Energy and climate change secretary says green energy can play vital part in UK's future energy security
Chris Huhne Chris Huhne: "We have a really strong incentive to develop our renewable sector." Photograph: Rex
Chris Huhne, the energy and climate change secretary, warned last night that the threat to gas supplies from the political row between Russia and Belarus highlighted once again the desperate need for Britain to build up a low-carbon energy policy and domestic energy security through new wind farms - and possibly nuclear reactors.
Huhne said it was also vital that Britain was better protected from any "big shocks" arising from huge increases in the price of oil, as companies such as BP were forced into increasingly environmentally sensitive areas.
The European gas market has been repeatedly disrupted by rows between Moscow and its former Soviet neighbours, which have led to cuts in Siberian supplies reaching the continent, triggering a sudden cut in imports to Britain. Yesterday the latest dispute escalated after Moscow cut more supplies and Belarus threatened to siphon off Russian gas supplies crossing its territory.
Huhne said these stand-offs underlined the importance of Britain having its own sources of power as UK North Sea gas runs down.
"Energy has always had big geopolitical issues around it and that is why, both in terms of physical assurance of supply and in terms of guarantees against price volatility, we have a really strong incentive to develop our renewable sector," he said.
Huhne was speaking the day after the government presented the toughest budget in a generation, which will usher in higher taxes and lower public spending, including a 25% cut in his own department's budget. About half of that spending goes on nuclear clean-up resulting from the decommissioning of old atomic reactors.
The minister sidestepped the question of whether decommissioning work would inevitably be slowed down at sites such as Sellafield, where 1,200 jobs are said by unions to be at risk. It was important to continue with these operations as fast as possible, he argued, without giving details of where the cuts would fall.
The budget announcements also included a commitment to a green investment bank, which would help with funding renewable projects, and promises to change the climate change levy so that a floor can be put under the price of carbon.
Huhne said the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was another wake-up call for those relying on traditional forms of energy.
"I think it will change attitudes in the States. It can obviously have an impact potentially against big companies like BP and other oil majors which are going to have to be part of the transition [to a low carbon economy]," he said. "But the basic impact in the States is people wanting to gain more independent sources of energy that are not reliant on scraping the last piece of fossil fuel from the last well."
The problems in the Gulf have already encouraged the government to tighten up safety on North Sea platforms, with a doubling of safety inspectors and increased visits.