Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey).
I am pleased to be able to introduce this debate on behalf of my constituents and, indeed, those nationally who are interested in the issue. The aims of energy policy are probably uncontroversial. They are to secure security of supply, and ideally indigenous supply, in order not to be held hostage by other countries in due course; to help to meet our climate change targets; and to use the energy supply to create jobs, to help the economy and, ideally, to keep prices down. The issue is whether the Government’s policy on fracking achieves those objectives. I am not sure that it does, and I therefore suggest to the Minister that we may be backing the wrong horse or at least putting too much money on the wrong horse, as I will now show.
On the security of supply, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that there is “huge potential” from fracking and the Treasury has said that the potential is “too big to ignore”, but that seems to be at odds with the recent report from the UK Energy Research Centre, which received some coverage earlier this month. Professor Jim Watson, UKERC research director, said:
“It is very frustrating to keep hearing that shale gas is going to solve our energy problems—there’s no evidence for that whatsoever...it’s hype… Shale gas has been completely oversold. Where ministers got this rhetoric from I have absolutely no idea. It’s very misleading for the public.”
Professor Mike Bradshaw, his colleague at the UKERC, said:
“Only one thing is virtually certain—in Europe shale gas is not going to be a game-changer.”
There appears to be a variance between what Ministers have said and what the UKERC experts say.
Research by the British Geological Survey, which assessed the shale gas potential of the Weald basin, which the Minister will understand I am particularly interested in as it covers the South Downs national park and elements of my constituency, concluded that shale formations in the basin could contain between 2.2 billion and 8.5 billion barrels of oil, rather than gas, with a mid-case estimate of 4.4 billion, which would be equivalent to close to a decade of UK consumption. That may explain why the Chancellor and others think that fracking has huge potential. However, the BGS went on to say that the research found that many of the Weald shale samples contained more clay than the most prolific US fields.
Data from the US, where it is easy to extract oil and gas, suggest that, at best, only 5% of the oil may be extracted from shale. A university professor says that
“we might estimate that 1 per cent of the Weald oil resource might be recoverable.”
He calculated that that equated to 50 million barrels or two months of UK consumption and said:
“From a national perspective, this seems to be a rather small prize.”
There is significant doubt about whether the reserves of potentially usable shale gas and shale oil will be as extensive as the Government has maintained.
I now want to look at the potential in relation to climate change and the argument that shale gas is a bridge to the future and cleaner than coal. Again, that is in doubt. First, it is worth pointing out that, in the south-east of England, we are talking about oil rather than gas in many respects. That factor has not, perhaps, permeated through to the public at large. The BGS completed an estimate in May 2014. Although it is estimated that large quantities of shale oil are present, no significant gas resource is recognised using the current geological model because the shale is not thought to have reached the geological maturity required to generate gas. Therefore, we are talking about oil extraction rather than gas extraction as far as areas round my constituency are concerned. That is an entirely different proposition in terms of climate change.
In the “World Energy Outlook 2012”, the International Energy Agency concluded:
“No more than one-third of…reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2° C goal”.
And Mark Carney warned recently that the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves are “unburnable”.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He has just put his finger on it. Are not the displacement arguments meaningless in the absence of a global deal on limiting carbon emissions? Coal that is not burned in power stations here will still end up being burned elsewhere.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We have to look at the global use of fossil fuels, which is the point that I am coming on to. It would be completely irresponsible for the world to use the fossil fuels that exist in total. Therefore, we have to move towards alternatives, rather than simply switching one fossil fuel for another. Some shale gas advocates have argued that it will reduce emissions, because shale gas will replace coal. That relates to the point that my hon. Friend makes. However, the Committee on Climate Change states that coal should be off the system entirely by the early 2020s. My hon. Friend will know that at our party conference this year, we committed to ensuring that that happened. The best industry estimates are that shale gas will not be online until the 2020s, by which time there should really be no coal to replace.
On the displacement point, the right hon. Gentleman says that coal will be off the system by 2020. That may be the objective in this country; unfortunately, it is not the objectively globally. Coal use increased globally eight times more in absolute terms than renewables last year, and there is a very strong displacement argument vis-à-vis gas and coal.
I entirely accept that the geological conditions are different in different countries. There may be a stronger argument elsewhere for shale gas, for the very reasons that the hon. Gentleman has given, but I suggest to him that in the UK context, that argument does not stack up, for the reasons that we have given. Also, this UK Government and the previous Government have given a strong lead internationally on tackling climate change. We have a very good record on that, and what we do is very important in sending a signal to other countries. We should not underestimate that.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful case. Does he agree that the research from the Tyndall centre is very useful in this respect? It says that UK shale gas development is “quantitatively and unambiguously incompatible” with the UK’s commitment to working towards remaining below 2° C of warming.
If we end up with a massive shale gas industry, which is what some parts of the Government have suggested may be the case, we are building in reliance on fossil fuels to a large degree for an indefinite period. If, however, the shale gas reserves are not realisable, as I believe they may not be, we will spend a lot of money and time on something that does not produce much at all. Either way, it does not make sense.
I am following the right hon. Gentleman’s argument with interest. Does he not have to agree that most householders in the United Kingdom have gas appliances in their properties, that we will need gas for some time and that if we do not look at our natural reserves, either in the North sea or on land—even down south where he is—we will have to rely on imported gas for many years to come?
Undoubtedly, we are largely dependent on gas. I would argue that natural gas is preferable to coal. However, I am not sure that that is the case with shale gas, for the reasons that I will come to, one of which is methane leakage. US studies have shown that up to 9% of methane can escape into the atmosphere, and over a 20-year timeline, methane can be 86 times more powerful, greenhouse gas-wise, than carbon. Therefore, there is a real danger that far from being something that aids us in reducing carbon emissions, shale gas, if not controlled properly, could be as bad as coal. The type of gas and how it is extracted are very important in ensuring that our carbon emissions or greenhouse gas emissions are as low as possible. There is growing evidence that methane emissions can be very high. I ask the Minister to address that issue and tell me what the Department of Energy and Climate Change is doing to ensure that the regulatory regime is robust enough and does not simply rely on what the industry says but uses independent analysis to establish the levels of methane leakage.
The Minister may want to comment on the drilling that has taken place at Preese Hall in Lancashire—PH1. I understand that the site is to be abandoned and grassed over because of the leakage problem at the Cuadrilla site, owing to the well casing issue. If he would like to comment on that, I would be grateful, because it seems to suggest that the regulation on well casings is not as thorough as it might be.
There is also an issue about jobs and the economy. The Minister has rightly drawn attention to the jobs that may result from fracking, but jobs would come from any energy investment, so the question is what sort of energy investment we want. Of course we want jobs to be created, but at what cost? There will be costs as a consequence of pursuing fracking.
I am following the right hon. Gentleman’s argument about jobs. Does he accept that as well as being an energy source, fracked gas is a feedstock for our chemical industry, which is currently vulnerable to the United States chemical industry because of the high costs of energy in this country and the lack of direct feeds into the industry?
