A strategy for the UK North Sea oil and gas industry: work in progress

Following the recommendations of the Wood Review of the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry, and an initial debate in the House of Lords, clauses have been inserted into the Infrastructure Bill currently before Parliament to legislate for the key principle in Sir Ian Wood’s report, that of “maximising economic recovery of oil and gas for the UK” (MER UK). So far, though, the legislative provisions that have been put forward leave a number of questions unanswered about the new world of regulation according to the principle of MER UK.

Central to Wood’s vision (discussed in an earlier post on this Blog) was the recommendation that a new regulator with a duty to promote MER UK should replace the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) as the body responsible for administering the licensing of petroleum extraction on the UK Continental Shelf. In its response to Wood, the Government has announced that such a body will be created, and indeed the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) is already in the process of being established in Aberdeen.

The OGA is to be “an independent arm’s-length body, accountable to the DECC Secretary of State, working within a strategic policy and operating framework set by him…to deliver objectives established by him”. It is to use its powers to require licensed operators to act in accordance with MER UK principles and to “instil a new culture of partnership and challenge that will pervade the delivery of MER UK”.

However, there is no mention of the OGA in the Infrastructure Bill. It is said that there is not time to establish the OGA in its final form in the current Parliament, so it is to begin its life as an Executive Agency of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Reading the new clauses, therefore,  one needs to be aware that some of the provisions that refer to the Secretary of State (those relating to licensing functions) will in due course presumably be amended to refer to the OGA, whilst others (those that refer to the establishment of the strategies) will not.

The Government’s response to Wood states that the OGA should be “operational” in “shadow” form in autumn 2014 and sets a target date of early 2016 for it to be “vested with the necessary powers, duties and functions”. Delivering this obviously depends on the will of a new Government and Parliament. In the meantime, what do the clauses in the Infrastructure Bill tell us?

The concept of MER UK is referred to in the new legislation as “the principal objective”. It is, however, not defined, on the grounds that the Government thinks that it is “something that itself is likely to change over time”.

The principal objective is stated to involve, in particular, the development, construction, deployment and use of upstream petroleum infrastructure, as well as collaboration among holders of and operators under Petroleum Act licences, the owners of upstream petroleum infrastructure and persons planning and carrying out the commissioning of such infrastructure. The Secretary of State is obliged to produce one or more strategies for enabling that the principal objective is met. (Wood recommended six strategies in all, covering exploration, asset stewardship, regional development, infrastructure, technology and decommissioning.) The strategies are to be produced within a year of the relevant provisions of the Infrastructure Bill coming into force, which fits with the “early 2016” target date for the OGA to be fully established. Strategies are to be consulted on in draft and are subject to Parliamentary control by negative resolution. They must be reviewed every four years.

These strategies are to have significant legal implications. The Secretary of State is to act in accordance with them when exercising licensing, decommissioning and third party access functions. Holders of and operators under Petroleum Act licences must carry out their respective activities and make related commercial arrangements in accordance with the strategies. Similar obligations are imposed on owners of upstream petroleum infrastructure and those planning and carrying out commissioning of such infrastructure. However, it is not immediately clear how such obligations will be enforced.

Whilst the focus of the Wood Review was on the recovery of oil and gas from the UK Continental Shelf, the Government’s response states that it “agrees that the [OGA’s] remit should extend to onshore (as well as to [licensing of offshore] Natural Gas Storage and Unloading and Carbon Dioxide Storage)”. The response also states that the Government “believes that the MER UK philosophy established by Sir Ian’s Review should be applied to all oil and gas recovery whether offshore in the UKCS or onshore”. The new regulatory framework being put in place here, then, is not just for the UKCS oil and gas industry, but DECC’s thinking about its wider application seems to be at a relatively early stage. The Government notes, for example, that the application of MER UK principles “may need to be quite different onshore”, and that further consultation is required on this subject, which “should not detract from the focus that is needed on developing MER UK strategies for the UKCS”. At present, the most recent model clauses for onshore licences further embed the concept of maximising economic recovery from the licensed area, rather than MER UK.

A number of Opposition amendments to the new clauses have been proposed, but have not found favour with the Government. These included requirements for the regulator to attend operating and technical committee meetings (a matter “on which the Government intend to work closely with industry to pursue further before deciding what additional powers might be needed”) and provision for the concept of MER UK explicitly to embrace enhanced oil recovery (“intrinsic” to MER UK and so no reference to it is needed in the legislation) as well as the linked technology of carbon capture and storage (“discussion with industry…is needed before we can say with certainty how the MER UK principle should apply to [this area]”).

One of Wood’s key conclusions was that, as the Petroleum Act regulator, DECC was insufficiently resourced, particularly as compared to its peers in other North Sea countries. The Infrastructure Bill therefore provides for a levy under which licence holders will contribute towards the costs of the Secretary of State / OGA where these are not already recovered through specific fees under other legislation. Initially, levy receipts are likely to fund policy work in developing the MER UK strategies, but the levy provisions effectively expire after three years, “to ensure that an effective and efficient cost recovery mechanism is developed in consultation with industry during this time”.

The Government’s response to consultation is clear on the need for further legislative work. Amongst the points potentially requiring further legislation, it highlights the possible need for the OGA to have dispute resolution powers to deal with “overzealous legal and commercial behaviour between operators”. It notes the need for the OGA to be equipped with a more graduated sanctions and incentives regime for enforcement purposes (at present the main available sanction, that of revocation, is arguably too much of a blunt instrument for most purposes). It notes the Government’s commitment to increasing the transparency of and access to data. It notes the potential need for further powers to encourage e.g. joint development plans, area unitisation and “appropriate access to infrastructure without contravening competition law or weakening market incentives”.

Overall, then, the clauses in the Infrastructure Bill are a good start, but much remains to be done in a relatively short time-frame if the detail of Wood’s ambitious vision is to be fully realised. It also remains to be seen whether the regulatory aspects of MER UK will later be supported by any further measures to increase the attractiveness of the UKCS as against other parts of the North Sea (for example, fiscal incentives beyond those announced in Budget 2014 and discussed in an earlier post on this Blog).

Adam Brown

About Adam Brown

Adam is a senior associate in the Energy practice. He has extensive experience in energy, planning, environmental and general public law, much of it gained over a decade spent working for the UK Government in a variety of legal and policy-making roles.

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