Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Gilmerton Core Store

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:15 pm on 25th March 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:15 pm, 25th March 2010

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-5770, in the name of Mike Pringle, on the Gilmerton core store. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with extreme concern the decision by the British Geological Survey (BGS) to close the national offshore oil and gas core storage facility at Gilmerton in Edinburgh as part of plans to centralise all hydrocarbon storage to Keyworth near Nottingham; further considers that, if the closure goes ahead, Scotland will lose a world-leading facility used by hundreds of students and oil industry experts a year and highly valued by universities, the oil industry and other stakeholders alike; further understands that the announcement of the decision was made in August 2009, a month before the consultant report into the proposed move was finalised or published; regrets the apparent lack of consultation with geoscientists and academic and oil industry stakeholders before the decision was taken; questions the business case on which the planned move to Keyworth is based, particularly in relation to the transport costs required to safely transport the fragile hydrocarbon cores, the estimated sale value of the Gilmerton site and the future annual cost of sending Scottish university students to Keyworth to study the hydrocarbon cores; rejects assertions that the Edinburgh facility is not fit-for-purpose and understands that it has an impeccable health and safety record and enough spare storage capacity for several decades, and welcomes the National Audit Office's ongoing costs and value-for-money audit of these proposals.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat 5:17 pm, 25th March 2010

The core store in Edinburgh is in Gilmerton in my constituency. It is a world-renowned facility that is used by both the oil industry and many Scottish universities and their students for research.

The proposal by the British Geological Survey to move the whole facility down south to Keyworth is proving hugely unpopular. Many—very many—in the industry are struggling to understand the merits of the move. I will mention just two: Myles Bowen, the explorer who led Shell's discovery of the Brent field; and Bryan Lovell, who is the next president of the Geological Society of London. They are two of the most knowledgeable people in the oil industry and both are against the move, not least because it would result in the relocation of a database that is widely used by academic institutions and oil companies alike north of the border.

Apart from the relocation resulting in much reduced access to the database for undergraduate and postgraduate geoscience research students, eroding even further their already limited funding, it would be a major loss to many other professionals in Scotland who require access to the core material for research. I am sure that the minister will agree with me that the retention of the national core archive is vital to the wellbeing of the country's fossil fuel and carbon storage opportunities.

The move would add considerable costs to all who currently use the store. For a group of 20 students from universities in Edinburgh or Aberdeen, for instance, the extra cost of having to travel to Keyworth will be hundreds of pounds. Will the BGS guarantee to cover the travel and subsistence costs of those students? I do not think so.

It has been maintained that the BGS consulted widely, but my understanding is that numerous people in both industry and academia have yet to find any individual among their number who actually uses the archive and who was aware of the move until very recently. It appears that very few of them were consulted.

I maintain that the only real consultation was carried out by the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain. Its president, Henry Allan, highlighted that in a recent article in a journal. I do not have time to quote the survey in full, but 77 per cent of respondents said that they want the facility to stay in Edinburgh, 48 per cent were actual users and only three people were aware of the proposed move. Henry Allan calls for the move to be shelved. He says:

"I believe that however far the Keyworth construction has gone it should be shelved and the attempted fudges to make the best of a bad job be abandoned. Focus on all the positive aspects of what BGS has done for us all so well and ensure that they can build on that, not destroy it."

Why has the BGS ignored the PESGB's survey when the message from the user community is clearly that the archive needs to remain in Scotland for the benefit of industry and higher education? Why were no representatives of the oil and gas operating companies invited to the BGS information meeting on 17 March? Was the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism invited to that meeting?

The BGS quotes concerns about the long-term future of the Gilmerton site and talks about its unsuitability for storing cores. However, my understanding is that there is capacity for 35 years of storage at Gilmerton and that, if all the material at Gilmerton were moved to Keyworth, it would fill 80 per cent of the capacity there. The BGS also suggests that the site is worth £2 million but, knowing the site, I find that most unlikely.

Currently, the cost of running Gilmerton, excluding staff, is more than covered by revenue and, as most predict, if the move takes place, most of that revenue will dry up, which will leave the BGS running at a loss at Keyworth.