I agree that any energy policy needs to take into account all relevant factors. Taking all relevant factors into account, however, I would not pursue the Government’s current fracking policy. I was referring to a number of downsides that need to be addressed. The Countryside Alliance has produced a brief in the past couple of days, which states that
“the development of a shale gas industry in the UK would be very challenging for a number of reasons, which include: constraints of population density; the current regulatory environment; existing land use at proposed sites; lack of associated infrastructure…and environmental concerns.”
The Countryside Alliance goes on to say that
“there are potential threats to the countryside, including: implications for land used for development; potential threats to other land users; pressure on local infrastructure; increased demand for water resources; waste management problems; increased light, noise and emission pollution; and increased risk to the local ecosystem and communities, such as habitat fragmentation, threats to local wildlife and contamination of water systems.”
That suggests that the Countryside Alliance is not entirely happy with the Government’s fracking proposals. In the brief, the alliance recommends the introduction of buffer zones between shale developments and local communities. Perhaps the Minister can tell us the Government’s policy on that. I think that it is fair to say that the alliance is nervous about fracking, although to be fair and accurate, it has not ruled it out. The National Farmers Union, which is concerned about the implications of fracking for agriculture, is in a similar position.
Concerns have been expressed about the Infrastructure Bill, which permits
“passing any substance through, or putting any substance into, deep-level land”
“the right to leave deep-level land in a different condition from the condition it was in before an exercise of the right of use (including by leaving any infrastructure or substance in the land).”
I do not believe that the inclusion in the Infrastructure Bill of such a wide sweep of permissions constitutes a world-class regulatory regime. Perhaps the Minister would comment on that.
I want to go back to the point made by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) about the chemical industry. He suggested that shale gas would produce cheaper energy, but does that not depend on the structure in the United States? There is no evidence that shale gas in the UK will be extracted at a cost as low as that in the United States.
That is certainly true. The geology is different, and land use management is different in this country. We do not have the vast open spaces that exist in the US—I believe that Lord Howell referred to the “desolate” north-east, which I do not think is an appropriate description of our country—so of course the situation is entirely different. As we found with genetically modified crops, we have to have multi use of our land, rather than the mono use that is possible in vast areas of the United States. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to make that point.
Other objections have been made by, for example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which states that 99 protected areas, including 24 RSPB reserves, have already been licensed under previous licensing rounds. It argues that excluding a range of protected areas from shale gas exploration would rule out only 12% of the area that is up for grabs in the 14th licensing round. To give credit to the Minister and his colleagues, they have given a clear signal that they do not want fracking in national parks, and I am grateful for that, not least because that affects my constituency. If he could respond to the RSPB point about protected areas, that would be very helpful.
There is also a concern about water resources. The point has been made, quite rightly, that 27% of catchments in England and Wales only have enough water for additional abstraction 30% of the time. My water company tells me that there is less water per head of population in my constituency than in Sudan. The idea of vast amounts of water use for fracking concerns me.
On the question of the RSPB, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that fracking—not shale fracking, but fracking for oil and gas—has been going on since 1963 in Nottinghamshire, just over the border from my constituency, and in the Beckingham Marshes, which is an RSPB-protected area? The RSPB has never raised a single complaint against activity there.
I have to confess that I am not aware of that particular issue. The RSPB does not include that in its brief, but that is, no doubt, a relevant point, which the hon. Gentleman has put on the record.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned his concern about drilling per se, and about deep drilling in particular. Of course, geothermal is just that; it involves drilling deep into rock. Are he and his party against that, or is the debate only about shale gas? It is rather confusing simply to have “Fracking” as the title of the debate.
To be clear, I am not speaking on behalf of my party; I am speaking on behalf of my constituents. I am not against exploring for geothermal, but I think that the same concerns apply, and they need to be properly considered and factored in. I would not want environmental standards to be compromised by anything that takes place in energy production, and geothermal would have to meet stringent standards.
The Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), has said that there are too many unknowns when it comes to potential damage to the environment. The National Trust has said:
“There are very real dangers for the environment in going all out for fracking…Our position on fracking is clear—if fracking were proposed today on our land we would say no.”
There are, allegedly, potential health implications. I am not an expert on health matters, and therefore I simply wish to report what has been said and leave it to others to judge whether they are convinced. It is, however, right to put on record the fact that concerns have been expressed. The Lancet, no less, which is rigorous in ensuring that anything in its publication is of a high standard, recently published an article by Michael Hill, an expert adviser to the European Commission on the best available techniques for the management of waste rock, in which he stated:
“Although the UK Government has indeed stated that it accepts the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering Working Group’s recommendations on shale gas extraction, the reality is that only one of these recommendations has been implemented in full; one out of ten in 2 years.”
Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case and, if it is, when the other recommendations will be implemented? Mr Hill stated:
“Other recommendations have been ignored or the opposite has been put in place.”
He went on, rather worryingly, to say:
“Recent studies from the USA have suggested an increased risk of adverse health events (such as congenital heart defects and low Apgar scores) in individuals living close to natural gas development (within a radius of 10 miles). These preliminary findings need to be replicated and explored further in large prospective studies; it may be irresponsible to consider any further fracking in the UK (exploratory or otherwise) until these prospective studies have been completed and the health impacts of fracking have been determined.”
I make no comment, and I have no view, on whether fracking causes serious health issues. However, it seems to me that that question needs to be addressed, and it would be helpful if the Minister would say something about the matter.
I draw attention to an article in The Independent on 30 October, which states that, according to scientists:
“Dangerously high levels of cancer-causing chemicals have been discovered in the air around ‘fracking’ sites in the United States…Levels of benzene, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulphide were many times above the US’s air pollution limits and were detected within residential areas near to fracking wells drilled across five different states, the researchers said. Some levels of benzene—a known carcinogen—were more than 30 times the concentrations that would be found in the air at a petrol station when filling a car with fuel, they said.”
That is a US study, and everything depends on the regulatory regime. If the Minister can convince hon. Members that regulation in this country is much tighter than it is in the US, he may allay those concerns. However, given the remarks that have been made about the Infrastructure Bill, we remain to be convinced that the regulation is as strict as the Minister may claim.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, even though fracking is relatively new in this country, the House has had a debate that shows that we will have the world’s safest regulation on fracking? The experience in America happened over a period of decades when regulation was not as tight.
I agree that regulation in the US has not been particularly tight, as far as I can tell. I agree that Ministers have committed themselves to a strict regulatory regime, which is good. I question whether the rhetoric bears truth to the reality, because the Infrastructure Bill does not seem to reflect the high level of regulation that I would like to see.
I am listening carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman says. For the avoidance of doubt, will he tell the Chamber whether it is his position that fracking has caused cancer in the United States?
No, I did not say that. I was very careful to say that I was reporting something from The Lancet and referring to an article from The Independent. I expressly said that I do not have a view on whether what is claimed in the articles is the case, but those matters should be taken into account, and they need to be addressed in order to reassure the public. That is what I said, and I repeat it now.
The right hon. Gentleman has made a number of interesting points. Does his contribution, and the debate so far, simply reflect the high level of public scepticism and concern about fracking, whether we are talking about the health implications or environmental concerns, many of which are clearly genuine and legitimate? To ensure public support, the Government should introduce robust regulation and monitoring before they proceed with the measure.
