Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I declare my interests, recorded in the register, in a land company and as a trustee of the British Lung Foundation.
I have, at my own cost, visited Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in the United States. It is widely known as the heart of “Frackistan”—a place where shale gas extraction is growing apace. What I saw in Williamsport is a new city built to service a new industry, and beautiful countryside that was still beautiful. Behind the trees might be the top of a drilling rig, but when we went to the production site, there were only a couple of acres of stones. Only underneath them could you see the plastic membrane put down to protect the environment from minute spills that rarely happen. Such rainwater as falls on those membranes is prevented from seeping into the ground. Instead, it is gathered and used in the production process. At the natural gas well we saw, there was nothing much higher than five metres. It comprised a Christmas tree, a compressor and a meter hut for measuring the wealth produced in that site and put into the major gas pipelines that eventually flow into homes and factories. I am grateful to Anadarko for letting me see its site, its safety processes and the enormous efforts it pursues to prevent pollution. Those guys are working hard and succeeding to make sure no harm occurs.
When you think about fracking—pumping water, sand and chemicals into shale formations far below the Earth’s surface—perhaps you might think that it would involve a great deal more machinery, equipment and land space. However, it reminded me somewhat of Winter Wonderland, an amusement park that stands in Hyde Park for a couple of months around Christmas. It is put up in one of the most protected and lovely green spaces in the whole country, but the point is that Winter Wonderland is temporary and goes away pretty soon. There is noise, there are lights and there is extra traffic, but they go away and you would not even know the site was there. The same happens with a shale site. Once the initial flurry is over, the actual production phase is pretty benign. The intrusion stops but the wealth carries on.
The air quality in Shanghai today is rated at 155. That means it is classified as “unhealthy” and:
“Everyone may begin to experience health effects”.
In Beijing, air quality has recently reached levels of 551—extremely dangerous. This matters in the environmental debate on shale, because that bad air is largely caused by coal. Extracting shale gas seems to be the perfect way to mitigate global emissions while stimulating global economic growth. As the paper by the Centre for Policy Studies suggests, shale gas technology should be advanced as rapidly as possible and shared widely, to cut emissions and improve air quality.
I have known Professor Muller, one the authors of the CPS paper, for some years. He is a scientist, not a politician. Professor Muller is a physicist of world standing, receiving distinguished teaching awards from Berkeley. He assesses facts and then comes to a conclusion. He does not try to make his work embrace preconceived ideas. Professor Muller co-founded the Berkeley Earth organisation at the University of California in 2010, to examine historical temperature records. He returned to the base data, to check them without the hot air of politics. After much work, he concluded that climate change exists and that the levels of change are quite small. He also concluded that the change was correlated enough with the rise in carbon dioxide to say that it is manmade.
After extensive work, Professor Muller has shown in this CPS paper that shale gas extraction will actually reduce emissions. After all, global warming is a global problem: a tonne of Chinese CO2 is as bad as a tonne of British CO2. It is global warming, not British warming. Crucially, extracting shale gas instead of burning coal will also reduce the amount of harmful particulate matter 2.5 in the air. PM2.5s are tiny dust particles that penetrate deep into human lungs. The presence in the air of PM2.5 causes people to die: 75,000 a year in the US and 400,000 a year in Europe. Its levels still go unregulated in the developing world and it currently kills more people annually than either AIDS, malaria, diabetes or tuberculosis. Shale gas offers an opportunity to cut massively PM2.5’s presence in the air. If extraction expertise were shared, we also could see a big drop off in CO2 emissions in the developing world.
There are many environmental concerns about shale but Professor Muller takes each one in turn and dispels them all. The first is that shale gas production depletes limited supplies of fresh water. However, shale extraction sites have lots of salty water reserves underneath, too. It is becoming standard, and cheaper, for brine to replace fresh water at all sites. Already in the US about half of the water used is brine.
The now famous short film “Gasland” highlighted another potential environmental issue—the “flaming faucets”. In the film the director, Josh Fox, is shown in the home of a landowner near a shale site igniting gas from a tap with a cigarette lighter. He later admitted that the taps were leaking long before shale extraction started.
Noted scientist Yoko Ono also chipped in with a series of adverts warning that,
“fracking makes all water dirty”.
The best way to combat pollution is to apply tight regulations and big penalties if any companies were to contaminate the Earth—much the same as happens now with companies supplying oil or natural gas.
Perhaps the most notorious environmental concern in the UK debate is that of fracking-induced earthquakes. The argument goes that if we start drilling under Blackpool, the whole of Lancashire will be rocking. However, let us not forget that earthquakes are recorded almost every day in the UK, and a brief glance at the list of the most recent events tells us that most of them occur at New Ollerton in north Nottinghamshire. It is a big coal-mining area. There was one there on Friday evening at 9.30 pm with a magnitude of 1.5, and across the UK there have been 38 in the past 30 days. The point is that energy extraction causes very minor tremors. In any case, the Government are ensuring safeguards that immediately stop extraction if tremors of 0.5 or more on the Richter scale are recorded. It may be that that level is too low because that is barely more than the shock felt from 10 Lords a-leaping.
