east of Scotland and throughout the UK. The only way we can do that is if we support the industry now and support the jobs that there are now. The Oil and Gas Authority states that the North sea and the UK continental shelf are seen as a gold standard. If a technology is trialled and works in the North sea, other countries will be happy to roll out that technology if it suits their sea conditions, because they know it has been tested in one of the most rigorous regimes and by some of the best people—they will know that the technology works.

For us to continue to have a viable oil and gas industry and a viable anchored supply chain, we need to ensure that we continue to be at the forefront of any technological changes. What we are doing on enhanced oil recovery is genuinely world leading. There are few fields in the world that are at the supermature stage of the North sea, so we are doing some of the most amazing things with technology. We can see by the increase in productivity in the North sea that technological advances have been made. If the companies making the widgets that improve production continue to be anchored here in the UK, we will be able to export those technologies and the services that sit alongside them around the world even when there is no recoverable oil and gas in the North sea.

Many of the companies that I have spoken to in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire are providing widgets and, yes, they are exporting them, but they are also exporting the people power and the services that go with them through ongoing maintenance contracts, which are a big revenue stream for the region. It is important that we do not talk only about the amount of money oil and gas generates for the Exchequer through petroleum revenue tax and the money that comes in because oil and gas comes out of the ground. We should also talk about the wider impact on the economy, which can be felt particularly in the north-east of Scotland.

When the oil price went down, we had a massive issue with house prices and redundancies in the north-east of Scotland. Very real change took place not just in those jobs directly involved with operating assets in the North sea, but in those jobs working in supermarkets in Aberdeen or in hotels. We saw the knock-on impact on the economy. It is important for the entire economy that we pursue Vision 2035.

As I have said previously, and I think the Minister covered this, this has been a good example of the UK Government and industry working together. I particularly thank Mike Tholen and Romina Mele-Cornish from Oil & Gas UK, who worked incredibly hard on this. Romina had a particularly difficult time trying to explain transferable tax history to a room full of MPs and managed to get there eventually, but that was not an easy task because it is quite complicated. If people do not understand particularly how decommissioning liabilities work, we have to explain that first before explaining why TTH makes a big difference, which I think it really does.

Regarding the amendments tabled by the Labour party, there is a suggestion that companies will try to inflate the cost of decommissioning or will be disincentivised from reducing the cost of decommissioning as a result of TTH. I do not believe for a second that that is the case; the point the Minister made in relation to the increase and potential fluctuation in decommissioning costs is well made, but the other thing is that companies do not want to have to spend that money. They want decommissioning not to cost a huge amount of money. I am clear that when decommissioning is done, it must be done right, and the Oil and Gas Authority must be on top of that. I am not in favour of companies being able to drive down costs to the very furthest reaches. I want them to drive down costs, but I want the decommissioning to be done properly and at the right time.

I have an issue with the Labour party’s amendments. The Government are trying to level the playing field between new entrants and those already operating in the North sea. The amendments seek to create a two-tier system whereby new entrants to the industry will be required to have different conditions around jobs and capital investment, but the big oil companies that already operate a large number of assets in the North sea will not be asked to make the changes that the Labour party will ask new entrants to make. It concerns me that that would create a two-tier system.

I would be interested to see an assessment of how many jobs would be lost. I am concerned that the Labour party is giving up on the north-east of Scotland. As I said, a huge number of jobs are supported by this.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Shadow Minister (Treasury) 11:15 am, 4th December 2018

Given the fact that this could see a doubling in the current estimate of reliefs to about £48 billion—I know there is uncertainty about what that could be, but the legislation here is for that potential for TTH to double the current estimate of £24 billion to £48 billion—can I be cheeky and ask the SNP this? If they did achieve independence, would they carry on with this policy as a sovereign Government and bear the costs associated with it?

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy)

In the event of independence, as was laid out in our White Paper, “Scotland’s Future”, the Scottish and UK Governments will have a negotiation about what will happen to decommissioning tax reliefs. We will do what we can to maximise economic harmony in the North sea and create jobs for the long term. It is incredibly important that those jobs are kept in the UK. The jobs could simply relocate if the Government do not take action. They could do more to support the supply chain, which has been squeezed by the cuts that the bigger operators have had to make because of the reduction in the oil price. The Government could do more to ensure that the supply chain companies are provided with the support that they need. The Oil & Gas Technology Centre is doing a very good job in that regard.

Access to finance is incredibly important so that companies can begin to support and monetise the technology that they have created. They have incredible reserves of intellectual property, some of which have not had the chance to be developed. I would rather not see the IP sold on to somebody else. I would rather the Government supported such development.