I agree with that entirely helpful contribution. On 12 August, The Daily Telegraph, which is of course a paper that we can always believe, reported:
“Support for fracking in the UK has fallen, with less than a quarter of the public now in favour of extracting shale gas to meet the country’s energy needs, according to…government polling.”
So support for fracking among the public at large appears to be lessening. At the very least, the Government has a job to convince the public that fracking is the right option. There is also nervousness among MPs, including among Conservative MPs, with seats where fracking may occur. I refer to my parliamentary neighbour, the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who is dealing with the proposals for the West Sussex village of Wisborough Green. He warned:
“Rural West Sussex cannot become a carelessly industrialised landscape.”
There is genuine concern that the countryside may end up being pockmarked as a consequence of fracking.
I referred earlier to Lord Howell, the Chancellor’s father-in-law, who said that fracking should be confined to “desolate” parts of north-east England. He also said, and I think he may be right about this:
“Every time ministers open their mouths to claim that fracking must start everywhere around Britain, and not just in carefully selected and remote…areas, they lose thousands of Tory votes.”
Will the Minister confirm the policy on the geographical spread of fracking?
In this House we are all concerned about energy bills and the cost of living. The Chancellor has said that there is
“a real chance to get cheaper energy for Britain.”
The Prime Minister himself has said that fracking has “real potential” to drive down energy bills, but Lord Browne, the chairman of the UK’s leading shale gas company, Cuadrilla, has said that fracking will not reduce gas prices. Will the Minister say what evidence there is that gas prices will come down as a consequence of fracking? The companies do not appear to think that gas prices will come down.
There is then the question of what else we might do if we do not have fracking, or if we have less fracking than the Government would like. An alternative energy strategy is available that would provide security, aid efforts to reduce climate change and produce jobs: further investment in renewables. I ask the Minister to back that horse. I hope that the climate change argument speaks for itself, but with regard to the security of energy supplies, renewables are all ours. There is an indigenous supply of renewables, which is endless by nature. We have immense potential for wind, solar, hydro, wave and tidal power in this country.
The Foreign Secretary recently said:
“Renewable energy sources will be critical to reducing our vulnerability to energy supply shocks”.
Those are wise words, and I am delighted that since 2010 the coalition Government has secured the investment of £29 billion in renewable energy sources, which is more than double the amount secured by the last Labour Government. Electricity from renewables has more than doubled since 2010, and we are now seeing the price of solar cut by two thirds. The Government is doing a great number of good things for renewable energy, and I argue that the potential to do even more is not quite limitless, and not quite renewable, but there is certainly potential to do a great deal more than we have so far achieved.
Investing in green energy creates green jobs, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has given the go-ahead for a wind farm off the Sussex coast that will create some 100 jobs at Newhaven in my constituency. Those who rubbish renewables, particularly our UK Independence party friends, are busy destroying British jobs through their approach to such matters. We must ensure that the mood music coming from Parliament and the Government supports renewable energy and does not bring into question the Government’s future commitment.
As someone who is pro-nuclear and pro-renewable, I see no contradiction in their both contributing to a low-carbon energy policy. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that he is against nuclear? Although he is not speaking on behalf of his party, we have seen a few U-turns from the Liberal Democrats on that issue.
I have not mentioned nuclear in this debate, as far as I am aware.
If the hon. Gentleman is asking my opinion on nuclear, I will tell him that I am highly sceptical about the economics of nuclear power, but that is a separate debate.
I will conclude my speech to give plenty of time for other hon. Members to contribute. I advise the Minister to stop backing the wrong horse and back renewables. Shale has been “overhyped”—the word used by the UK Energy Research Centre. Shale could be damaging, rather than helpful, to our country. Energy security, climate change and jobs are helped by investing more money in renewables, instead of the concentration we have seen on fracking.
Several hon. Members
Order. A glance around the Chamber will demonstrate to all colleagues that this is an important and popular debate. I have the authority to limit the duration of speeches, but I do not believe it is right to use that authority. Perhaps hon. Ladies and Gentlemen will use their good will and discretion to limit their speeches to about five or six minutes, if that is agreeable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Gray. I will take your direction, because I realise that many hon. Members wish to engage. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing the debate.
It is important that we discuss how to reduce our reliance on imported energy to meet our future needs, as well as how to meet our commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. It is true that Europe relies on energy imports, and in Britain the bill is high—I am told it is in the region of £12 billion a year. Progress on reducing carbon emissions remains slow, and only last week we discovered that, at the current rate, the UK will miss its target on reducing air pollution by 20 years. It is essential that we look to cleaner and more diverse energy production and to more sustainable ways of powering the country.
Those in favour of fracking say that the UK is ripe for a fracking revolution. They say that fracking will be vital to providing energy security while helping to develop a domestic energy industry that will lead to more jobs and investment in local communities across the country. No doubt such beliefs have paved the way for the Government’s tax breaks for the shale gas industry, making Britain the world’s most pro-fracking country, but at what cost to our green energy commitments? It would be unrealistic to say that gas will not play a part in the UK’s future energy mix, but the fracking-at-any-cost approach ignores many problems, and it must be addressed.
The jury is still out on the safety of fracking. The lack of consensus reflects the fact that the process is perceived to be fraught with difficulties and, as such, is an operation that fails to command public trust. “Proceed with caution” seems to be sensible advice. Little has been done to allay the fears that fracking could contaminate water supplies or endanger properties. The public fear that fracking will have far-reaching implications for the environment. Why have the Government chosen to ignore environmental concerns, rather than address them and provide the safeguards for which communities and the public are asking?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing the debate, and I apologise for missing the beginning of it. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) agree that local people are not only concerned about the process’s environmental impact? From our experience in the north-west, there is damage to local amenities, policing and transport. Vehicles arriving at fracking sites also cause problems. There is a need to plan very carefully not just for the processing input but for the whole context and locality in which fracking takes place.
My hon. Friend makes the very good point that the implications of fracking go beyond just the environmental, and she has laid out some of other aspects.
Fracking will do little to help Britain to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. Research from BP earlier this year suggested that, even with the increasing use of shale gas as an energy source in the future, we can still expect greenhouse gas emissions to increase by about 29% during the next two decades. Given our already poor record on emissions, it would be a mistake to prioritise the use of an energy source that will do little to help us to meet those commitments.
Most importantly, shale gas will not last for ever. We should consider diversification and a mix of energy production, as well as investing in renewables, an energy source that will not simply disappear. Instead, it will provide jobs and investment in local communities for generations to come, helping us to build a truly environmentally friendly energy policy. The potential in the sector is great, but benefits from the fracking industry mean that it could be neglected. If that is the case, the UK would be left trailing behind others in creating sustainable energy for the future.
Talk of renewables often conjures up images of endless rows of wind turbines, which are themselves questionable in terms of energy efficiency, and which ruin previously picturesque parts of our countryside. Such imagery merely reflects the lack of imagination on the subject that is being shown by both the UK and the Scottish Government. Renewable energy can be so much more than that imagery suggests, and it is vital that our environmental policies reflect that.
