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Forests: Coal-bed Methane Extraction

Volume 768: debated on Monday 25 January 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the social and environmental impacts of the potential extraction of coal-bed methane on forests such as the Forest of Dean.

My Lords, as part of the 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round, Southwestern Energy Ltd was formally offered two petroleum exploration and development licences within an area encompassing the Forest of Dean, each earmarked for coal-bed methane development. A strategic environmental assessment was undertaken for all areas offered for licensing applications in that round.

My Lords, the hydrogeology of the forest is complex. The former mine workings are flooded, and there are still freeminers working underground. Labour introduced environmental safeguards for the Infrastructure Bill, but those have been downgraded, disregarded or weakened. The assessment to which the Minister referred is regarded by many to be flawed and inaccurate. Have there been independent risk assessments into coal methane extraction that consider all health and environmental impacts that have been observed elsewhere and have been considered specifically in relation to the Forest of Dean? If so, have they been made public? I would be grateful if I could have a meeting with the Minister and his officials, together with some colleagues from the Forest of Dean, to discuss this further.

My Lords, as I have previously mentioned to the noble Baroness, I am very happy to have that meeting along with officials. The system is extremely robust; this is but the first stage in the process. Consents will be needed before anything can go forward—for planning, from the Environment Agency, along with scrutiny by the Health and Safety Executive, an access agreement with the Coal Authority and consent to drill from the Oil and Gas Authority.

Can my noble friend confirm that any application for coal-bed methane extraction will be subject to a full and rigorous process, which will include receiving all independent reports, following the same process as applications for other forms of methane extraction?

My Lords, I can certainly confirm that that is the process. Only one commercially running coal-bed methane extraction operation is going on at the moment, and there have been no issues since 2007, when it started, with regard to health and safety or contamination.

My Lords, what evidence-based case is there for applying far less stringent environmental controls and protections to coal-bed methane than to hydraulic fracturing?

My Lords, the process for coal-bed methane is essentially parallel with that for fracking. There are no separate considerations here—or in so far as they are separate, it is only because of the slightly different technology. Both have extremely robust systems. In addition, if fracking was involved where we have coal-bed methane, a separate system of protections and consents would be needed.

My Lords, the Government rode rather roughshod over the environmental conditions that your Lordships’ House believed should be applied to fracking and responded by saying, “Oh well, in that case we’ll make sure that we protect areas of outstanding natural beauty and groundwater protection zones by doing it at 1,200 metres under those sites and no closer to the surface”. The coal seams in the Forest of Dean are at 450 metres from the surface, and many are much closer than that. Can the Minister confirm, or not, that the environmental restrictions that apply to fracking apply also to coal-bed methane extraction in the Forest of Dean—and, if not, what environmental protection conditions will apply? Was it wise to issue a licence when many of the environmental impacts had not been assessed in detail for this particular application until after the licence had been granted?

My Lords, coal-bed methane is not as deep as 1,200 metres. So, obviously, that is a separate consideration; we are not talking about fracking. In so far as there is fracking, if it is fracking in addition, there will be the additional protections that are available. But, as I have indicated, there are also planning consents, Environment Agency consents, Health and Safety Executive requirements, access agreements from the Coal Authority and consent to drill from the Oil and Gas Authority. We have a very effective, robust system of protections of which we can be proud.

My Lords, this Question raises a much broader issue, which concerns many people, about the protection both of the ancient forest lands and of the forestry estates. Could the Minister update your Lordships’ House on what progress has been made towards the appointment of the new public forest body, which was the recommendation of the independent forestry report? If no progress has been made, what role is, for example, the Forestry Commission taking in protecting this land, which the public hold so dear and for which they have such great concern?

My Lords, I am always grateful for people exaggerating my powers, but this is very much outside my brief in relation to forestry. I will ensure that the right reverend Prelate gets a full response on the subject, and I know that the Government take it seriously.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if this country had not switched to fossil fuels in the last couple of centuries, the Forest of Dean—and every other forest—would long ago have been cleared for fuel? I declare my energy interests as listed in the register.

My Lords, what I would say is that we, as a nation, must determine that we shall have secure energy, and energy that is not imported. If we do nothing about coal-bed methane or, more broadly, about fracking, by 2030 we will have to import 70% of our gas rather than the 45% that we import now.