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Volume 764: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the decision by Lancashire County Council to reject a planning application by Cuadrilla to frack in that county; and, in the light of that decision, whether they plan to conduct a study into the possible impacts of hydraulic fracturing in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, it would be inappropriate for the Government to comment on the specifics of any local planning decisions, which are a matter for the local planning authority. However, I make it clear that the Government continue to support the development of the shale industry in the United Kingdom. A number of independent reports have shown that any risk can be managed very effectively.

I thank the Minister for that reply. In illustrating the need for a study of the environmental and economic impact of fracking, would the Minister comment on a report on the experience of Oklahoma in the Financial Times on 7 May, which pointed out that, although earthquakes are rare in that state, there were some 2,000 last year—308 of them above 3.0 on the Richter scale? Could he give further thought to a study by the Government into the impact of fracking in the UK?

My Lords, as independent experts have indicated, the geology of the United Kingdom is very different from the geology of Oklahoma. There, of course, it is about oil, while here in the north of England it is gas. An expert from the University of Glasgow, Dr Rob Westaway, said that if you are talking about seismic danger, you might as well talk about the danger of slamming a wooden door.

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that fracking is perfectly safe as long it adheres to a very strict code of conduct when carrying out the actual fracking?

My Lords, the code of conduct followed and the procedure in the United Kingdom, with the HSE and the Environment Agency, are among the best in the world. We have every reason to believe that fracking is totally safe and that any risks can be effectively managed.

My Lords, will the Minister recognise that the Government have given considerable comfort to local residents who object to wind farms? Are the Government going to give the same comfort to residents who object to fracking?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that there is a strong local element to the decision that has just been taken. The Government are of the view that a strong local element is important.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, irrespective of the fact that he cannot go into detail about Lancashire, it is vital for the communities potentially affected by fracking, for local authority employees and councillors, and indeed for the companies that may be interested in fracking, to know exactly where responsibility lies on these matters? In that context, and given the statement made by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales in March about transferring powers to the National Assembly for Wales, can he now tell us from what date that will be effective?

The noble Lord will be aware that the Wales Bill will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny this autumn. The Bill should become law at the end of next year or early in 2017.

My Lords, in February, correspondence from the Committee on Climate Change to the Environmental Audit Committee in another place said that,

“UK shale gas production can be consistent with meeting UK carbon budgets but only if … it is accompanied by a strong commitment to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions (and therefore gas consumption), for example by setting a power sector decarbonisation target”.

Will the Minister be clear about the Government’s decarbonisation target for the UK power-generation sector and what proportion they see shale gas being of that overall target?

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that most renewables are intermittent and we need a back-up. MacKay and Stone have said that the gas carbon footprint of shale gas is comparable to that of imported gas, lower than that of LNG and much lower than that of coal. We need it in our transition to our zero-carbon economy. That is why it is so important.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee took evidence last year from the Environment Agency and the Royal Society, and from scientists outside those organisations, all of whom were extremely reassuring about the environmental effects of shale gas and oil exploration? In the light of that reassuring evidence, what further steps are the Government taking to encourage exploration?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that contribution. I was aware of the encouraging sounds made by those bodies. It is absolutely right that such exploration is safe. It is also important to note that it will generate 60,000 British jobs. The other important point is that it provides secure energy. It will mean that in 2030, rather than having 75% of our gas imported, that figure will be down to 40%. That is a massive contribution.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that DECC has just had its 14th licensing round for onshore drilling. For some reason, the area around the Prime Minister’s constituency of Witney appears to have been omitted in spite of being densely covered with quite promising seismic profiles. I am curious about why that has happened if the Prime Minister is such a fan of fracking.

My Lords, I am not quite sure—perhaps I am—what the noble Baroness is suggesting. Let me reassure her that the process is quite independent. She will be aware that most of the area for fracking gas is in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire and, of course, the Prime Minister’s constituency is well south of that.

My Lords, will the Minister give the same assurance about the pursuit of oil? I declare an interest as a Lancashire resident and a former Lancashire county councillor. I would like a cast-iron guarantee with regard to oil and gas that the south of England will not be protected more than the north.

My Lords, I am happy to give that guarantee. The noble Baroness will be aware that in relation to the north, a wealth asset fund will be created from any exploitation of shale gas, but any treatment will be totally equitable throughout the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I am aware of my noble friend’s interest in that. He will be aware that the Swansea lagoon project has planning permission and there are many other promising tidal lagoon projects waiting in the wings. Tidal power is a matter to which the Government are giving close attention. It is a very exciting prospect.