Professor Muller has provided a robust environmental case for proceeding with shale extraction. However, he is not the only one. In 2012, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering found that the health, safety and environmental risks of shale extraction can be managed effectively in the UK. We have a track record for extracting a lucrative natural resource with little environmental impact. For instance, people said that we would cause lots of environmental damage when drilling for oil in the North Sea but, with the right research and regulation, we managed it.
Rightly, the Government have promoted the power of localism. People should have the right to have a say on the factors that affect them locally. With drilling for shale, the community will certainly have a say. Those who are afraid should be reminded that the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency can both put a stop to drilling, even if the council gives the all-clear. Throughout the planning industry, though, localism is limited by a duty to co-operate—one area’s localism must not ruin another area’s locality.
With shale, there will be a duty to co-operate within government—that is, among departments. The Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions should all work with the Department of Energy and Climate Change to get it done; they are all affected in some way. Energy security has an impact on the Foreign Office and defence. Europe imports about 30% of its natural gas from Russia, which has frightening implications. As Fraser Nelson remarked in the Telegraph:
“Of all the weapons in America’s arsenal, its new energy power is perhaps what the Kremlin fears most”.
Let us also remember that America’s shale revolution, which produces oil as well as gas, has allowed it to disengage from the Middle East.
The economic benefits could be extraordinary, which should interest the Treasury. There should be a surge in tax revenues and reduced costs in imports. As a deficit-cutting measure, it should be right at the top of the top of the list. For the DWP, shale gas extraction could create around 74,000 jobs, with geologists in Lancashire and mechanics in Sussex. Councils could see a surge in business rate revenue, too.
Shale gas is the sort of subject that this House excels at because it affects so many different government departments. The Select Committee report on ageing was another example of this. Our economics committee has been considering this subject, and I very much look forward to hearing its views. Perhaps there should be a Lords Select Committee study into the cross-departmental benefits of shale gas extraction, to ensure that this industry gets going as soon as possible.
My Lords, I congratulate most warmly my noble friend Lord Borwick on securing this debate on a very important subject, and on the contribution that he has just made in opening the debate, which has covered all the ground that needs to be covered.
Although I am a member of the Select Committee on Economic Affairs in this House, and although we are in the process of producing a report on UK shale resources, I cannot speak for the committee; I can give only a personal view. The committee will be producing its report in due course and I hope it will be a useful one. On the whole I think that reports by the Economic Affairs Committee of this House have tended to be useful over the years, and I hope this will be another one. However, I cannot speak today for the committee. I speak personally.
I have been interested in the energy scene for a very long time. I think it is 33 years since I was appointed Secretary of State for Energy, and I have watched how the energy scene has changed and developed throughout those years and I have retained an interest in it. In all that time, I have never known any development that was as exciting, promising, game-changing and beneficial as this technological development, a mixture of horizontal drilling and fracking—the fracturing of the shale rock—which has enabled access to reserves of shale gas, and indeed, increasingly, as my noble friend said, shale oil. Geologists have known these to exist for many decades but it has only just been discovered—remarkably, as a result of small-scale enterprise, not by any of the big oil companies—how they could be accessed economically.
The amounts involved are massive. It used to be said that the world was running out of oil and gas, and that fossil fuels had a finite life. We now see a greater abundance than there has ever been of gas and oil, which produce the energy on which all our economies rely. That is of course in just this development, which is huge—massive. But other people are interested in the development of offshore coal bed methane. On a much larger scale of particular interest is Japan, which is doing a great deal of development on this front, on methane hydrates. That is a further stage for the future, but shale gas is here with us now. As my noble friend said, the recent troubles in Ukraine have pointed out not merely that this is of great economic benefit but that it has important geopolitical consequences. For Europe in particular, to be much less dependent on Russian gas cannot but be a huge geopolitical plus.
We are lucky in this country, because it is quite clear in the surveys done by the Geological Society that we have a particular abundance of shale resources—particularly, as my noble friend pointed out, with the Bowland shale in Lancashire and other parts of the north-west. The Government have said from time to time that they want to rebalance the economy, by which they mean having more activity and success in the north of England rather than simply in the south. That is where the shale gas is. However, we do not know how much of it is economic because virtually no drilling has gone on. My noble friend was absolutely right to point out the fallacies in a lot of the so-called environmental objections to fracking. Nevertheless, virtually nothing is happening, which is of great concern. We really will not know what we have in this country until we can do the exploration. Once we have done that and have an assessment of what we have, there will then be the question of whether to do the production. However, there has to be the exploration so that we can know what we have got.
