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Shale Gas

Volume 555: debated on Thursday 13 December 2012

17. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that safety and environmental concerns regarding shale gas exploration and extraction are addressed before shale gas reserves are developed. (133336)

Shale gas may prove to be a useful addition to the UK’s diverse portfolio of energy sources, and would be particularly valuable in replacing declining North sea supplies, with benefits to energy security as well as to the economy and employment—but its exploitation will be acceptable only if it is safe and the environment is properly protected.

Hydraulic fracturing operations for shale gas were suspended last year, pending consideration of seismic events in Lancashire. Based on the latest evidence and expert advice, and having considered the responses to a public consultation on that advice, I have concluded that, in principle, fracking for shale gas can be allowed to resume— subject to new controls to mitigate the risk of seismicity. I have made full details available to both Houses by means of a comprehensive written statement tabled this morning.

I want to see proper environmental safeguards and generous community benefits for the areas where fracking will take place, but does my right hon. Friend agree that shale gas has the potential not only to lead an industrial renaissance in this country but to play a serious part in dealing with fuel poverty?

I agree that shale gas has an important part to play in our energy mix and in our economy, and I also agree that we must ensure that communities benefit and that there is proper environmental regulation. I have been very impressed by the way in which Members in all parts of the House have contributed to the debate and to the Department’s thinking, but I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), who, along with the independent experts, has really influenced our thinking. It is very important for us to take the public with us as we explore the potential for shale gas in the United Kingdom.

Many of my constituents remain concerned about the parallels that they perceive between shale extraction in the United States and what is being planned in the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about why he thinks that the regulatory environment here will be superior to that of the United States, thereby disproving many of the alarmist stories that are circulating?

Let me also pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done for his constituents, who I know are concerned about shale gas. I can reassure him that the regulations that we already have in the United Kingdom are much stronger than those in many American states where fracking for gas has been taking place for many years. We have the regulations, controls and powers of the Environment Agency, the regulations, controls and powers of the Health and Safety Executive and the regulations, controls and powers of my own Department, so we already have a strong regulatory regime. However, if the exploration suggests that there is potential for commercial development and we move in that direction, we will keep that regime under review, and will tighten and strengthen it if necessary. Today’s announcement is about new controls to ensure that seismicity is not a problem.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s reassurance that environmental and safety concerns will be given a high priority, but some people fear that those whom the press have dubbed the frackheads in the Government are rushing ahead with tax incentives for shale gas exploration without taking the time to look into those concerns first. Can the right hon. Gentleman reassure me that no tax incentives will be introduced until we are 100% sure that it is safe to go ahead with fracking in this country?

I do not think that anyone has described me as a frackhead. My job is to make certain that the environmental and safety controls are there, and I believe that the work that we have done, particularly on the seismicity aspect but also on other aspects, can reassure the public in that regard. I am determined to ensure that the environment is properly protected, and as Members will see if they read my statement, I have also commissioned a study of the potential impact of shale gas exploration on greenhouse gas emissions. I hope that that will reassure people on the environmental side as well.

I welcomed the announcement of the formation of the Office for Unconventional Gas last week, and I thank the Secretary of State and Ministers for all the work that they have done in that respect. However, some of my constituents have subsequently expressed concern about the possibility that the office is not fully independent. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that it will both improve regulations and be robust, transparent and able to respond to any concerns that Fylde residents may express?

I repeat my thanks to the hon. Gentleman. The way in which he has stood up for his constituents provides a model for all Members. I can reassure him that the Office for Unconventional Gas will be a strong office, and that it will be in my Department and accountable to Ministers, so that Members can hold us to account in the House. One of its jobs will be bringing together the various regulatory bodies so that they are properly co-ordinated, and our work as we approach potential commercial development in a few years’ time will include ensuring that we have all the regulatory controls that we need.

Is the Minister aware that you cannot be too sure what happens once you start drilling a long way through strata? In my area, after a pit had closed a whole village had to be removed and rebuilt on the other side of the road because of the escape of methane and other gases. I have heard that a company is drilling within a mile of that area now. It may not be anything to do with this fracking business, but I hope that the Minister will tell people to keep their noses out, because otherwise there might be another explosion in the area.

The whole House listens to the hon. Gentleman closely on these issues because he is an expert on drilling and all aspects of the coal industry. I do not know the case to which he refers, but if he wishes to write to me, I am sure my officials can look into it. He makes an important contribution to this debate, because he highlights the fact that this country has had to tackle methane emissions in the coal and the oil and gas industries, so we have a lot of knowledge, experience and expertise to draw on to make sure we can control emissions from shale gas.

I can see how excited Members on the Government Benches are about the potential for shale gas, but I wonder whether they will be equally excited if drilling starts in Wiltshire, Lincolnshire or other parts of the country. As the Secretary of State knows, we have always said fracking should go ahead only if it is safe and environmentally sound. We set out six conditions, and we will be looking to see if they are met in the Government’s written statement today.

On prices, last week the Chancellor said he did not want the British public to miss out if gas prices tumbled as a result of discoveries of shale gas, but does the Secretary of State agree with the former Energy Minister, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), as well as most experts, that

“betting the farm on shale brings serious risks of future price rises”?

First, I thank the right hon. Lady for saying she will look at our statement carefully. I know that her colleague, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden when he was a Minister to set out the Opposition’s conditions. I believe that when the Opposition study the written ministerial statement—we gave a copy to the right hon. Lady before this Question Time, but she should have a chance to examine it—they will see that we have met all the conditions.

The right hon. Lady’s main question was on prices. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden that we should not bet the farm on shale gas. I am absolutely clear that the most responsible and sensible way forward for energy policy is to have a diverse set of resources and sources for our energy. Some of the press and commentariat have got very excited about the possibility of gas prices falling, but the independent analysis and the International Energy Agency findings do not necessarily support that.

Order. This may be a suitable subject for a full-day debate, but the answers must not take that form. We are grateful to the Secretary of State for his recognition of that important point.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement that there will be some further environmental studies, because is it not the case that at present we simply do not know the environmental impact of shale gas exploration in relation to methane seepage and methane getting out into the atmosphere? Until we can be certain of the impact, we must proceed with a great deal of caution.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should proceed with caution, and we are doing so. The evidence so far suggests that the carbon footprint of shale gas exploration is only slightly higher than that for conventional gas, but I am determined that we in this country examine it seriously, which is why I have commissioned a study.