For example, the west coast of Scotland has more coastline than the entirety of France, and it receives some of the world’s strongest tides. It is ripe with opportunities to help Britain to become a leader in green energy. Tidal energy could provide an estimated 20% of our energy needs, and it is immensely short-sighted not to take advantage of it.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am sure he is aware of the crisis that is now affecting marine renewables in the UK, with Pelamis Wave Power, which has a turbine in my constituency, going into administration, and with difficulties affecting other tidal power firms. Would it not be much better if the Government put resources, subsidy, effort and drive into ensuring that we do not lose our lead in marine renewables, rather than put so many eggs into the basket of fracking?
Order. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) should respond in the strict context of fracking, and he should perhaps do so relatively briefly.
Absolutely, Mr Gray—my hon. Friend makes a very good point about the importance of pushing ahead with our renewable energy sources, including putting more research and development resources into the marine renewables sector.
If there is one thing that we are not short of in the west of Scotland, it is rain, which could open the way for many hydro projects if only there were the same enthusiasm for them as there is for fracking. As I have said, tidal projects could provide employment, and not just in the energy sector. Such projects would require maintenance by engineers using ships, which could have a knock-on effect on our shipbuilding industry.
The energy provided by tidal and hydro will not disappear overnight, whereas shale gas will come and go. There would be additional benefits from developing such energy sources. Proper management of water by hydro projects could mitigate some of the adverse effects of climate change—in my constituency of Inverclyde, problems with water management are partly responsible for the flooding we have experienced—but increased investment in green energy is unlikely if fracking remains the favoured, and indeed the only, cornerstone of our energy policy.
Many other Members wish to speak, so I will finish by saying that, rather than continuing to focus only on fracking, let us fully utilise the potential of renewables. They remain a small part of the energy mix here and worldwide, but renewable energy sources such as tidal, hydro and wind will help to make us a leader in reducing carbon emissions.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing it. I agreed with the first part of his speech, when he said that energy policy has three components—low cost, security of supply and decarbonisation—but we perhaps parted company afterwards.
There is no contradiction in supporting renewables and supporting fracking. In this country, renewables represent one tenth of the energy we get from coal and oil. I would like renewables to grow faster, but part of reducing carbon—I will say more about this later in my remarks—is the displacement of coal, which is very polluting, by gas. In the United States of America, there has been a massive reduction in carbon due to the shale revolution.
People have said that we should not bet the whole farm, or the whole world, on shale, and I agree. Nobody is saying that shale is a panacea to fix everything. However, we should evaluate the potential of shale in a safe, constructive and thoughtful manner. That is all I am saying.
People sometimes ask, “Should we frack or not frack? Should the world go down this route?” The world has already started down that route, and it is worth pausing to consider what has happened in the USA during the past 10 years. Yes, part of the picture is that gas prices have fallen from $10—roughly speaking, that is still the price in the UK—to something like $3 or $4, or by a factor of about a third. The consequence of that is lower domestic prices, less fuel poverty and a much revitalised manufacturing industry, as well as lower costs of feedstock for use in the petrochemicals industry, which has seen a renaissance in the USA.
We may not want a part in any of that—in Lewes, it may not matter, but it matters on Teesside, where marginal chemicals investment decisions are being made on whether to put the next production unit or piece of kit on the eastern seaboard of the USA or in our country. It also matters in what I have heard described as the “desolate north-west”, where a large number of jobs depend on energy-intensive industry. About 900,000 people in our country work for industries that rely on relatively cheap energy. For us to say that that does not matter, or that we should ignore it, strikes me as arrogant, wrong and disappointing.
I have heard it said, including today, that fracking will not reduce the price of gas in Europe. That argument is a reasonable one. We have a European gas system and get most of our gas from Europe—in fact, from Russia—and not than from the UK, although we are getting some from the UK. It is true that fracking will not automatically reduce cost but, generally, when there is more of something, the price comes down.
My hon. Friend was probably coming on to the point I want to make. Is it not the case that oil prices are currently falling as a result of the worry in the middle east about competition from the US in the form of shale gas?
My next sentence would have been that oil prices have fallen by about a third in the past three or four months, because the USA, which was a large global market for oil, is no longer importing oil. The result is huge in terms of geopolitics and the position of countries such as Saudi Arabia. Of course, that cost reduction would happen with gas, too.
It is not only the cost of the material that matters, but the economic activity that comes with exploiting it. Such activity is not a displacement of renewables. Aberdeen and the areas around it have the four parliamentary constituencies with the lowest unemployment rates in the UK—the rates are lower even than those in the south-east of England and London. That record has been built on the back of the North sea oil industry, and some of that activity will happen if shale reaches its true potential.
People have said that that potential may not be there. I believe I heard the right hon. Member for Lewes say that the reserves may not all be recoverable. That is true. The assumption is that 10% of the technically available reserves will be recoverable. If so, that means 50 years of supply in the UK. It may not be that 10% is recoverable—it may be 1%—but let us find out, because a load of MPs in a room talking about it will not allow us to understand whether the true figure is 1%, 10% or 15%.
I mentioned our energy security and gas imports. They mostly come from Norway, but increasingly come from Qatar. The first contract between Centrica and Gazprom has been signed, starting now, so gas is also starting to come from Russia. The gas situation has changed in the past 15 years. Previously, we were a gas exporter, but no longer.
It is also true that we have security of supply problems in terms of keeping the lights on in this country. During the past decade or two, we have failed to replace power stations. We are turning off our coal-powered stations—we are the only country in Europe doing that at scale. The consequence is that the capacity margin here for next year is thought to be 2%. We are not building any kind of power stations. That needs to change. The Minister might well talk about that in his remarks.
Any student of the subject who does not believe that nuclear power globally is part of the decarbonisation solution does not have a thoughtful response to offer. Last year and the year before, 87% of the world’s energy came from fossil fuels. Of that, by far the majority came from coal and oil. If we could replace that coal and oil with gas—that is a big aspiration and it will not be done overnight—it would be equivalent in decarbonisation to the world increasing by nine times existing global renewables.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that coal will not be displaced by gas if coal is burned elsewhere—those carbon emissions still enter the atmosphere?
Order. With an eye on the clock, I call David Mowat to respond.
I will wrap up fairly quickly, Mr Gray. I clearly accept what the hon. Gentleman says—we have seen that happen in respect of the United States. That coal came to Europe because Europe failed to put in place an emissions trading system—it was principally scuppered by the Germans. As a consequence, it was cheap coal to burn. We have seen an upsurge in coal in Europe and more widely in the world, which is a big problem for those who take an interest in climate change. To pretend that emissions trading is not part of the solution is wrong.
To conclude, none of what I have said is an argument for being cavalier with local issues, whether they relate to transport or local planning. The local planning rules that apply to wind farms must also apply to fracking. There is fracking in my constituency. It is behind some large leylandii and, as I understand it, is causing objections from no one, but the situation in other places is more sensitive. I am not advocating fracking in the wrong place. I advocate proceeding in a responsible way to evaluate the potential of the technology and using it if it works.