Perhaps the biggest single problem at the moment is the question of environmental regulation. It is very important that there is a rigorous environmental system of regulation. I do not think that anybody questions that, but the system needs to be not only rigorous but clear and as speedy as is consistent with that rigour. Nobody could say that our system is clear; certainly, nobody could say that it is speedy. The Government and the agencies which are part of the Government—the authorities generally, including the Government—really have to get their act together. The present system is absurd.
As for the environmental objections, not only are they entirely without substance but you have only to go, as my noble friend has, to the United States to see that there is not an environmental problem. There is an environmental problem with windpower, which is despoiling large tracts of the British countryside. I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that there are some who feel that the English countryside has been greatly enhanced by these forests of wind turbines. However, that is not a majority view and it is not a view that I share. It is reckoned that 10 square miles of fracking can produce as much energy as all the wind farms that we have in this country at present, and indeed more. My noble friend pointed out how small its footprint would be within those 10 square miles. I strongly support him in the Motion that he has brought before the Committee today.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Borwick for introducing the debate, which has all sorts of strong international, let alone national, relevance at present—Ukraine has already been mentioned.
It is not often that I would almost entirely agree with a report from the Centre for Policy Studies. It is not necessarily a body of intellectual stimulation that I look to—I look more to Policy Exchange or even the IPPR—but in this instance, I think the report is on the whole excellent. For a start, it takes the whole issue of global warming to be important in terms of environmental pollution. It also deals with the fact that we have all sorts of pollutants now from the various ways that we create energy that cause real health problems in the short term. I was pleased to read that the most important policy action is to reduce energy demand and increase energy efficiency, so that we do not have to do as much of all this. That is the cheapest and best economic approach to this, although clearly, we know that we will always need energy in a global and national economy.
To me, from a UK perspective, shale is an important resource that should be developed. From the most basic point of view, our North Sea oil and North Sea conventional gas production is falling very rapidly. For our national strategic energy and economic needs, it can be at least a substitute. Not only that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, said, we have one of the best environmental records in the world. We should not be afraid of the environmental aspects and threats of shale gas and oil; we need absolutely to ensure that we enforce the right standards. I have every confidence that that is possible for us to do that from our long and deep experience in that area and our very successful track record. However, we should be aware that we have doubly to make sure to begin with, because if we have a problem at the beginning of this exploration and exploitation, there is a serious reputational risk for the industry.
One of the main themes of the report—this is absolutely right—is that the most important thing that shale gas has done so far and should do for the future is to substitute for coal, which is an absolute no-no fuel in terms of environmental damage. The report is quite kind to the UK about coal. It points out strongly that with Germany now at 50% and the increasing coal capacity in China, despite all the renewables investment and everything else, in the UK over the past 18 months or two years, we have been at 40% in our coal energy production. Of course, most gas in this country is used for heating rather than for providing electricity. If shale gas means that we manage to reduce the wholesale gas price or at least hold it steady, which seems to be critical, that is a great thing for consumers and fuel poverty.
However, in the longer term, we have to remember that carbon is a problem. We cannot keep on pumping it out into the atmosphere at an increasing rate, however bad we are as an international community at solving that problem. So this has to be an intermediate, medium-term strategy, not a long-term strategy, unless the long-promised carbon capture and storage happens. I tend to be slightly sceptical in that area, but I am sure that the Minister will put me right on that, as I know that she has done and continues to do important work in that area, and there has indeed been progress.
It is not necessarily predictable how successful shale gas will be. We all hoped that Poland would push it forward—again for reasons of energy security, Gazprom and Russia—but, as I understand it, Poland has not been that successful in developing that fuel. So there is a risk and hence the need for exploration and pushing the project forward.
In terms of displacement, we found that coal has been substituted very benevolently and positively in the United States, but of course large amounts of that coal have come to our shores and been used as a substitute for conventional gas in electricity generation. That coal is going to go somewhere, even if we displace it from existing economies or where shale gas is strong. We need to have a strategy for that, and obviously I would suggest an international emissions performance standard which we would all need to comply with. However, that is not something which is going to happen too quickly.
On the environmental challenge, the quantity of water needed for the process is a genuine issue which we need to prove can be solved. I am not technically or scientifically competent to talk about the move to using brine, but it sounds promising and certainly something we need to make sure happens. Despite the floods we have had, particularly in my part of the world, I am sure that water shortages will come back to haunt us in due course. I welcome the report. Shale gas is important to this country and globally, but what happens to the coal that it will displace? That is a key issue.
The paper makes some important points about methane leakage, and I would be interested to hear what research the Government are undertaking into the value of methane leakage and what the quantities are.
