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Wales: Fracking

Volume 757: debated on Tuesday 2 December 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received from the Welsh Government concerning the control and management of fracking for gas in Wales.

My Lords, the Government have been in regular contact with the Welsh Government on the subject of shale gas and have had a number of official representations. The UK Government welcome the Welsh Affairs Committee’s report, Energy Generation in Wales: Shale Gas, which was received in June. Both Governments engaged throughout the process of that committee by submitting oral and written evidence. We welcome the conclusion from the committee that it is vital that the UK identifies new sources of gas to safeguard the UK’s security of supply. The UK Government are clear that developing shale gas and oil will not come at the cost of public health or the environment.

My Lords, in view of the recommendations of the Smith commission report that responsibility for the licensing of onshore gas development in Scotland should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament, and in view of the commitment given by the Prime Minister on 19 September that Wales would not miss out with regards to any such development in Scotland, can the Minister give an assurance that consideration will now be given to transferring to the National Assembly for Wales and to the Welsh Government responsibility for fracking in Wales?

My Lords, as I made quite clear in my opening remarks in reply to the noble Lord’s Question, the Government are in close communication with the Welsh Government on these issues.

My Lords, all the parties in Wales have come to an agreement that we will move to the reserved powers model in Wales. What relevance will that have for fracking? Given the trouble that the Government have had with the Supreme Court on a number of cases, including the recent agricultural one, will she give an assurance that the Government will act in the spirit of that and avoid the problems that they have had with the Supreme Court in the interim?

My Lords, I shall not comment on specific cases, but we have been very clear that the issue around hydraulic fracturing must take into account a number of issues—one, of course, is community engagement. As I said in my opening remarks, the Government are very closely involved in discussions with the Welsh Government on these matters.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the United Kingdom as a whole has an exemplary record in regard to hydrocarbons and environmental management both offshore and onshore? Does she also agree that when it comes to issues such as wastewater and particularly the integrity of wells, not just during exploration and production but afterwards when those wells are left, improved and clearer environmental regulations need to be enforced strongly through inspection?

My noble friend raises some very important points, and of course we have taken very seriously the issues around wastewater. As my noble friend rightly points out, after exploration has taken place, any wastewater will be stored in closed metal tanks before being treated in accordance with strict environmental regulation, which is used extensively across many industrial processes. During the drilling process, the Health and Safety Executive will scrutinise well design and the drilling companies themselves must appoint independent well examiners so that well testing may be routinely be checked.

My Lords, on a basic constitutional issue, is the granting of drilling licences or eventual planning permission already devolved to the Welsh Government? If that is not so then, in line with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Wigley, it should be done immediately. Is it not the case that on 19 September the Prime Minister put it rather more elegantly than my noble friend when he said that the Welsh people must be at the very heart of devolution?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises some important points. Noise and traffic are covered in existing guidance in Minerals Planning Policy Wales. There is already quite a lot of engagement at local level. As I said in opening, we are working closely with the Welsh Assembly on these matters.

My Lords, in the new spirit of promiscuous devolution of tax-raising powers, will the Welsh Government have complete freedom to levy what taxes they will on fracking in Wales, as well as to keep the proceeds and spend them as they will?

My Lords, businesses engaging in fracking will be working very closely with communities and are putting forward very attractive community benefits packages. As for tax-raising powers, I think that that is slightly above my pay grade.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in all this discussion of the drawbacks of fracking we should also draw the attention of the devolved Administration and of others to the enormous benefits of affordable energy as provided by shale gas in various other parts of the world?

My noble friend is absolutely right. Of course, we will not know what the potential is until we do further exploration. I imagine that all those who want to see greater economic growth and job growth will welcome any matters that allow that to happen.

My Lords, in between the attractive packages that these applicants may offer the community, can the Minister assure the House that whoever issues the licences—in fact, we do not yet know—will have to do a full and comprehensive environmental impact assessment first, monitor methane in groundwater and keep the monitoring going for at least 12 months after production has started?

My Lords, I think that many of these issues were raised during consideration of the Infrastructure Bill, and many of the commitments that the noble Lord was asking for were agreed to. I think that he should be reassured that monitoring and reporting of the processes will be there and available, because the companies know that to generate confidence they have to be open and transparent.

My Lords, will the Minister please acknowledge that during the debate on the Infrastructure Bill we put forward a comprehensive plan of measures to improve the environmental regulation. We do not wish to stop fracking but we want to see that it is done, wherever it is done, in an environmentally safe way. The Government have put forward regulations but not a single one relates to changes in the environmental regulatory regime. Can she explain why that is?

My Lords, this country has a proud reputation of being one of the most robust regulators in the world.

My Lords, there are currently two planning applications for fracking with Lancashire County Council. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government have made any representations to Lancashire County Council on those applications?