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Fracking (Seismic Activity)

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2019

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require fracking operators to monitor seismic activity caused by fracking and take steps if such activity exceeds certain levels; and for connected purposes.

It is great to have the opportunity to talk about this issue today. Fracking is a controversial and difficult subject on which people take different views. Often, when fracking is discussed and debated, it is mainly talked about from an environmental perspective. That is an incredibly important part of the discussion, but it is not one that I am going to focus on today.

The part of the fracking debate that, frankly, has been missed in this place and elsewhere relates to its practicality and the practical implications for local communities who are affected by it, or by the exploratory drilling that precedes it, or who could be affected as a result of the drilling licence that is applied. For those communities, a shadow across the landscape is created by the implications for their local area—for the roads and the loss of agricultural fields—and the industrial impact in otherwise heavily rural areas. I wish to introduce the Bill today because of the continuing attempts by the industry, perfectly legitimately, to try to tweak and change some of the regulations that govern fracking and which this place needs to consider much more carefully and closely than it has hitherto.

The question on fracking is where to start, and the best place I can see is with what we as a country are trying to do with fracking. That is not actually that clear. I have put multiple written questions to various Departments over the past few months and have not been able to get a clear objective from the Government. The best that I have been able to get is a written ministerial statement from May last year, when the Government were clear that in their view, fracking offers “potentially substantial benefits” to the United Kingdom, that

“gas has a key part to play”

in our future energy mix and that they believe that

“it is right to utilise our domestic gas resources to the maximum extent”.—[Official Report, 17 May 2018; Vol. 641, c. 16WS.]

If we accept that principle, the logical extension of the argument that the Government are very pro-fracking and wish to push it is one of scale and the impact on the local communities who are affected by that scale.

On scale, the challenge with fracking is that to have any material impact when it comes to replacing the amount of gas that we import from outside the United Kingdom with domestic production, a substantial amount of gas would have to be produced from the various fracking wells that would need to be created. Cardiff Business School did a study on that a number of months ago. People from Cardiff Business School and the industry came to the all-party group on the impact of shale gas a few months ago and debated it. There was genuine consensus that if fracking is to be done at scale in our country, thousands of wells will be needed if there is to be any impact on replacing exports with domestic supply.

The Cardiff Business School report estimated that the number of wells required in the United Kingdom could be anything from 6,000 to in excess of 30,000 wells. All those wells are clustered in relatively small parts of the country—that is, where the petroleum licences are—and those include my part of the world as well as Yorkshire, Lancashire, little parts of Somerset, and Sussex. The logical extension of talking about 6,000 to 30,000-odd wells—on the basis that a well pad contains a number of them—is the involvement of thousands of locations in a relatively small space of time, if fracking is to have any impact on the replacement of gas imports with internal production. In each area, the impact on the local community will be tremendous.

In my community of Marsh Lane, permission for fracking exploration has been granted against its will. It is in the middle of green-belt land in the Derbyshire countryside that has remained substantially unchanged since the enclosure Acts of 1795. As a result of this application’s having been approved, we are faced with a proposal to place a light industrial estate in the middle of an agricultural field that has been used only for agricultural purposes, as far as we can tell, for more than 200 years, with over 10,000 vehicle movements in the exploratory phase alone; a substantial number of bulks, some over 10 metres high, for the entire period it is there; and a 60-metre-high drill rig during the six months it is being set up—all in the middle of green-belt countryside. That is the impact in just one location. Multiply that by over 1,000 locations and the challenge becomes that we risk substantially industrialising the countryside and other parts of this country where petroleum licences have been issued.

On top of the scale and impact problem comes another problem. There is a desire, because fracking has not been successful in the eight years it has been tested, to tweak the rules to make it more palatable in this country. First, the national planning policy framework was changed several months ago in effect to prioritise fracking and other forms of onshore oil and gas production over other elements, which gave great weight to allowing such energy exploration and production irrespective of where it was—whether in green belt, countryside or other locations that otherwise would be completely ignored and considered inappropriate for such development.

Secondly, an attempt was made last year to loosen the planning policy rules around fracking. It was proposed that fracking exploration—that light industrial estate plonked in the green belt in places such as my constituency —be permitted through the same planning policy processes as those for a kitchen extension and that the actual production, which could last up to 25 years, if not longer, be taken out of the hands of local people and put into the nationally significant infrastructure programme, both of which would be entirely inappropriate and take away control from local people over what happens in their local areas.

Then, in the last few months, after the failure of the first attempts to frack in this country for over half a decade—in Preston—the industry came back and said it wanted to change the rules around earthquakes. During that short two-month period in Lancashire when fracking was attempted before Christmas, more than 50 earthquakes were created near Blackpool—admittedly small ones, but earthquakes none the less—despite the fact that they got no further than about 10% of the way through the industrial process of fracking. If we multiply that impact by the thousand or so sites in the country, we see the scale of the problem.

My Bill proposes to limit the ability of fracking to create earthquakes to its current regulatory acceptable limit of 0.5 on the Richter scale. The industry has clearly indicated that it wants the limits raised, but that would be entirely inappropriate. We should limit fracking activity in line with the existing regulations. The industry signed up to those several years ago, and any change to them would bring great anxiety, distress and worry to communities such as mine.

In conclusion, fracking is controversial because it has not worked, because it is not working and because, in my view, it will not work from a practical and a community-based perspective. For that reason, I seek to limit in legislation the ability of seismic activity to take place over and above what the regulations already state.

Question put and agreed to.


That Lee Rowley, Zac Goldsmith, Mr William Wragg, Damien Moore, Mr Simon Clarke, Eddie Hughes, Ben Bradley, Maria Caulfield, Sir Graham Brady, Andrew Lewer and Sir Kevin Barron present the Bill.

Lee Rowley accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March, and to be printed (Bill 359).