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Volume 587: debated on Thursday 6 November 2014

It is incumbent on us to explore the potential of domestic supplies of shale gas safely and carefully. The UK has a strong regulatory system and we will be working closely with the public, regulators and industry to ensure that regulation remains robust.

There is legitimate concern about the safety implications of fracking. The Labour party has said that all proposed sites should have an environmental impact assessment. Do the Government agree with that approach?

I agree that it is important to ensure that as we explore for this domestic energy resource, we do so cautiously and carefully. Environmental impact assessments are an important part of the planning process. The House is considering the Infrastructure Bill and we will listen to the debates on that.

Does the Minister agree that any decision about the exploitation of shale gas should be taken by local councils, and that, once taken, those decisions should not be overridden by officials in Whitehall?

Local engagement is incredibly important, as, likewise, is ensuring that local communities benefit from the successful extraction of shale gas. After all, being able to get shale gas successfully out of the ground will bring a benefit for the nation in terms of energy security, but also a financial benefit. The Treasury, inevitably, is keen to make sure that it has a part of that, but local communities also should.

Notwithstanding the changes that have been made in clauses 32 and 33 of the Infrastructure Bill, which is in the other place, will the Minister confirm that anyone wishing to explore or take part in fracking will still have to obtain planning permission from the relevant local authority and that the Government have no plans to change that?

The fracking regulations relate mostly to exploration offshore. How can the Minister assure those living in Ryedale and Hambleton, who have seen seismic surveys being conducted this summer, that the regulations are fit for purpose and that there will be no pollution or contamination of water supplies?

Not only does the regulatory structure surrounding the exploration for shale gas apply offshore, there is also a distinct regulatory structure onshore, precisely to take into consideration the sorts of concerns that my hon. Friend understandably raises. One of my first acts in this job was to increase the protections for national parks, in order precisely to deal with the concerns of those who are worried about the impact of shale gas.

The historical birthplace of fracking onshore is Denton in northern Texas, where the people are familiar with its economic and job impacts. What does the Minister make of the decision this weekend by the people of Denton and the town council to ban fracking based on a public referendum? What discussions has he had with his officials on that?

The lesson to be drawn is that it is very important to have a strong and robust regulatory regime in place from the start. We have one of the strongest regulatory regimes in the world for onshore shale gas exploration, but nevertheless it is in our national interest to support the extraction of this gas in a careful and cautious way, and that is why there is cross-party support for it.

It is good to hear the Minister talk about a safe regulatory regime, so let me help him with that. In order for the public to have confidence that fracking is safe and environmentally sustainable, it is vital that we have baseline assessments before drilling begins. Otherwise, no one can know for sure what the effects of fracking actually are. The Royal Society is unequivocal about that: baseline assessments of the level of methane in the groundwater should take place at every fracking site for a full 12 months in advance. Will he therefore urge his colleagues in the other place to support Labour’s amendment on baseline assessments when the Infrastructure Bill is on Report next week?

It is important to have baseline assessments and to follow the evidence on what is required, and the debates on that will continue, both in the other place and here. We are listening carefully to all stakeholders, including Opposition Front Benchers.