On the energy security side in the macro area, once again we are in a position where our reactions to the Russian Federation on Ukraine and Crimea must be tempered by the fact that to a certain degree our hands are tied behind our back because of our dependence on Russian gas. It is to be hoped that shale gas might substitute for it in the medium term. The Nabucco pipeline project is seen as pretty much dead, but I would like to understand what Britain and her European partners are doing in terms of reconsidering how we transport conventional gas supplies to eastern and central Europe without going through Russian Federation territory.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Borwick for introducing this important debate. I must say that I was delighted to hear the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. There is clearly hope on the left wing of the coalition, so I recommend to the noble Lord more Centre for Policy Studies papers for bedtime reading.
I was fortunate enough to serve on EU Sub-Committee D, which published a report in 2012-13 entitled, No Country is an Energy Island: Securing Investment for the EU’s Future. We looked at energy in its widest sense, and it was alarming to realise just how dependent Europe is on imported energy supplies. Evidence to the committee showed that more than 50% of its energy supplies are imported. It is even worse from the UK’s point of view. In 2003 we were a net exporter of gas, but by 2025, a mere 12 years hence, we will be importing 70% of our gas. There has been a dramatic change, and we are slowly waking up to the energy crisis that is about to hit us even harder than the committee anticipated in its report 18 months ago.
We must also bear in mind the trilemma of the problem when considering the energy crisis. Not only do we want to produce low carbon energy, we want security of supply, which I will come back to, and we want to keep our energy cheap. That is a difficult policy for any Government to implement successfully.
We looked at shale gas, and there is no doubt that it is a potential asset in the armoury of a Government who wish to secure wide diversity of supply. I fully support that policy. We should not put all our eggs in one basket, and the supply base should be as broad as possible. However, I still agree with our committee’s report and recommendation: shale gas would not be a panacea for this country. Indeed, the Government in their reply to our report said, in paragraph 57, that,
“it should not be assumed that it will bring impacts comparable to those seen in the US”.
There is a good expectation from shale gas, but we should not think that it will be an instant solution.
The UK has an enormous amount of experience in drilling and wells. More than 2 million wells have been hydraulically fractured—or fracked—worldwide, mostly in the USA. From our point of view, shale gas is much the same as North Sea gas. We have more than 50 years’ experience of getting North Sea gas out of the ground. More than 2,000 wells have been drilled onshore in that time. There is a very good case for Britain taking the lead in developing shale gas in Europe.
As has already been said, what we require is strict regulation. Regulation for shale gas should be exactly the same as for other forms of conventional oil and gas drilling. I was therefore alarmed to read in the papers—of course I am very sceptical of anything I read in the papers and am glad that the Minister had not read the Mail on Sunday article because I would not trust that—that the European Parliament reduced the standards for shale gas in a recent discussion. Could the Minister update us on the situation in Europe? It is important that it is not perceived that shale gas gets any particular benefit.
Another bit of evidence given to us supports what my noble friend Lord Teverson just said: people in Europe expect Britain to take the lead on this. We are the experts. Poland will not fulfil its potential with shale gas until Britain gives the lead. There seems to be a blockage. Given our experience that I have just mentioned, we are the ones Poland is looking at to set the standards, regulations and monitoring so that it can follow. I totally agree with my noble friend Lord Lawson about the Ukraine and Russia. Russia, perversely, might have actually done a benefit to Europe. The EU reacts really well only when there is a crisis. It will now be faced with a massive energy crisis, and that might just shake it enough to get its act together and make progress in a field where it has dragged its heels.
A difficulty with shale gas is, of course, that it does not always appear in unpopulated areas. In fact, there is quite a lot of shale gas where the country is very densely populated. England is the most densely populated nation in Europe, with more than 400 persons per square kilometre. Up in Scotland, at home, we have 40 persons per square kilometre. Texas, where we hear of all this wonderful drilling in the central part of America, has 35 persons per square kilometre. So there will be an inevitable problem, and that has already shown up, particularly in the south of England.
My noble friend is right about the relative population densities in the United States and United Kingdom, but in fact parts of the United States have a very high population density, and fracking has been allowed there and gone very successfully. High density of population does not matter. Even in the suburbs of Los Angeles it can be done and managed. The point my noble friend made is interesting but in actual fact does not prove anything.
My noble friend has just completed my paragraph for me. That is exactly what I was going to say. Despite the high density of population, it can be done and has been done very successfully. It is not surprising that when you live in an area where houses are expensive, you do not mind at all that there is industrialisation of the fine Scottish landscape with turbines but you will not have anything on your own doorstep. There has to be a way for the Government to get around that hurdle of environmental intolerance by some people in the south of England.
The noble Lord, Lord Borwick, mentioned air pollution. Paris has got such bad air pollution that cars now are being driven on alternate days.
Perhaps I may conclude because I allowed for interruptions. There has been a recent report, Are We Fit to Frack?. The reason these so-called wildlife bodies do not like fracking is that there might be cracks in the pipework. That is what regulation is about. Those people drive cars, which are hazardous. There also is lots of light pollution. People will probably object to the very good idea of building a new town at Ebbsfleet because of light pollution.