The BGS estimates the cost of moving all the cores to be between £700,000 and £1 million. That estimate keeps changing, however. Sometimes when estimates change, the figures are revised downwards, but this estimate has gone up and up. It is time for the National Audit Office to have another look at the cost estimates for the move.

Corpro, an affiliate of Kirk Petrophysics, which is the industry leader in core transport and transports all Shell's cores, has estimated that, if the appropriate technology to ensure that core integrity is maintained is used, the true cost of core transfer will be between £4.3 million and £4.8 million. As everyone who is involved in any industry that has an interest in geological cores knows, the cores are vital for future research. If they are not transferred by the very best method, Keyworth will end up with a load of sand and pebbles, and millions of pounds-worth of vital resources will be lost.

How will the cores be transferred? There are more than 170,000 boxes in Gilmerton. The BGS thinks that it will take 18 months to move them, but has conceded that it might take a minute and a half to move each core, which would mean that the process would take two years and three months. Can the BGS move, photograph and load each core even in that time? The BGS is not an expert in moving cores, having never done it before. Industry experts suggest that a more realistic timescale is five to 10 minutes per core, which means that the process would take more than seven and a half years. The oil industry standard for photographing cores is 250ft to 500ft per day. However, the people who know all about these things at the BGS propose to photograph 3,000ft per day. That is not realistic.

I suggest that the BGS should conduct a trial that would involve timing how long it takes to move, say, 50 boxes from rack to lorry, and invite the National Environment Research Council to come and see what happens.

Why is the BGS ignoring all the expert advice from the industry? Surely it is people in the oil industry in Aberdeen and elsewhere who are the experts, not the BGS.

Irene Gunner, who works at the BGS, was going to be responsible for the move, and her contract was extended to cover it. However, she has just decided to retire. In an e-mail to me, which she is happy for me to quote, she says that she has

"been unhappy about the way things are panning re the 'move'" and states that she has been considering her options at the BGS for some weeks. She continues:

"I had been told that I would have some input into any plans but that hasn't happened. A couple of days ago I was given a copy of a draft proposal of procedures for the move by my line manager ... and I am very unhappy as to the methods and timings put forward—they're nonsensical."

Before I close, I have some questions for the minister. What has been the level of the BGS's engagement with and consultation of the Scottish Government over the transfer of the national offshore oil and gas rock archive? Why were no representatives of oil and gas operating companies invited to the BGS information meeting on 17 March to take part directly in the discussion around the transfer of the national core archive and its impact on industry? Perhaps the minister could also tell us whether he was invited and, if so, whether he was there.

If the move happens, what will be the future of the world-renowned Murchison house? Can the BGS guarantee its future? I do not think so. Will there be a need for the Scottish branch of the BGS? Not if the BGS has its way.

I do not believe that the BGS is listening to anyone who is involved, and it is time that it did.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour 5:25 pm, 25th March 2010

I congratulate Mike Pringle on securing the debate. The concerns that he has raised have also been raised at the cross-party group on oil and gas, and I welcome the opportunity hear the views of ministers on those issues.

In December, I chaired a meeting of the cross-party group at which we considered the issues involved. We heard from the British Geological Survey and from Professor Patrick Corbett, Total professor of petroleum geoengineering at Heriot-Watt University. Members who were present at that meeting, of whom one or two are here this evening, will know that, although major oil companies tend not to rely on Gilmerton for cores because they have their own core stores, many smaller companies—including several in my constituency—as well as consultants and, in particular, the universities that teach petroleum geology and related subjects rely on having access to the Gilmerton core store and the records that are kept there. Accessible geological material in a store that is operated by a public body is useful both in the teaching of new generations of students and in identifying new possibilities for hydrocarbon extraction.

