Future of the Oil and Gas Industry — [Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 14th March 2019.

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Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow SNP Leader of the House of Commons, Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee 1:30 pm, 14th March 2019

The hon. Gentleman is of course absolutely right—this is a UK-wide industry, which has a footprint in most nations of the United Kingdom. Practically every region of England has some link to the supply chain serving the oil and gas industry across the UK. He is absolutely right to remind us that this is a UK-wide industry and one that we should all be very proud of, whether we are in Northern Ireland or in rural Perthshire.

It will not surprise hon. Members, however, that the inquiry found that the sector is still facing unprecedented challenges. Fluctuation in the oil price has hit companies with extreme uncertainty, particularly those working in the supply chain, while the rate of new well exploration has nose-dived. At the same time, the industry needs to properly prepare for the decline in production that will inevitably happen, to ensure that the economic benefits and highly skilled jobs the sector has acquired in and brought to Scotland are not lost.

The industry also has to find new ways to reduce its carbon footprint and use its skills and engineering knowledge to help develop low-carbon and renewable technologies. That is no small task, and those challenges are at the heart of the Committee’s report. We address how the Government should support the industry while it gets ready for production to decline. How do we meet the UK’s energy needs, of which oil and gas will remain a major component, while meeting our climate change obligations?

We believe that the best way for the Government to support the industry through those challenges is to agree an ambitious sector deal. A sector deal backed by a combined investment of £176 million from industry and the Government could deliver £110 billion for the UK economy, with particular benefits for Scotland and the north-east of Scotland. The funding would support three centres of excellence, focused on transformational technology, underwater innovation and decommissioning.

When the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, Claire Perry, appeared before the Committee in December, she said that she was not able to go into the detail of the deal, which we totally accepted given that the Government were still to properly design it and come forward with what would happen. She said that progress would be announced in weeks, not months. It is not many months since December, but it is certainly weeks. I know the Energy Minister could not join us today because of other pressing business, but we are fortunate to have the Minister responsible for sector deals with us. Perhaps he can update us on the progress and shape of the sector deals.

I am certain that any delay will, of course, be down to the Government’s taking very seriously the recommendations in our report, and designing the deal around some of the very useful recommendations that we made—that the sector deal is forward-thinking and sets up the industry to meet the challenges of climate change, decommissioning and of the industry’s future beyond the UK continental shelf head on, rather than focusing on the usual support for maximisation of production in the short term. The days of short-termism in the North sea are over. Long-term planning and strategic thinking is required, and those are the priorities for the deal that the report outlines.

I will explain the detail a little further. First, a sector deal must capitalise on the opportunities arising from decommissioning. The North sea is not only going to be the first major basin to go through large-scale decommissioning; without doubt, it is also one of the most challenging environments anywhere in the world for decommissioning. As one of the witnesses said to us in an evidence session, if we can decommission a rig in the North sea, we can decommission a rig anywhere in the world. Scotland has an unmissable opportunity to export its decommissioning knowledge to the rest of the world and the Committee has therefore called for the sector deal to be accompanied by a Government decommissioning export strategy to anchor a global decommissioning industry in the north-east of Scotland.

The sector deal also needs to deliver on reducing the cost of decommissioning. We were surprised when we heard the range of estimates of the cost of decommissioning—the gulf between the lowest and highest point was quite extraordinary. We need to see that cost reduced for UK taxpayers, because half of the decommissioning cost will still be met through the Treasury and by taxpayers through tax relief.

The sector must find ways to transfer its unique expertise to other sectors of the economy so that the jobs are not lost when oil production stops. One of the most impressive features—I think all members of the Committee recognised this when we were taking evidence for the report—is the range of skills available to us from North sea exploration. The skills acquired over four decades of production are among the most impressive to be found in the oil and gas sector anywhere in the world. It is absolutely imperative that the skills, expertise, talent and energy that have been built up in the sector are not lost as we move towards decommissioning and the ending of production.

We heard that there is no end to the opportunities available if we get decommissioning right. Sectors including aerospace, data analytics, marine and offshore engineering, digital manufacturing, satellite technology and offshore wind are all open for skills and technology transfer. We were particularly taken by the opportunities in the renewable sector, and we call for the sector deal to contain specific and measurable proposals for how it will improve skill and technology transfer to the sector. Scotland gained by acquiring North sea oil. It is questionable whether we secured the benefits of discovering North sea oil; we must not lose any benefits of what happens next with renewable technology. The skills acquired in the North sea are perfectly fitted, and could be adapted, for use in renewable energy.