My Lords, I declare my interests in various forms of energy as detailed in the register, especially in coal. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Borwick on this extremely timely debate. As he probably knew, today is the 65th birthday of fracking. Through the wonders of Twitter, I found out this afternoon that it was on 17 March 1949 in Archer County, Texas, and Stephens County, Oklahoma, that the first commercial hydraulic fracturing operation happened. During those 65 years, there have been extraordinarily few environmental problems. Ken Salazar, who was Secretary of the Interior in the first Obama term, recently said that,
“there’s not a single case where hydraulic fracking has created an environmental problem for anyone”.
“We need to make sure that story is told”.
Obviously, the oil industry and the gas industry cause problems but hydraulic fracturing itself has not produced a single environmental problem.
This is a very good topic for a debate. Professor Muller’s report goes straight to the heart of an issue that is central to the environmental debate and it needs more attention. The issue is harm reduction and choosing the lesser of two evils rather than being frightened by a small risk, thereby allowing a larger risk to happen, or allowing the best to be the enemy of the good, as Voltaire put it. For example, the environmental opponents of genetic modification have, in effect, left us using more pesticides than other countries. That has been the effect of that campaign. The environmental opponents of nuclear power have left us using more coal than other countries, as well as particularly in Germany, Japan and other places.
The question is: what would happen if we do not develop shale gas? What would be the environmental impact of not developing shale gas? I ask the Minister to press her officials to take this approach to some of the questions; namely, to weigh up not just the risks of fracking but the risks of not fracking. In this case, as Professor Muller makes clear in the paper for the Centre for Policy Studies, it would mean both more air pollution, with damaging effects on people’s health, and more carbon dioxide emissions. There is no question about that. We have several years of experience and it is clear that the environmental benefits of shale gas development that were thought about a few years ago have been drastically underestimated, whereas the environmental risks have been greatly exaggerated.
As I have mentioned, the benefits include carbon dioxide reduction. As a result of the shale gas revolution, America’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are now back to 1994 levels and, in per capita terms, are back to 1964 levels. That is an extraordinary change, which is much faster than in any other country on the planet. We have mentioned urban air pollution. There is also an enormous opportunity now for natural gas vehicles, which are much cheaper to run, in the United States. Many commercial fleets are turning to natural gas vehicles, which can reduce urban air pollution. Not just the displacement of coal but the displacement of diesel is a great opportunity as well.
However, there is an enormous other potential benefit from shale gas: land-sparing; that is, using less land to produce energy. As we know, renewables, as a way of trying to do without carbon dioxide emissions, need an awful lot of land. To put this in perspective, if we were to use wind power alone to try to not just reduce but prevent an increase in global carbon dioxide emissions, we would have to build a wind farm the size of the British Isles every year. That is an extraordinary number.
It is not just land but the wildlife that goes with that land. There is a recent estimate that 82,000 birds of prey are killed every year by wind turbines in the United States. If you scale that back to the size of the UK wind industry, that means 16,000 birds of prey in this country. I suspect that the number is lower than that because we do not have migration corridors of the kind they have in the USA. There are also 150,000 bats. These are some of the creatures that could survive if we decided to stop building wind turbines and started working on shale gas instead. I mentioned in another debate this afternoon the possibility that we would not have to cut down forests, and all the pollution that goes with that.
As for the environmental risks and problems of fracking, I have found over the past few years that it is like chopping the heads off a hydra: every time you meet one objection, people come up with another. We have heard things like radioactivity might be coming out of fracked wells; that has now been buried. Most people now accept that the earthquakes are extremely small; much smaller, incidentally, than the earthquakes you get from hydropower, for example. As for water contamination, the myth has been well buried now that there has been serious aquifer contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing, and if you have seen “GasLand”, you should also make a big effort to watch “FrackNation”, the film that answers it and puts it in perspective. The methane leakage question is very interesting. A recent study from the University of Texas puts the number at about 0.4%, which is extremely low. We should remember that coal mines leak more methane than that, so using and transporting coal actually generates a lot more methane and anyway methane levels in the atmosphere are not actually rising very fast; they are rising slower than predicted by the IPCC over the past two decades.
As for the issue of using chemicals in hydraulic fracturing, we put 99.5% water and sand down the hole, with a few kitchen sink chemicals, extremely diluted. This is put into rocks that are absolutely riddled with organic toxic chemicals. That is why we are going there: to get those toxic chemicals out. So it is a bit ridiculous to worry about that aspect of things.
Above all, it is worth bearing in mind that affordable energy is itself good for the environment. As McKinsey pointed out, America has had probably $250 billion of benefit from the shale gas revolution in the past three years. Think what you can spend $250 billion on—think how much environmental benefit you can buy with that.