The issue is also clearly relevant to the enormous challenge of achieving successful carbon storage. The consortium that is progressing carbon capture at Scottish Power's coal-fired power station at Longannet in Fife includes both National Grid and Shell, which are involved because of their expertise in gas pipelines and oil reservoirs respectively. Ed Miliband made it clear just a few days ago that Longannet is very much in the frame for the £1 billion that is available for a commercial-scale carbon capture and storage project. The success of that project does not depend on access to the core store at Gilmerton. Nevertheless, if the Longannet project goes ahead, the ability of a new generation of Scottish university students and graduates to access such a resource would ensure both a flow of suitably-qualified and well-informed graduates entering the industry—on the carbon storage side as well as on the hydrocarbon production side—and that those working in the sector had access to the best possible sources of information. Oil & Gas UK informs me that the BGS's proposals have caused it to look again at its practices and to consider how it can better share access to core stores among the private companies involved. Some innovative suggestions have also come forward, such as the Geological Society's proposal for an online core photograph database, which are to be welcomed.

At the meeting of the cross-party group in December, I asked John Ludden, the executive director of the BGS, whether alternatives to the closure of the Gilmerton store and the transfer of the cores to Keyworth had been considered. His view was that upgrading the facility at Gilmerton would require a complete rebuild because the ceilings are currently too low, and the foundations are too weak, to allow palletised storage of the type that is carried out at Keyworth. He estimated the cost of that rebuild to be upwards of £2 million. What is more, when the Geological Society made the same suggestion, it was told that the BGS was by no means certain that it would secure planning permission for such a development. Clearly, without that, nothing could happen.

My questions for Mr Mather are these. First, does he accept that, if the Gilmerton store is not to close, it will require to be upgraded, and has he had discussions with the BGS about that possibility? Secondly, when he met John Ludden, did the issue of planning permission for an upgraded core store arise, and what—if anything—was the minister able to suggest? Thirdly, if funding is required to allow a core store upgrade at Gilmerton or somewhere else in Scotland, what support can Scottish ministers offer or help to secure to make that happen?

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative 5:29 pm, 25th March 2010

I, too, congratulate Mike Pringle on securing the debate this evening. A pretty strong case has been made for retaining the Gilmerton core store. We have heard about the academic downsides of the BGS's proposal. There would be reduced access to data for Scottish students, which would have expense implications. There are also downsides for the oil and gas sector. The cores and records are used for exploration and development purposes, especially by some of the smaller oil and gas companies, as Lewis Macdonald mentioned. Anything that reduces the proximity between the cores and the sector must be a backward step.

There is one compelling argument for encouraging the British Geological Survey to change its position: that relating to potential transport damage. It is important to know that this material is invaluable and, in many cases, essentially irreplaceable. Any measure that jeopardises the integrity of the cores must be considered extremely seriously.

I do not argue purely on the basis of being a representative of the area. I looked carefully at the case that was put by the petroleum group committee of the Geological Society, which spent a great deal of time examining the issue in detail and promised to take a balanced and considered view. The committee weighed up the arguments on all sides, focusing especially on the potential for transport damage. Committee members' biggest concern, after considering the matter in detail, related to preservation of the material during transportation. Ultimately, having looked at all of the evidence, a majority of committee members were unwilling to support the planned move. The British Geological Survey must consider seriously the views of a group of experts who are not acting as representatives and who have looked at the case in detail. If they reach the conclusion that they cannot support the planned move, there is a strong argument for changing the decision. Again, they made the point that the material is essentially irreplaceable.

The British Geological Survey's reasons for going ahead with the move are set out in its press release. When it touched on the issue of transportation damage, I thought that it might put a counter-case—that it would say that it had considered all the evidence and come up with a scheme that it could guarantee would protect the integrity of the cores—but it did not do so. It said that it was

"engaging in a dialogue ... to ensure that all reasonable precautions are taken" and that

"A full analysis will be carried out", but it was in no position to rebut the claims of the petroleum group committee. For that reason, there is a strong argument for the minister to agree to meet the British Geological Survey—I suspect that he may already have done so—to impress on it the strength of the committee's argument.

In the press release, the British Geological Survey makes the point that the new Keyworth facility will be fit for purpose. I have no doubt that it will, but it is important to note that there is no suggestion that the current site is not fit for purpose. The press release also says that the new site will adhere to all health and safety regulations, but I understand that there has been no suggestion that the Gilmerton facility is unsafe. Questions must be asked about the savings that are claimed. The press release suggests that £200,000 could be saved per year, but that must be set against proposed transport costs of £300,000. We heard from Mike Pringle that, since then, the prediction has been revised upwards considerably; I have not seen the figure, but I take what he says at face value.