All the oilfields will need to be decommissioned eventually, but we want the jobs to be kept for the longer term. We are making a case for the maximum economic recovery to be made from the fields. It is important to note that once a field is decommissioned, there are no longer any jobs associated with that field. If we can prolong the life of that asset, we prolong a situation whereby jobs and therefore money for the Exchequer are secured. That is incredibly important for the north-east of Scotland. I will not support the Labour party’s amendments; I will choose to abstain. However, I will support the Government’s clause in relation to TTH. I thank them for taking action, although I would rather they had taken it sooner.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Conservative, Poole

In my lifetime, the greatest British success story has been the development of North sea oil. As the Minister set out very clearly, billions of pounds of taxation have been generated. Under successive Governments we have had a tax regime that has been balanced against the risk of the investment that companies have had to take. It is therefore perfectly sensible at this stage of the maturity of the oilfields to use tax policy to ensure that the oilfields continue longer and continue to create jobs and to support, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen North said, the worldwide oil services sector based in Aberdeen.

I thank the Minister for what he is doing, which is perfectly sensible. It will generate more tax revenue. I hope we will oppose the amendments because they would make an intended simplification of the tax system more complicated. At the end of the day, we want people to continue to pump oil in the North sea and keep the jobs rolling. The Government’s policy supports that.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Exchequer Secretary

In the few minutes that remain, I wish to thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen North for her comments and her helpful exposition of the purposes of this policy, which is to create jobs and wealth for the whole country, and particularly for the area that she represents. We would be concerned, as the hon. Lady said, if we created a two-tier system where new entrants—predominantly smaller and often innovative businesses that want to enter the market—had to live up to higher standards than the predominantly larger and more established businesses that they are trying to take on. As she has done, I thank some of the stakeholders who have helped us to develop this policy, including Oil & Gas UK, which has been excellent throughout the preparation of this measure.

Rather like my hon. Friend the Member for Poole, I am surprised by the Labour party’s position in this area. There has been a broad, cross-party consensus throughout my lifetime that North sea oil and gas are of benefit to the United Kingdom and an important asset to the country. Political risk will deter new investment into that field, if international companies that would like to invest in the North sea oil and gas sector believe that the Opposition in the United Kingdom are likely to increase their taxes, make those taxes more complex and disincentivise future investment.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Shadow Minister (Treasury)

We would like to put on record that we are not giving up on North sea oil. Rather, we have an appreciation for the climate emergency that is taking place, and we ask for a reassessment of how we can sustainably recover those assets. That is all we are asking for.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Our amendments are simply about not exposing the Treasury to the vast costs that these companies could unload on to the Treasury and the taxpayer. The Bill contains no protection for the taxpayer in that regard.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Exchequer Secretary

I will briefly answer some of those points. There has been a misunderstanding about the cost of the policy to the Exchequer. We believe, as is set out quite clearly, that over the scorecard period the measure will raise £65 million of revenue for the Exchequer. Because of the nature of the oil and gas industry and oil price fluctuations, that is a difficult assessment to make. However, we see no evidence for the more outlandish estimates in the press of a £3 billion cost to the Exchequer. Neither did the independent OBR, which checked our figures in relation to the measure and agreed that £65 million was an appropriate estimate over the forecast period. We believe that the measure is fiscally responsible because no additional tax relief will be due until the field is decommissioned. That will enable more fields to be developed, and decommissioning costs will be as they always were.

We see no evidence that the measure will disincentivise efficiency savings and productivity increases. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North said, there is a great incentive on all parties to reduce the cost of decommissioning. The industry has signed up with Government to a target of reducing the costs of decommissioning by 35%. We would like them to go even further in the years ahead, and there is a lot of work going on to achieve that. We believe that the United Kingdom, particularly the area around Aberdeen, could be a world centre for decommissioning, and we are investing in facilities and training in that regard. We would like to work on that with the industry, because we see it as creating knowledge, new technology and jobs, which would then be exported to other fields around the world.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy)

I am really pleased to hear the Government make that commitment in relation to the world centre for decommissioning. We are talking about one of the first oil and gas fields to decommission on a mass scale. It is important that the lessons that we learn from that are used to improve and export the technology.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Exchequer Secretary

I think I have answered those points. There was a misunderstanding about decommissioning security agreements, which I hope I have answered. Decommissioning security agreements are confidential and commercially sensitive documents. Amendment 89 would not achieve the aim that the hon. Member for Norwich South set out, because such agreements will not be in the public domain. The documents will be received by HMRC, and decommissioning costs are regulated by the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.