My Lords, I speak as a politician but also as a scientist, albeit in a slightly more esoteric area of science. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, on securing this debate. It has not done anything for my blood pressure. I am so constrained by time that I cannot answer all the points that have been made but I will cover a few, I hope.
First, on pollution, the European Commission and US research have identified significant pollution risks from leaking wells, including the contamination of drinking water by methane, heavy metals, radioactive elements and carcinogenic chemicals. There is also air pollution and noise pollution. Wildlife loss is a threat, although if we want to save more birds we should ban cats rather than wind farms. PM2.5 is a very nasty component of our air here in London and major cities in Britain. If we want to cut it significantly, we should cut traffic. I would be glad to hear noble Lords’ ideas on that. It is also hard to regulate away human error. It is incredibly difficult to make anything completely safe.
On costs, instead of investing in energy efficiency to reduce our bills, our Government are giving 50% tax giveaways to an industry forecast to have rising prices for decades. The Secretary of State for Energy, Ed Davey, warns that it would be really expensive if we were over reliant on gas. Furthermore, UK fracking is likely to be much more expensive than the US variety. Despite what Ministers claim, the experts at Deutsche Bank, Chatham House and Ofgem all predict that shale gas extraction will not bring down fuel bills, so fracking will not help the 1.5 million children growing up in cold homes in the UK.
There would also be lost opportunities. By undermining investment in offshore wind power, tax giveaways for shale gas will suppress development of clean renewable energy. That is exactly what we do not need. A reckless dash for shale gas could prevent clean electricity being supplied to 7.8 million homes and cost more than 40,000 clean energy jobs. That is really too much to bear.
Finally, on climate incompatibility, shale gas is likely to be burnt in addition to coal. Shale gas drilling and combustion are completely incompatible with UK climate change commitments. Replacing conventional fossil gas with shale gas to generate electricity would increase greenhouse gas emissions by up to 11%. A mixture of methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than CO2, will further contribute to the dangerous climate change impacts of fracking and, finally, recent research suggests that replacing coal with gas may be worse for climate change in the medium term. So this environmentalist is not convinced.
My Lords, what an interesting debate we have had. I start by addressing the question put to us: should every serious environmentalist now favour fracking? I have read the report and found it very interesting, but I was left with an overriding impression that it was an excellent report in arguing against coal but not as persuasive in arguing in favour of fracking. In fact, I take issue with the title because, really, this was about gas, not about fracking and, as anyone who has studied the subject will know, fracking is as much about oil extraction as it is about gas. Certainly in the US it has led to a big increase in oil production. That has had interesting geopolitical consequences—I do not doubt that—but it is not an environmental move forward if you are starting to argue that oil is somehow a benign, low-carbon substance that we should move towards. So it is partial in its coverage of the issue of fracking by omitting to reference the fact that it is as much about oil as it is about gas.
I find myself in an interesting position whereby I support what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, has said. I am very glad that he made the point that there is no way in which you can present shale gas or fracking as a panacea. You can point to the fact that it could have great benefits but you cannot say that it is the answer to everything. When I hear the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, speak with such passion for this subject—almost as much passion as he has for arguing that climate change is not real and that renewables are not worth it—I always wonder why that is. It must, I suppose, be a personal interest in the technology or an excitement about it. However, it is nice that we are having a debate in which the framing of this is that shale gas is needed to reduce carbon dioxide. Clearly, that is true; gas can have a significant bridging effect in helping us to tackle climate change.
If the noble Lord had given me a moment, I was going to come on to that. We have a very clear position: it has a role to play but we need a seasoned, mature and rational debate about that role. There is no point in overhyping it and claiming that it is going to be this great, wondrous change in how we use energy in the UK. We can all look to the US and say what an amazing experience they have had over there. When I was in Washington recently, I read an excellent book called The Frackers—I have been wracking my brain but I cannot remember the author—which I recommend to everyone. It is an inside account of how the fracking industry grew up in the US. I was left feeling admiration for its energy and enthusiasm, the amount of risk it was prepared to take and how many setbacks it went through. That these wildcat prospectors brought about a massive change in the US is absolutely true.
Do I think it could be replicated in the UK or Europe? Absolutely not. I am afraid that the conditions here could not be more different to those that led to the fracking revolution in the US. One can argue that they have helped to develop new technologies, which is absolutely right—horizontal drilling and fracturing are now new tools in the extractive industry’s toolbox—but will they be able to deploy them in the UK at scale and have the kind of impact that they have had in the US? I doubt it. There are very different factors: the way in which the US treats land rights, and it being an isolated market, meant that prices could plunge rapidly there, which they will not in Europe. We are connected to the global gas network and we have prices set for us on the global market in a completely different way to the US. I recommend reading the book, because it brings a dose of realism to the whole debate.