For all the reasons that I have given, I think that the wrong decision has been taken. I urge the minister to tell us what he is doing to have it reversed.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party 5:34 pm, 25th March 2010

I congratulate Mike Pringle on securing this evening's debate and pass on apologies from my colleagues Brian Adam and Maureen Watt, both of whom would have liked to take part in this evening's debate but have had to return to Aberdeen for constituency business.

Mike Pringle's motion highlights once again the importance of core data to the oil and gas industry, academics and students, not only here in Edinburgh but throughout Scotland, especially in Aberdeen. They themselves came to the conclusion that such data must be situated in close proximity to the main users.

It makes even more sense for there to be no change to the arrangement when, as we have heard, the financial case on which the proposed transfer is based is on very shaky ground. There is an enormous gulf between the BGS's estimate of perhaps £700,000—the figure is still rising—and the estimate by the experts in the field. Mike Pringle mentioned a figure of about £4.3 million. The gulf between those figures is simply too large to ignore and cannot be dismissed given the individuals and organisations that have been involved in extensive work to research the issue.

There are also concerns about the unrealistic timetable that the BGS has proposed for transfer. Mike Pringle mentioned that the BGS assumes that it might take one or one and a half minutes to transfer and photograph each core, leading to a transfer process of perhaps 18 months. The experts are going for anything between seven and a half years to 10 years and they estimate about five minutes per core. Again, the gulf between those figures is far too large for anyone to ignore. That shows the problems we have when the experts contradict the people who propose the transfer.

A great deal of concern has also been raised about how the transfer will take place. Will temporary labour be used rather than professionals? Will the correct transportation be used? One concern in the e-mails that I have received is about the lack of consultation. The experts have not been able to raise the issue directly with the BGS or to take part in any consultation process. I am also deeply concerned about the lack of consultation between the BGS and the Scottish Government on the issue, given the importance of the facility to Edinburgh and the wider Scottish economy. However, I welcome the interventions that the minister has made since he was made aware of the problems.

The poll that was carried out by the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain, which has been highlighted, shows widespread opposition to the relocation, with 89 per cent of active users against the move. While they were taking part in the poll, a number of respondents left their comments, which show the depth of feeling on the issue and the grave concerns. One individual commented that he is

"concerned by the apparent lack of openness shown by BGS in this matter—decisions appear to have been made despite advice to the contrary and not in the best interest of users from industry and academia."

Others highlighted the transportation costs and other issues to do with transportation that Mike Pringle and Gavin Brown have mentioned. For example, one respondent stated:

"I believe the risks involved in moving such a valuable resource from Edinburgh are too high."

Another stated:

"Serious damage to vital and unique core material will result from the move, especially if carried out using standard haulage companies as planned."

Another said:

"Having viewed a great many of the cores located at the store in Edinburgh I am of the opinion that the vast majority may not survive transportation ... resulting in the loss of a valuable archive."

Those concerns must be taken seriously and they are but a few of the comments from the survey. They show how the people who use the facility feel. Their concerns are well placed and they recognise the importance of the core store to Edinburgh and Aberdeen. I look forward to the minister's comments on the issue.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party 5:38 pm, 25th March 2010

I thank Mike Pringle for securing the debate and for putting together such a lucid rationale. I think all members share his concern—I certainly do—about the BGS's decision to close the Gilmerton core store. As Mike Pringle said, it would be a major loss. A powerful case has been built tonight that will be heard by the BGS and the National Environment Research Council. From the debate, there is no doubt that feelings are running high on the issue, and rightly so. The process has not been well handled by the BGS, despite the explanations that have been offered in defence of the decision. In effect, the decision has been a public relations disaster for the BGS in Scotland and its brand. It is clear that it should not have acted in that way.

