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Fracking: Planning Guidance

Volume 796: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take in response to the High Court ruling that their planning guidance on fracking is unlawful.

My Lords, I am pleased to hear that. Is this not yet another case where the Government seem to be lacking basic procedural competence? More widely, it seems rather strange that the Government want widespread extraction of methane from rocks in this country at a time when the climate crisis affecting the world is getting worse. Perhaps more pertinently to the Conservative Party, do the Government really think it is politically sustainable for them to cover large areas of the English countryside, which are often Conservative strongholds, with hundreds and thousands of fracking wells?

My Lords, in case people are misled into thinking that there are hundreds of such wells at the moment, there are not. Once again, this was a policy introduced under the coalition Government. We believe that the technology is worth looking at, because methane presents a bridge between fossil fuels and renewables, and is the best of the hydrocarbons in terms of pollution. But we are committed to ensuring that it is also safe and environmentally sound and that there is a strong regulatory system.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. How does the Minister respond to the suggestion that the Government have behaved irresponsibly and recklessly in these matters and that the consultation was a complete farce?

My Lords, I am not sure whether that is an accusation made by the noble Lord or somebody else: I do not recognise it as being from a neutral source, I have to say. Consultations are ongoing. There is a consultation on permitted development and on nationally significant infrastructure projects, as well as on compulsory community pre-application. The judgment itself came less than a week ago and, as I said, we are considering our position and will respond.

My Lords, will my noble friend make good the commitment made by my right honourable friend Amber Rudd when she was Energy Secretary that there would be no fracking in or near, above or below, a national park?

My Lords, I was a Minister in the department at the time, so I well recollect that and believe that it is still the current policy. That is important, but what is also clearly important is that we have safe, secure supplies of clean energy at affordable prices in this country. Those are the three guiding principles: they were then and they are now.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my interest in the register as I am also a vice-president of the LGA. I know that the Government find it difficult to change their mind on things such as this, but the High Court ruling is clear that fracking is not a low-carbon energy source. Why do the Government persist in giving subsidies to that source while cutting all subsidies to solar power, which is truly clean?

My Lords, what is important to grasp is that this has a lower carbon footprint than coal or liquefied natural gas. It enables us to transition to renewables. I will just let noble Lords know that there is no use of this commercially at the moment, but it is something that should be investigated, bearing in mind the need for security, safety and caution.

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister mentioned the coalition, because, as the Government remind us, the energy world has moved on hugely since that time. The challenge now is the decarbonisation of heating and transport, so should we not forsake fracking at last, take the moral leadership on climate change back as a country and make sure that the world sees that climate change is an urgent problem and that this is part of the equation?

My Lords, broadening out the discussion, I welcome that. It is indeed the case that we need to address energy in relation to transport and the home. I believe that we have strong moral leadership on this, with our Climate Change Act and our records. That was true under the coalition and is true now.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the joy of fracking is that we can become self-sufficient in that type of energy, which means that we do not have to bring some 28% of our supplies by sea, as we do at the moment? Does he not agree that the risk there is that, unless we get more frigates, we will not be able to protect that supply in times of tension or war?

My Lords, as always the noble Lord makes a very powerful point about the Navy. He is absolutely right about domestic security, which also leads to security in relation to price, as it is much more likely to be consistent. We need diversity of supply, which is why we are looking to see if this can be delivered in a way that is environmentally sound and that transitions us to renewables, which of course is where ultimately we will need to be.

My Lords, given the reply the Minister has just given to the noble Baroness opposite and the contestability of mineral extraction in national parks, which has often been quite complex—for example, with the revival of defunct licences—can he reassure the House that, while he may believe that fracking will not be allowed in national parks, he will present to the House, in the Library, a determined statement of the actual situation?

My Lords, I am always grateful to the noble Baroness for bidding up my stock. I will certainly write a position paper on the current situation to the noble Baroness, copied to other noble Lords, and put a copy in the Library. I reassure noble Lords that the essence is to ensure that we have diversity, that it is environmentally sound and that there is a strong regulatory system. The noble Baroness will be aware that licences are needed for all of this, in addition to planning permission.

My Lords, given that the Government are committed to producing more energy at home, can they explain why they have removed the subsidies for micro hydropower? After all, the Industrial Revolution was driven by water power in the 18th century. In the last few years we have had one or two useful hydro schemes in Yorkshire, with small subsidies that have now been withdrawn. Could not harnessing the rivers across the north of England provide a useful additional source of natural power that would be much less damaging than fracking?

My Lords, I refer the noble Lord to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, about the changes in energy over time. Of course, we do not need to provide subsidies in many areas, and to do so where it is not needed would not make sense.