The British government announced today that it will hold down its North Sea oil production during the peak years of the 1980s to conserve more of its oil reserves for the rest of the century.
Under this policy, Britain may export somewhat less North Sea oil to other European countries than they had hoped for during the coming decade, although Energy Secretary David Howell said Britain will honor promises it has made to its European Common Market partners to maintain a minimum level of exports.
In a long-expected parliamentary statement on the oil depletion policy of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, Howell said Britain would be producing more oil than it consumes by the end of this year. But production will peak during the mid-1980s, and Britain would be producing less than it consumes as soon as 1990, he added.
Howell said the government intends to keep production during the 1990s as high as possible in Britain's "national interest" by increasing exploration and deferring some production during the peak years of the 1980s to the 1990s.
If necessary, the government will consider delaying the development of some oil fields not yet in production or cutting back on production from existing North Sea wells, he said. But he said Thatcher will honor the previous Labor Government's assurances to oil companies that there will be no production cutbacks until 1982 and no delays in the deelopment of fields discovered before 1975.
Howell said the government also could continue to tighten its restrictions on the flaring of natural gas on North Sea wells without equipment to gather the gas and land it onshore. This could delay production in some fields until provisions could be made to recover the gas rather than burn it off.
The government also intends to "maintain close supervision" of production to make certain the oil companies efficiently remove all possible oil from each well, even if that means slowing the rate of production and the companies' cash flow.
"There will be no rigid plan," Howell said. He emphasized that no decisions to delay or cut back production of specific fields have yet been made and he would take "a flexible approach" in making production decisions "on a case-by-case basis."
British officials are wary of frightening oil companies away from expensive exploration for oil fields in the British sector of the North Sea with the prospect of draconian production controls. Britain also does not want to appear to be hording its North Sea oil and waiting for its price to soar even higher before producing and selling more.
North Sea oil currently is priced at $36.25 a barrel, just below the $37 charged by Algeria, Libya and Nigeria for similarly-high grade oil. Britain already exports about half of its North Sea oil, replacing it for domestic refining and consumption with cheaper, low-grade imported oil.
Across the North Sea, Norway already produces much more oil than its considerably smaller domestic needs and exports a large proportion of it to the United States. Norway has decided to keep its total North Sea production below a certain maximum level to conserve its reserves but technical and other delays already have kept production below that level without the imposition of controls.
Some British energy officials and oil industry analysts believe that similar delays in the British sector of the North Sea may keep Britain's production low enough in the peak years of the 1980s without the imposition of many of the production controls.
The government's estimates of its total North Sea reserves also keep falling each year as more information from exploratory drilling and current production is analyzed. However, because of the steadily escalating price of oil, the government's estimates of its tax and royalty revenue from that oil-keep rising.