I congratulate, as others have, the right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this important debate. I was going to intervene on the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) before you, Mr Gray, reminded us of the time limits, but I point out to him that Sir David King, the former chief scientist and former champion of nuclear power, has just performed a U-turn on the issue. The hon. Gentleman was being so scathing about those who do not believe that nuclear has a part in the energy mix, but we are in increasingly good company. I also point out to him that when he lauds what is happening in the US, he should bear in mind that the net cash flow from the US shale has been negative year after year. Some of the biggest names in investment in US shale are leaving. At an average US shale gas well, production can drop by 60% in 12 months. The Americans are having to build well after well. The UK is a much smaller country; we simply cannot do what the US is doing.
In the short moments I have, I will focus on two things in particular: I will say a few words about regulation, but I will mostly talk about the climate change arguments. On regulation, we have a Government who will keep trying to persuade us that they will put in place the robust regulatory framework we need to make fracking safe, yet at other times they put on a different hat and tell us how much they are proud of their deregulatory zeal. I do not think I am the only person suggesting that those two impetuses are contradictory. My fear is that the deregulatory zeal will win out.
We also have a Government who are starving such organisations as the Environment Agency of resources. That is precisely the agency that needs to be there to ensure that fracking is as safe as it can be. I echo the concerns and queries of the right hon. Member for Lewes on well integrity at Preese Hall and Balcombe. Can the Minister categorically reassure us that there have been no well integrity failures at Preese Hall or Balcombe? I tabled a written question on that, and it was transferred to the Department for Work and Pensions. I was disappointed that the Minister’s Department chose not to answer it. I am hoping, given that we have a joined-up Government, that he can answer that question shortly.
Even if we had a perfect, generously resourced system of standards, regulation and monitoring, which we do not, the question whether UK shale gas development can be sustainable must ultimately rest on whether it is compatible with securing a safe and habitable climate for current and future generations. The bottom line is that building a whole new fossil fuel industry is the last thing that the UK should be doing if we are serious about securing that safe and habitable climate for our children and grandchildren.
The argument that shale gas is lower carbon than coal only stacks up if minimum methane emissions can be guaranteed. Even if that were possible, the argument that shale gas can be a substitute for coal ignores the crucial issues of time scales, overall carbon budgets and the displacement effects that the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) has been talking about. Shale gas is still a high-carbon fossil fuel, even if it is a bit better than some coal. The crucial thing is that we have at our disposal numerous other ways to ensure that coal is off the system by the early 2020s at the latest. Other Members have given some examples of that. We do not need shale gas.
Those arguing that shale gas is compatible with the UK’s climate objectives ignore a pivotal issue, despite its being identified in the report from the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s then chief scientist. He said:
“If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run. This increase would work against global efforts on climate change.”
Essentially, the argument is about unburnable carbon. As other Members have said, reports and analysis from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Carbon Tracker Initiative, the International Energy Agency and even Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, all show that we cannot afford to burn the vast majority of existing fossil fuel reserves if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In the context of cuts and austerity, using public money on tax breaks and relentless public relations initiatives to help fracking firms find yet more oil and gas is inexcusable.
An effective response to climate change requires a complete shift to carbon-neutral energy systems within a generation in all the major economies, including Britain. We know how to do that. We have the technology and engineering capacity to do it and we can afford to do it. What we need is the political will, because we cannot do it while making ourselves more, not less, dependent on any kind of fossil fuel. This is how the UK’s former top energy and climate diplomat, John Ashton, put it:
“You can be in favour of fixing the climate. Or you can be in favour of exploiting shale gas. But you can’t be in favour of both at the same time.”
Just last week, the UK announced its welcome contribution to the green climate fund, which was set up to help developing countries cope with the devastating impacts of climate change that many already face. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was right to emphasise the need to help poorer countries to develop using clean renewable technologies and to highlight the green climate fund as a crucial part of the jigsaw of getting a global climate agreement in Paris next year. It is incoherent, irresponsible and deeply unhelpful for the Government at the same time to be doing everything they can to build a new dirty fracking industry in the UK. The only safe and responsible thing to do with shale gas is to leave it in the ground.
It is great to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), because my view sits somewhere between Brighton and Warrington in this great war of experts, which has not helped our discussions.
If I have only got a few minutes, I will focus specifically on the situation in my constituency, where 23% of the land is open to licensing to test and explore fracking sites for shale gas. My hon. Friend made a cohesive speech and talked about there being no bonanza. Unfortunately, to many people in my constituency, it sounds as though people in London are saying that there is a bonanza. There has been talk about £366 billion of recovery gas under the Bowland shale, which crosses my constituency. As he said, there has been talk of us having the revolution that has happened in America, but when we enter into the argument and say, “Can we possibly have a share of that bonanza?”, we hear, “The costs of developing this are quite high and you don’t understand.” What is it to be? Are there vast profits to be made from this or not?
The sheer fact that has taken a great deal of time to land is that England is not the USA. Whether someone thinks that that is a good or bad thing is entirely up to them. I think that its development might be a good thing, because I have faith in our regulatory systems and their accountability. Those systems are a measure far above the USA and can provide security to people. The biggest area is that local landowners and residents do not receive any return from any possible development of shale. In fact, the Government’s Infrastructure Bill removes the age-old right for someone to have a say on who drills under their land and their house. That is a heavy-handed manoeuvre, which reinforces the view in my part of the world that the Government are bowing down too easily to international oil and gas companies and their financial interests.
There are international companies and American examples, experts are legion, and fundamental rights are being taken away. Is it any wonder that conspiracy theorists are having a field day across the north-west? The only response is that fracking is in the national interest in terms of energy needs and that the areas to be fracked will get a financial return after all. A Government press release states:
“Companies have pledged…to provide community benefits in areas where shale is commercially extracted.”
The north-west has seen company pledges for community benefits from offshore wind farms, but we are yet to see any money, because the companies decide who they give it to and what they will give it for.
We are told that £100,000 and 1% of revenues for every production site—estimated at between £1 million to £7 million a year—will apparently be given to communities near wells, but a number of issues then arise. Who is the community? Is it those on top of fracking sites or the local government ward or parish where fracking takes place? How will the money be distributed? Will that be done by household or through the local council? Can it be spent on anything or will the companies decide? Who guarantees that companies will pay up following takeovers and so on? Nothing in this is statutory. The Government have also promised that, on top of the 1% of revenues, local councils will now get 100% of business rates, which is a late addition to the financial promises.
All that is welcome, but it is confusing and last-minute when for months we in Lancashire have attempted to argue on a cross-party basis that such promises miss the point. There is no definition of “community”. There is no statutory guarantee. There is no guarantee that a future Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will not take the financial rewards into account when deciding on central grants, so that nothing extra will be gained from fracking.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The potential benefits of fracking may prove transformative, but they will only ever be achieved with local community support and the necessary safeguards. Community benefits play a key role in that. Communities need to know exactly what their rights are, but they do not at the moment.