Unfortunately, the BGS's direct line of accountability is to the United Kingdom Government. However, following the BGS announcement, I have been actively engaged on the matter, so I can answer Mike Pringle's questions. On his first question, we have written letters, we have made calls and we have had official meetings—we have been all over this situation in a comprehensive way. On his second question, we wanted the event to be held here. We wanted me to facilitate it and to have all relevant stakeholders in the room, but we did not get that. I will say more about that later.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

As the minister suggested, this has been a PR disaster. We heard Mike Pringle and Gavin Brown talk about the concerns that have been raised by the petroleum group committee about the implications in terms of proximity and transport damage. All speeches have referred to the rather shaky financial predictions. Does the minister share many people's concern that the alternative options have never been adequately assessed or considered for the simple reason that the relocation to Keyworth was always the BGS's intention from the outset, for reasons that are utterly unrelated to users' needs or the strengths of the Gilmerton facility?

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

Yes, I agree whole-heartedly. The decision has been flawed. The one thing that I would say in mitigation is that Professor Ludden and Professor Thorpe have both engaged. However, they have engaged in a situation in which there are questions about the timing of the decision, which was made a month before the Tribal report was finalised and published.

The consultation was clearly flawed. If we want evidence of that, we just need to look at the poll. The costs and transport times were underestimated—the costs are likely to inflate. As Gavin Brown pointed out eloquently, the transport damage element has not been properly considered. The promised stakeholder event was not held on the basis that was agreed; we did not get the facilitation or the comprehensive range of stakeholders that we wanted in the room. The science justification just does not align with the views of industrial or academic customers on the loss of proximity that Liam McArthur has just mentioned, the implications for travel costs and travel time and the economic implications.

Now we have a big worry about the logistics of the move—the timings look utterly unrealistic. When we start to inflate the timings to the five-minute or 10-minute level, we are talking about the move taking seven and a half or 15 years. There has been a sensible call for a time trial but, given the hiatus and the damage that could be caused, there is a bigger call for the BGS to prevent a PR disaster from turning into an operational disaster and perhaps even a financial disaster.

We are keen for the BGS to understand the concerns here and the concerns that have come from the National Audit Office. In spite of the fact that it has pressed on with the building work at Keyworth, we urge it to pause and consider where it is. This has been a sorry catalogue of actions and the fait accompli element of it has been difficult for us to deal with. The science is interesting, but if the engineering companies were to say that the key driver was engineering and were to ignore customer interests, they would be out of business. We have to get back to that fundamental matter.

I am deeply disappointed that we had a commitment on the nature of the event that we were going to have in Scotland but it failed to happen.

This debate proves that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament will continue, on a cross-party basis, to question the consultation process on, and the business case for, the planned move to Keyworth, particularly in relation to the transport costs, the estimated sale value of the Gilmerton store and the future annual costs of sending Scottish university students to Keyworth to study hydrocarbon cores. We will continue to press for an adequate and appropriate level of service.

Given the strength of this debate, we have to give the BGS time to think again. There is a case for it fundamentally to rethink the move from Edinburgh. I am now looking at the options that are open to the Scottish Government, which include continued dialogue with the UK Government to convey our disappointment at how the BGS has acted, and to question the business case for selling the facility at Gilmerton on the basis of funding the Keyworth development.

Members have asked many other questions tonight that will build that work further. Questions were asked about the true cost of transport, the failed custodianship through damage that could result from transport, the effect of the move's timing on the education of people who are coming through university, the continuation of research and development and the impact on research into carbon capture and storage, which is on the critical path for Scotland. All those issues must be debated.

I cannot give Lewis Macdonald's questions adequate answers, because we have been dealing with closed minds. However, I am keen to revisit the issues. The compelling argument and expert opinion that Gavin Brown brought into the equation were powerful. No suggestion has been made that the Gilmerton facility is anything other than fit for purpose and that it has anything other than the ability to deliver what is required.

I give the Parliament the commitment that we will continue to keep the pressure on—we will use the Official Report of the debate to further that. I am determined to ensure that we give BGS every chance to reconsider the decision. It is not good for Scotland and I do not believe that it is good for BGS or NERC. The Parliament has spoken on the matter and confirms that view.

Meeting closed at 17:46.