As to whether environmentalists could be persuaded to endorse fracking, it has a potential role to play. The key is for the industry to be upfront about why people are potentially opposed to it. It is often not about the pollution, the water or taps that might catch fire, but more to do with local objections. Again I find it ironic that we have a nation which cares deeply about what happens in its backyard. That is why onshore wind has been held back and why in the past we have seen great opposition to incineration in local communities. There will be the same reaction to fracking, I am afraid, and unless the industry is upfront and honest about that, it will be missing the point.
Perhaps this reference will not work very well in the House of Lords, but I heard recently that Bez from the Happy Mondays is now standing as an anti-fracking candidate. That says something about what popular public opinion thinks about this technology. Whoever was responsible for its PR has done a disastrous job; it is not the Government who are holding it back. The Government have given fracking tax exemptions and changed local planning to try to encourage it, so there will be money flowing. I am not saying it is bribery but it is encouragement. I still think there is going to be a great deal of unhappiness and opposition to this, and we have not even started. We have one or two test wells that have been sunk yet here we are talking about this as if it is a huge contributor of change in the UK. I severely doubt that.
As the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, pointed out, population density is important. In answer to the challenge from the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, in those areas of the US where population density is higher, there is great opposition. In the north-eastern states, where there is a huge reserve, some states have imposed an outright ban; others have taken it very slowly. This is because the population there are capable of standing up and objecting to it. They are largely wealthy, middle-class citizens who do not want to see their local environment disrupted. The noble Lord, Lord Borwick, said something that catches the point of this. Although these rigs may be temporary, an awful lot of them are needed because they are temporary. The fact that the industry has to keep disrupting people and moving on will mean that this will be slow to develop, if it develops at all.
Another thing that quite a lot of people will cite as a reason for their opposition is that the industry has been slow to acknowledge that it is still a fossil fuel, particularly if it is oil based. Even if it is cleaner gas, it is still a fossil fuel. The industry needs to be much more upfront about how this new influx of gas will be compatible with our climate change targets. That will have to be through embracing carbon capture and storage. I would love to see the shale gas industry acknowledge that its future will lie with carbon capture and storage and that all of the engineering expertise we have for extracting things out of the ground can be redeployed to putting it back underground so that we can make it safe. If that were part of the narrative, then we would see much less opposition than at the moment.
We have to be very cautious. This is not going to be fast. It could be 10 or 20 years before we really know. I am sure it is true that the UK could play an important leading role in the EU in establishing rules and regulations, but I hope that that is not the case. I hope that Poland moves ahead with this because, let us face it, Poland needs gas more than we do. I also hope it happens in China because, as the report rightly says, China has a huge demand for coal and we need to do everything we can to wean it off that polluting source of energy, not only in terms of carbon emissions but also in terms of human health.
However, the report fails to point out that China will develop nuclear power in a way that we in Europe can scarcely imagine. There are already 20 nuclear reactors in operation and 28 more are under construction. There will be 150 gigawatts of nuclear power in China by 2030. That is where the revolution will come from and I hope that that will happen alongside all the other things that China is doing.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Borwick for the measured and informed way in which he introduced the debate. He made a clear and eloquent case for the importance of shale gas development, including on why those who combat man-made climate change should support it.
Gas is a critical part of our energy mix. Our projections, and those of National Grid and others, show that we are likely to use almost as much gas in 2030 as we do today. Half the gas we use is for domestic heating and cooking and a quarter for industrial and commercial uses. These will be difficult to substitute.
I am glad that there was general acceptance, except by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that shale gas will play an important part in the contribution of gas to our energy needs. We all recognise that there is a long way to travel in order to be in receipt of those benefits. However, the debate has once again demonstrated that we need to have these debates. We need informed debates and to bust the myths that keep being generating around this issue. It was my noble friend Lord Ridley who said that you bust one myth and another crops up.
We import half of the gas we consume, and by the middle of the next decade, without shale gas production, it could be more than 80% as conventional gas production declines. The UK has invested in facilities to make sure that gas is easy to import, but we cannot be complacent. There is a compelling energy security case for shale gas development. There are economic benefits, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Borwick. The Institute of Directors published a study last year in which it estimated that a UK shale gas industry could support more than 70,000 jobs at peak production, with £3.7 billion of annual investment and significant tax revenues. The institute forecasts that production levels could reach a level of more than a third of the gas we consume today.
We support exploration activity to see what the actual commercial viability of UK shale is, but we are clear that we will allow only activity that is safe, sustainable and properly regulated. The UK has a strong regulatory system that provides a comprehensive and fit-for-purpose regime for exploratory activities, and we need continuously to improve it, as my noble friend Lord Caithness rightly said. The UK has more than 50 years’ experience of regulating the onshore oil and gas industry to draw on. This is supported by an authoritative review of the scientific and engineering evidence on shale gas extraction conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society in 2012. This concluded that,
“the health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing … as a means to extract shale gas can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation”.
