Peter Lilley: fossil with a lost cause

David Thorpe
News Editor at EAEM
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Post date: Monday, 2nd July 2012

Peter Lilley exposed his peculiar understanding of the oil industry in Parliament this week. The poor man is a dinosaur relic from the Thatcherite era.

He is your caricature Old Tory: voting against laws to stop climate change, for the Iraq war, against smoking bans, for replacing Trident and adores hunting with hounds. He is anti-gay, anti-Europe, anti-freedom of information laws and loves the House of Lords. Get the picture?

So it was refreshing to see him gorgeously slapped down in the debate on the green economy that MPs had on Thursday.

His ignorance is jaw-droppingly awesome. Here is a man who is a non-executive director of an oil and gas exploration company (Tethys Petroleum Limited), for which he gets £47,000 a year for attending a few meetings, who claimed not to know that the oil and gas industry is subsidised.

Tethys Petroleum interests in Central Asia

Tethys Petroleum Limited has interests in Central Asian countries, principally Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (see map, above). On the company website, Lilley is listed as chairman of the compensation and nomination committee, and is also on the committee which keeps an eye on reserves.

Formerly the secretary of state for trade and industry in Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet and deputy leader of the Conservative party, he is now vice chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Central Asia.

In this capacity, last February he told guests at a dinner party to celebrate twenty years of diplomatic relations between Uzbekistan and the UK, that the former is a "significant market for exports and opportunities for investors" from the UK. I.e., for people like the oil company he represents.

No conflict of interest there, then.

How is it permissible that a politician with a commercial interest in a certain part of the world is able to influence British policy on it? This is the kind of thing that makes British democracy such a shining example to the international community.

For a chap in his directorial position, you would expect him to know a thing or two about the black arts of financial chicanery and the black stuff. You might also imagine that he would to keep up-to-date with the thoughts of the International Energy Agency.

Forgive me for disillusioning you. Let me quote for your entertainment this priceless interchange from last Thursday's debate.

You need to appreciate that there are, perhaps surprisingly, progressive Conservatives as well as their opposite. One of the former, Laura Sandys, initiated this debate. Her intention was to give some confidence to potential investors in the green economy that the government is serious, in the light of unfortunate comments from others in her party, particularly in the Treasury.

Here is the exchange:

Laura Sandys: The International Energy Agency states that the fossil fuel sector is currently subsidised by $480 billion.

Peter Lilley: (standing and interrupting in astonishment) In what form?

Laura Sandys: In all sorts of forms, from production right the way through to—

Peter Lilley: (red cheeks fit to burst) Rubbish!

Laura Sandys: Well, by 2020 the subsidy will amount to $660 billion. [We reported on this last year.]

The subsidies come in many forms: tax breaks, loans at favourable rates, giveaways and price controls being some. The figures are broken down here.

Perhaps Tethys Petroleum thinks it hasn't received any. No reduced taxation? I have been idly perusing its annual reports and noticed that it chooses to operate in all three of these remote countries because there are tax advantages in doing so.

In Kazakhstan alone it is sitting on 1.17 billion barrels of oil.

Either Peter Lilley is being economical with the truth, disingenuous, or just has his head deeply immersed in the oilsands.

Even if he is in bed with the oil industry, he doesn't have to pretend that there is no such thing as the low carbon, environmental goods and services sector, as he went on to do in the debate.

He tried to pour crude oil over the recent report on the value of this sector to the British economy, one of the few sectors that is actually increasing in size and making money in this country.

Unbelievably, he sputtered, hardly able to contain his outrage: "What does the sector contain? A quarter of it or more has nothing to do with low-carbon activities at all, but relates to things such as sewage and water treatment, double glazing and controlling noise. Those are all excellent things, but they are not what we are talking about today and nothing to do with the low-carbon economy!"

Peter Lilley believes that double glazing has nothing to do with the low carbon economy. Peter Lilley thinks that the water and sewage services industry, which does a lot of work on reducing emissions and in some cases uses sewage to generate renewable heat and electricity, has nothing to do with the low carbon economy.

Fortunately there were plenty of people in the house on Thursday to set the sad fellow right, including good old Alan Whitehead, who is used to calming sceptics as a horse whisperer calms panicky horses.

The motion, "that this House urges the government to promote the right fiscal and regulatory framework to accelerate green growth as an intrinsic part of the UK’s economic recovery strategy", was passed. Sighs of relief all round.

The Treasury's Chloe Smith defended her decision not to give oral evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Committee on the Energy Bill by listing all the ways in which the Treasury loves DECC, adding: "I fully agree with those who have said growth and greenness are not mutually exclusive. We can have both."

Is that the best she could manage? She was immediately scolded by Laura Sandys, who is on the Committee: "I do not think that anybody would presume that it is a question of either green growth or industrial growth and GDP. In my view, they are one and the same."

Sandys concluded the debate by hoping that it had contributed to building investor confidence in government low carbon policy: "I know that the minister’s contribution has underpinned what this country requires to build on that growth: investor confidence, clear policies and a commitment to a green economy for the future. We need to take measures to deliver for UK jobs and our wider economy."

Peter Lilley spoke last month at a Policy Exchange event on Communicating Climate Change on the Right. He was revelling in the fact that he voted against the Climate Change Act. It's not that he doesn't believe in anthropogenic climate change. It's that he doesn't think it is necessarily a bad thing.

He is entitled to his views. But as an MP with an interest in the fossil fuel industry who is fond of quoting Margaret Thatcher, he is in grave danger of being seen as an old fossil himself.

Laura Sandys, by contrast, is a sustainable resource.

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