For once, I agree with a Member from Yorkshire. My hon. Friend makes a real point. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) and for Fylde (Mark Menzies), with whom I have been working to argue for some form of sovereign wealth fund for Lancashire, into which the funds will be paid. It would have representatives from local authorities, so it would not be part of the local authority grant system and would represent something extra in return for fracking. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said, the reserves will not last for ever, but the fund would represent something that we can say we got in return. It is great to hear the Chancellor and the Minister recently make positive noises about such a wealth fund and INEOS talk about a 4% share of revenues, rather than just 1%. In addition, basing the new national college for onshore oil and gas in Blackpool is a positive move that demonstrates the possibility of long-term jobs to benefit the most-affected areas.
In conclusion, we need to know the scale of investment into the fund—if it happens—the area covered by the fund and the statutory underpinning that will accompany the fund. Only then can we hope to get back the majority political consensus across Lancashire that we had a few years ago.
I will be brief, Mr Gray, because the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) said most of what I wanted to say.
I agree with the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) that it is vital that local communities, however defined, benefit from fracking. It would have been easier to guarantee that benefit under the old rates system, but that no longer exists, so something else needs to be put in place from which the Treasury cannot pinch money.
The hon. Member for Warrington South put well the real debate here, which is about a cautious approach to fracking, but one that recognises that the gas under our feet could represent a huge bonanza for our industry. It might not be, but nobody knows, which is why experiments to find out what is there and whether it is retrievable in a way that is not hazardous to local communities are important. That is the real debate, but it needs to be distinguished from the unreal debate, which comes from those who pretend that the debate is about health and safety, the environment and protection when they are actually, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said, completely and totally opposed to fracking on what I consider to be bogus grounds.
The hon. Lady uses as a basis for opposing fracking the fact that we will not meet our emissions targets. So what? We are hitting our emissions targets—[Interruption.] Well, I will explain it to the hon. Lady, because she is in a fantasy world. In hitting our emissions targets, we are responsible for more carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere than we were before, because of embedded carbon coming in through industrial manufactured goods from China and elsewhere. The hon. Lady’s policy does not help the climate or reduce carbon dioxide. Her policy is about deindustrialisation, which is responsible for increasing the costs of industrial goods in this country by 9%, putting people out of work, and for increasing the cost of domestic energy, depending on how it is counted—by and large, it is not counted properly—by between £50 and £120 a year. The hon. Lady is concerned about carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere, but that is increasing because we are effectively subsidising imports from China and India.
The point about embedded carbon is not mentioned enough in such discussions, so it is worth noting that, this year, emissions per head in China exceeded those of the UK, which is an interesting statistic.
In the context of fracking in the United Kingdom.
Yes, in that context.
It is very interesting in the context of fracking, Mr Gray.
We need to consider whether we can benefit from shale gas in a sensible and rational way. As hon. Members have said, prices will not necessarily decrease, owing to how the European market works. We will put our gas into that market and it will become diluted and the price will not shift much. However, we should see a benefit from taxation, and we certainly should see a benefit from the congeners of methane within shale gas that will be used by firms such as INEOS as a feedstock. Otherwise, we must be told how our chemical industry can compete with not only the Chinese and their strange accounting system, but the Americans, who have reduced the costs of energy and have cheap sources of feedstocks for their chemicals industry. There will be no such industry in this country if we do not do something about that.
My final point is about renewables. I am strongly in favour of moving into renewables, which can provide security of supply, but we are doing it at the wrong time, which is counter-productive. We need to put huge amounts of money into research, primarily into how to store electricity, because the renewables we have at the moment are not helping our economy. They are damaging our economy. I am not against renewables, but I am in favour of putting a great deal of money into research into better renewables, rather than into the renewables that we currently have.
I noted your earlier comments about the time, Mr Gray, so I will make my speech brief.
My constituency has lived with shale gas and fracking for the past five years. Indeed, three of the sites that have been drilled in Lancashire are in my constituency, and the two that are seeking planning permission from Lancashire county council are also in my constituency. The well at Preese Hall, which has been mentioned today, is also in Fylde.
I will keep my comments to regulation and some of the work that has happened during this Parliament. In a debate earlier in this Parliament, I called for the establishment of a body that could oversee the operation and regulation of shale gas in this country, and from that the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil emerged. At the time, I hoped that that body would be able to interrogate the regulations, look at the work of the regulators and set about putting a process in place that delivered public confidence in relation to the regulation of oil and gas onshore activity.
I am disappointed with where we are, several years on, because the public perception is still very much that the regulatory function is not up to speed with the challenges of onshore oil and gas activity, whether shale or other unconventional oil and gas methods. That provides the Minister with an opportunity to look at the current work of the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, to turn a skeleton organisation into something that is far better resourced, far more robust and able to fulfil its six founding criteria, one of which was to enable development, protect the environment and safeguard the public. On that point in particular, I do not think that the work has been done with regard to the public perception argument or the regulatory oversight argument.
There is an opportunity to create an independent panel of experts—not another regulatory body or function—to consider the work of the regulators, interrogate the regulations that are in place from an independent perspective and ensure that the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, county councils and mineral rights authorities are working and have no gaps in their work. The people who sit on this body, which has to be funded by the Government, should be independent from the Government, and the application process to join such a body must be fair, open and transparent. At the moment, the perception of many people out there is that, although the regulatory function may be technically robust from an industry perspective, there are gaps. Only by creating a new panel of experts, as I have outlined, with some speed will we have an opportunity to try to address that matter.
Specifically in relation to Preese Hall and environmental monitoring, I believe that Lancashire county council suggested that the Environment Agency take on a minimum five-year process to conduct monitoring at Preese Hall, only to be told that, as a mineral rights authority, it did not have the power to enforce that decision. The Environment Agency appeared reluctant to take on the environmental monitoring facility and left it to Cuadrilla. I am not casting any aspersions on Cuadrilla’s integrity or the independence of its monitoring, but the public need to know that any monitoring is being done by an independent body, not by a company involved in the process. That is where the Environment Agency needs to step up to the mark. There has to be an obligation on it to provide all such environmental monitoring. To ask the company or companies involved to fulfil that role or task is unacceptable and does nothing to help public confidence; indeed, it is undermining the robustness of the regulations we are putting in place in the view of those people in favour of shale gas.
I have a final request for the Minister. If the Government have to put in additional resource and people into the environment and the regulatory process to advise local authorities on details of planning applications, for example, we must be prepared to do that, because if we do not Members of Parliament such as myself will find it difficult to support this process going forward. We will not allow anything to take place in our constituencies where regulation is not robust and inspections are not independent and are not unannounced, because anything short of that will really start to test the good will of MPs such as me and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw).
I am pleased to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this important debate.
I should make it clear at the outset that I do not support fracking, for all the reasons set out by others, which I will not repeat. Even in Denton, Texas, the home of fracking, in a recent referendum people voted to end it. Other states in the USA are turning against it because of environmental concerns. We should take note of these. If, even in the wide open spaces of the American west, there are concerns about the impact of fracking, how much more should there be in the densely populated UK?
A large area of central Scotland, stretching through to my constituency in Angus, has been identified as having potential for shale gas extraction. I shall confine my remarks to particular problems relating to the powers involved. Much of the power in respect of such developments lies with the Westminster Government rather than the Scottish Parliament. Westminster has the power to grant licences under the Petroleum Act 1998 to search for and develop shale gas, whereas local authorities and the Scottish Parliament have power in respect of planning matters, which clearly gives them some powers to restrict fracking.