My department’s Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil will work closely with regulators, such as the Environment Agency in England, the Health and Safety Executive and industry to ensure that regulation is robust enough to safeguard public safety and protect the environment while imposing no unnecessary burdens of operators. We have also put in place appropriate measures to manage seismic risk. Of course, we would not proceed with shale development if it conflicted with our climate objectives.
A recent report by my department’s chief scientific adviser, David MacKay, and Dr Timothy Stone concluded that the carbon footprint of UK-produced shale gas would be likely to be significantly less than coal and lower than imported gas. The report made a number of recommendations further to mitigate any emissions from shale gas operations and the Secretary of State will respond positively to that report shortly.
I appreciate that there may be concerns about the impact on local areas, and it would be helpful briefly to explore them. A site will be smaller than a cricket pitch, and although it might produce shale gas for around 20 years, there will be certain periods when most of the activity takes place—for example, during set-up or in preparation for fracture. These operations should have broadly similar impacts on health, local amenities and traffic movements to those from existing onshore gas and oil extraction methods. Each application’s local impact is carefully considered via the local planning system. The industry has made a commitment to work with local communities to minimise the impact of shale gas and oil operations wherever possible and is researching methods and technologies that will reduce traffic movements to and from the site.
I am sure noble Lords will agree that it is important that local communities benefit from hosting shale gas developments. That is why we welcomed the package of benefits industry has announced. At exploration stage, £100,000 in community benefits will be provided per well site where fracking takes place, and 1% of revenues at production stage will be paid out to communities. Industry estimates that that could be worth between £2.5 million and £10 million for a typical producing pad. Each year, operators will have to publish evidence of how they have met their commitments. The benefits will be reviewed as the industry develops, and operators will consult further with communities. This is a new sector developing. My department is working hard to help people to understand the facts about shale gas, particularly with local communities.
A few questions were raised so I will quickly address them in the time I have left. My noble friend Lord Lawson said that we need to reduce regulation on shale. The Environment Agency has—
I apologise for misrepresenting what my noble friend said—absolutely. The Environment Agency is developing a single application form for permits. In 2014, the Environment Agency will aim to reduce the time for low-risk activity from 13 weeks to approximately two weeks. I hope that that addresses the point raised by my noble friend. Of course, it is not about reducing regulation; we do not want to see regulation reduced, but we also do not want to see barriers where they do not need to be in place.
My noble friend Lord Teverson mentioned CCS projects. As my noble friend is aware, we were able to go forward with two of them at Peterhead and White Rose—the Drax project. The Government have committed £1 billion to CCS—a commitment from this Government to make sure that we are not lacking in ambition for CCS. My noble friend also mentioned dependency on Russian gas. I reassure him that only a small percentage of our gas comes from Russia. By and large we are better connected, with 50% being our own gas and a larger proportion of what is left coming from Norway.
I think my noble friend will agree that that is a different debate.
My noble friend Lord Caithness asked whether shale gas was more leniently regulated at European level. I reassure him that shale gas is regulated in the same way as any other energy sector. A recent proposal in the European Parliament to require environmental impact assessments in all shale projects did not proceed. We welcomed this because we do not want minor impact drilling such as taking core samples impeded.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said that fracking would cause water contamination and that there was evidence to prove it. We have seen no evidence. The Environment Agency is one of the most respected regulators globally, as are many of our regulators, and we would be careful to consider the advice that we were given by our regulators before we proceeded to do anything that would allow any kind of contamination. Hydraulic fracturing will take place more than 1,000 metres below groundwater level, where there are impermeable layers of rock which will stop the gas and fracking fluids escaping into the water.
The noble Baroness also touched on tackling cold homes and fuel poverty. The Government have done a lot to respond to those challenges and measures are in place to address the issues that she has raised. There is much more to be done but this Government have been very proactive about addressing the issues where the people who need help most and quickest are getting that help.
The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, said that shale gas cannot be seen as a panacea. The Government have never suggested that shale gas is a panacea. We have said that it is important that we explore the possibilities that shale gas will bring because we need energy security. If shale gas is explored and exploited, it will become an important part of the energy mix. We all know that gas and oil will still play a large part in our wider energy mix.
I am not quite sure from the noble Baroness’s remarks that she understood her own party’s position on fracking. However, it would be unhelpful to close down the debate on the real benefits that shale gas can bring. I recommend that we have further informed debates because this debate has explored a number of arguments in this critical policy area. I look forward to those debates, but let us bring them forward as debates on fact, not on ideology. We need to reduce our dependency on external energy sources and ensure that the people of the UK have affordable energy and energy security but understand that the sector is properly regulated, can deliver all those things and can contribute towards our economic growth.
This has been an interesting debate. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Borwick for raising it. I suspect that we will have many more debates on the issue.
Committee adjourned at 7.18 pm.