I asked the Minister at the last DECC questions to confirm that the UK Government do not intend, whether through the Infrastructure Bill or otherwise, to change the planning powers in respect of fracking. I did so because I have become increasingly concerned about what exactly the interaction is between the powers under the Petroleum Act and those under the Planning Acts. This is very important, because the UK Government seem determined to have fracking and, with the changes made by the Infrastructure Bill, they are removing the right of landowners to object to fracking under their properties. It was also reported this week that the UK Government were funding the British Geological Survey to make investigative boreholes to demonstrate the viability of fracking. Will the Minister confirm that?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one way of dealing with the confusion between UK and Scottish Government responsibilities would be for the responsibilities under the Petroleum Act to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament—hopefully, under the Smith commission proposals due shortly?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates what I was going to say.
As well as giving the right to grant licences to persons seeking to explore for shale oil, section 7 of the 1998 Act provides:
“Subject to the provisions of this section, the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Act 1966 shall apply (in England and Wales and Scotland) for the purpose of enabling a person holding a licence under this Part of this Act to acquire such ancillary rights as may be required for the exercise of the rights granted by the licence.”
The 1966 Act includes a right to
“enter upon land and to sink boreholes in the land for the purpose of searching for and getting petroleum”—
the definition of petroleum in the Act includes gas—and to use the land for specific purposes, such as erecting buildings, laying pipes, and so on, and provides for ancillary rights. The 1966 Act covers such rights, including lowering the surface, conveyance of gas or oil and a right to occupy the surface of the property, among other things. These are quite extensive rights that a licence holder would have and, rightly, these ancillary rights need to be set out by a court if agreement cannot be reached by the landowner.
My problem with all this is that I am not at all clear about planning in relation to fracking. If someone has, say, a lease from the UK Government to seek shale gas in a specific part of Angus, would they be entitled to go on to ground to do so, even if the landowner objected to it? Would these rights override planning permission or would they still need planning permission from the local authority and, if so, where does the landowner stand in all this? Is his only right the right to object to the planning permission? It seems to me that planning could only, in any event, cover the area on which the infrastructure for boring was placed, as it would be difficult to be sure about where drilling was being done, or how far into adjoining land it would go, until the operation was under way.
I would welcome the Minister’s providing some clarity about this. It seems to me that, even if the clauses in the Infrastructure Bill are defeated, the adjoining landowner would still be in a very weak position in relation to those wishing to frack, since they could at best delay development under their property, not stop it. There is a specific concern relating to Scotland, because this would override parts of Scottish land law, which is in fact devolved. There are already things in Scottish land law to do with minerals, including working with them, which would contradict some of this.
The Scottish Government have powers over planning in Scotland and have taken a much more cautious approach to the issue than the UK Government. They have called in the application from Dart Energy in Falkirk, have introduced changes in planning guidelines for unconventional oil and gas, and have—the right hon. Member for Lewes might be interested in this—introduced a concept of buffer zones in this regard. These measures have been welcomed by Friends of the Earth, among others. Hon. Members might be interested to hear that they have also convened an expert scientific panel to review the scientific evidence on fracking.
All powers relating to fracking, and indeed to everything else, should of course be moved from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament. I indicated to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) that all powers to do with fracking should certainly go to the Scottish Government. Later this week the Smith commission might surprise us and include powers over fracking in its remit. It would be right and proper for all such aspects to go to Scotland, where the Government of Scotland should reflect the views of the communities in Scotland where fracking may take place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing the debate, which I think is his first since leaving the Government. I am not surprised, having read parts of his website, that he has chosen fracking as the subject of his first such debate, because the tone and content of what he said in his speech are not inconsistent with letters I have seen that he has written to his constituents about the issue, including when he was presumably supportive of Government policy through collective responsibility, which I am sure he now feels relieved to be free from.
I am conscious that a lot of questions were directed at the Minister by the contributors to the debate, so I will endeavour to be brief to give him time to respond. He is interrogating his notes so that he can respond to a range of detailed questions.
The right hon. Member for Lewes succinctly ran through almost all people’s concerns, objections and issues over a long period. Some of his quotes were slightly selective, including his characterisation of the position of the UKERC, which takes the sensible and rational position that, potentially, unconventional gas has a role to play in the energy mix. It is right to warn, however, of the dangers of the way in which shale gas has been hyped and—I completely agree with this—oversold. The argument that it is a silver bullet to solve all our energy problems simply does not stack up. Frankly, some of the comments made by the Chancellor at his party conference a couple of years ago set the tone for discussion of the subject, which has meant that we have had a polarised debate, despite those of us who have sought to introduce a greater degree of analysis.
A lot of points have been made during this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) talked about the public concern about a process that is not new, but has created a high degree of controversy, in part because of experience in the United States, which is different from the UK in terms of the rights of the landowners, the structure of the gas network and market and therefore the impact on industrial and consumer prices, and the regulation. A lot of the concerns expressed in this debate and others have been the result of limited or nonexistent regulation in the early parts of the exploration for shale gas in the US, but we are in a different position in the UK, and we should be.
In my view, shale and other unconventional gas and geothermal should happen only in a context of robust regulation and comprehensive inspection. The point made by the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) was a good one—that bodies should have the resources to monitor regulation effectively. It is no good having a regulatory regime that ticks all the boxes and satisfies people without confidence that that regulation is being monitored. That applies to the Scottish Government, who made cuts to the budget of SEPA, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which is responsible in Scotland, as well as to the Environment Agency. That might not be an issue in the early stages, but if things ever get to any significant scale, it will become one, because those bodies will not have the resources to be able to monitor the regulation effectively.
Two and a half years ago, I set out a number of regulatory objectives that I thought needed to be met while a moratorium was in place. Some were met and some not. When the Infrastructure Bill comes to the Commons, I am sure we will have a debate about such objectives, but the important point to bear in mind is the public acceptability test, which might well go beyond what some deem to be strictly necessary to regulating an activity, given the analogous activity offshore. If we are ever to be in a position in which we can explore the issues, we have to ensure that the public acceptability test can be met. We will never satisfy those who have an absolutist and ideological objection to any fossil fuels at all—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not, because I am short on time.
Some people, including speakers in the debate, make the point that they are absolutely opposed to the use of any fossil fuels, or at least that their use should be minimised in our mix. Many others, however, are concerned about a range of different issues that have been highlighted today. It is crucial that such legitimate and local environmental concerns are addressed, that the wider regulatory points are properly robust and that we are in a position in which we can explore whether there is anything in shale gas for our energy mix in the future.
None of us in the room can tell the public or anyone how much shale gas can be recovered; we do not know, and we will not know until exploration happens, and exploration will happen only with greater public consent. We should be approaching the debate in that framework and not as though shale gas was a silver bullet for all our energy problems, the path to untold riches and a solution to all our problems at once. I very much doubt whether it ever will be those things, but perhaps it can make a contribution. For those reasons, we need to deal with matters in a cautious manner, which is the right approach to take in dealing with fracking and the potential resource of unconventional gas for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I will respond to as many points as I can in what has been a largely reasonable and reasoned debate. In particular, the short contribution of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), was commendable for its—
For its brevity, but also for its tone, which is similar to the Government’s tone—it is incumbent on the Government to explore the potential of that geological asset deep beneath the ground. The potential described by the geologists is great, but the question of how much can be extracted is as yet unanswered. It is necessary to find out that answer, but we have to do so reasonably, carefully and safely. I therefore take on board many of the points made by many hon. Members about regulation. We are working to continue strengthening what is already a strong and robust regulatory system.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) started with the triumvirate of goals that sit atop energy policy: to ensure security of supply, to reduce carbon emissions and to encourage jobs and growth. Any Energy Minister presented with a potential opportunity to deal with all three together will of course want to investigate further. That is the potential behind exploring for shale gas.
First, the benefits of shale gas to energy security are clear and obvious. As a country, we are lucky that for 50 years we have been able to extract oil and gas from underneath the North sea. Just as there was a debate about whether to do that 50 years ago, there is now a debate about whether to extract resources from deep beneath the land. The answer with North sea oil was right: yes, we should explore, and we should do so within a strong and robust regulatory framework. That was what we did. The answer of 50 years ago is the same today with shale gas: yes, we should explore, and we should do so within a robust and clear regulatory structure. Shale gas could help our energy security, so that we may reduce our reliance on overseas energy supplies, which sometimes come from countries that are not friendly towards us.
Secondly, there is undoubted and clear evidence from the United States that, by replacing coal, gas can reduce carbon emissions. Gas has half coal’s carbon emissions per unit of energy. The debate about coal will continue, but being able to replace coal is nevertheless important.
Thirdly, if there is a clear supply of gas, that will encourage and support jobs and growth, because of the direct benefits that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) spoke about so powerfully. As he argued, there is a need for fair distribution of the resources from under the ground. The proposal for a sovereign wealth fund is an attractive one, and I look forward to working with him and others on the details of the design of that fund, to make sure that the allocation of those resources is fair. After all, if the exploration succeeds, there will be a substantial return.
There are questions about how that return is allocated: how much of it goes to the local population, how much to local authorities and how much to the national taxpayer? Who controls a sovereign wealth fund? How much goes to local communities and in what form? How much goes into paying for the exploration and production, which have costs? How much of it goes into paying for regulators? The point made by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West is important: if production gets going in a big way, the regulator will of course have to expand in scale. We are lucky, in that we are exploring for something of high value, so there will be revenue that in future can be used to provide exactly the sort of regulatory scale he talked about.
The contribution that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood has already made to the debate on this issue is a strong one. We can see that in our discussion of the sovereign wealth fund. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who has made that case strongly as well, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies).
Several Members asked about the strength of the regulatory regime. It is undoubtedly stronger than the regime in the United States. Indeed, the environmental impact assessment for the Cuadrilla planning proposal that is outstanding in Lancashire ran to 4,500 pages. It is quite hard to argue that there is not enough detail in that.
Many hon. Members talked about public opinion. Polling from August was read out; that polling says that around a quarter of people support fracking. The same polling showed that about a quarter of people oppose it, and the vast majority of people are in the middle. That shows the importance of having an informed debate. To inform that debate, we have published a number of studies, including from the Royal Society, with incredible detail and length, and shorter resources by the Department and the Office of Unconventional Oil and Gas, such as “Shale gas made simple”, which bring out the salient details in a clear, short form for lay readers.
I am sorry that I was not able to speak in the main debate. The Minister has mentioned public confidence. If we look at, for example, the well examination schemes, they are not really fit for purpose. They are self-regulated by the operators. Where there are guidelines as opposed to regulations people will not have confidence. It is not a terribly difficult step for the Government to make regulations instead of guidelines and an inspection regime instead of self-regulation.
The regulatory approach is not one of self-regulation. There is clear statute and there are clear statutory guidelines that oversee the process. Statutory guidelines are in themselves a form of regulation.
Several hon. Members mentioned the leakage of fluids and methane from different wells that have been drilled so far. At Preese Hall, the well did not fail and the Health and Safety Executive has made it clear that it is satisfied with the steps taken by the operator to deal with the small pressure that was detected.
I pay tribute to the clear mind that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has on this issue, although I happen to disagree with her position, because I do not think that the best place for shale gas is underground. She said that she was disappointed that her parliamentary question went to the DWP. That happened because it was a question for the Health and Safety Executive, and the DWP is responsible for the HSE. She also referred to a point made by the former chief scientist. He said that shale gas was a problem in the absence of a climate change policy. Well, we have a climate change policy.
That brings me to a point raised by many Members, namely that exploring for shale gas—cautiously and carefully—is entirely consistent with building renewables and with having safe and secure domestic supplies. I bow to no one in my support for renewables. We have doubled the amount of energy coming from renewables—last year, 13% of our electricity came from them. The amount of investment in renewables—my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewes referred to that—demonstrates our support for them very clearly.
Does the Minister not recognise that the issue that really matters is how much fossil fuel is being burned and cannot be how much more renewable energy is being created if those renewables do not replace fossil fuels? My argument with him is that at the same time as creating some renewables—for which he gets some credit, although there are not nearly enough—he is anticipating a whole new fossil fuel industry. That is incompatible—the scientists say that it is—with the kind of targets we currently have on climate change.
I am afraid that a sweeping statement like, “The scientists say this or that,” undermines the hon. Lady’s case and shows that it is not based on a rigorous analysis of the facts.
I will make a couple more points in the three minutes I have left. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) made a clear and balanced argument, and really put his finger on the issue: until we explore, we do not know how big the opportunity is. I sometimes felt that some Members did not know whether their problem was that there was not enough shale gas or that there was too much. Instead, the question we have to answer is how much shale gas can reasonably be brought out of the ground at a commercial rate under a strong regulatory regime. We need to explore because of the support that will give for jobs for the chemical industry, which many hon. Members mentioned, and because of the direct benefit for those involved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde specifically mentioned both independent monitoring, which is important, and the independent panel of experts that he has called for. That is an interesting idea and I will look at it. I am constantly on the lookout for ways to reassure people that the exploration will be carefully monitored and will be done safely. For instance, my first decision in this job was to strengthen the planning guidance on national parks, which has dealt with many of the problems that my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewes is worried about.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) asked whether the gas can be retrieved in a way that is sensible and rational. The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman’s argument was about whether we can have robust and effective regulation, and he asked for reason and analysis in the debate on this issue. That is exactly the approach we should take and is the Government’s approach.
I firmly believe that the more well-founded, well-researched scientific analysis that is put in the public domain, the more we will be able to reassure people that shale gas represents an opportunity that it is incumbent upon us as a country to look at and explore and that that exploration can be done safely. It has to be done within a strong regulatory structure, but will none the less provide an opportunity for jobs, energy security and economic benefit and, in the short term, will tackle climate change by removing other dirtier fuels from the system, within the context of a balanced energy mix. I therefore look forward to working with all hon. Members to make sure that we get this matter right, so that we can take the advantages of the exploration, which are clear, but do so in a way that mitigates some of the risks that are undoubtedly there as well.