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Fracking: Rother Valley

Volume 681: debated on Monday 28 September 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

It is a great honour to secure this debate and speak on a matter of such huge importance to the people of Rother Valley. Needless to say, I am resolutely and absolutely opposed to fracking in any form, as are my constituents. My professional background consists of working for the World Wildlife Fund and Shell on environmental issues among others, so I know only too well how harmful fracking can be to local communities. Many hon. Members representing constituencies up and down the country will share my views, and I welcome their support.

Before I go any further, I wish to thank a number of constituents and local groups for their constant enthusiasm and support in protecting Rother Valley from the disaster of fracking. Les and Wendy Barlow and Harthill Against Fracking have been absolute stalwarts in protecting our area, as have Richard Scholey and the Woodsetts Against Fracking group. Helen Wilks, a local farmer, has contributed much in the way of her experiences of fracking’s impact on her livelihood, on traffic and congestion, and on farmers’ mental health.

For those who do not know—I am sure that we all do in this House—fracking is the process of drilling down into the earth and injecting the rock with a high-pressure water, sand and chemical mix to release the gas inside. While it was hailed in the United States as the answer to its domestic energy supply shortage, the United Kingdom was late to the party. Thank goodness we were, for we have seen the harmful effects of fracking elsewhere and we are rightfully horrified. We have had the advantage of seeing the dangers from across the pond, and we need to avoid repeating the same mistakes by opposing this backward-looking technology.

Why is fracking so bad for Rother Valley and constituencies like it? The reasons are plentiful. There are, of course, the safety arguments pertaining to contamination of local aquifers by chemicals that escape in the drilling process. Who should monitor the sites? The Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive do not have the capacity to watch over every fracking site in the country, and few of us would trust the fracking companies to self-regulate and report any breaches. That is surely not acceptable to anyone.

The idea that such companies may poison the water sources of my communities is terrifying and not a risk that the Government are willing to take. Equally petrifying are the seismic activity concerns caused by fracking. Professor Peter Styles, a geophysics expert, presented a report in the other place on the difficulties in carrying out fracking beneath previously mined areas, and his findings were compelling. He pointed out that even small faults have the potential to cause small earthquakes that would trigger the seismic traffic light system threshold and therefore halt fracking.

In Rother Valley, Harthill and Woodsetts are on top of areas of historical coalmining. They are riddled with old mine workings and fault lines already severely weakened by coal extraction, right beneath where the companies intend to frack. I do not think I need to stress to hon. Members how dangerous fracking in this area would be, and how such risks simply cannot ever be taken. As if contaminated water sources and earthquakes were not enough, fracking negatively affects Rother Valley in other ways, too. Fracking is a colossal imposition on people’s lives, many of whom are elderly or vulnerable. For instance, one of the proposed fracking sites in Rother Valley is very close to a residential home, which is causing much distress to its residents due to the noise and pollution potential.

Fracking sites are hives of industrial activity and, as such, the traffic movement associated with fracking will peak at up to 60 HGV movements per day. This is unthinkable on narrow track lanes around Harthill and Woodsetts, which are frequented by dog walkers, ramblers, horse riders and cyclists. In some parts of the lanes they are approximately only 3 metres wide. These rural lanes simply will not be able to cope with the vastly increased traffic demand. Proposals include widening roads and cutting down hedgerows for these juggernauts to pass through, which will destroy local flora and fauna. It is clearly unacceptable that my constituents’ use of local roads would be usurped by large corporate fracking companies.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this really important debate to the House. Fracking itself holds no benefits for places of beauty such as North Yorkshire. I wholeheartedly agree with all that he says. Does he not also agree that the vast amount of traffic movement that is needed to build the networks across the constituency to transport water to and from the sites is a complete waste and really does tear up our environment?

I thank the hon. Member for that contribution. I completely agree with her about these traffic movements. It is the effect of fracking as a whole and all the issues around fracking that have a huge impact. In Rother Valley, for instance, the residents fear that the local authority would have to impose strict traffic controls on local people to minimise congestion and to mitigate risks to public safety. They are losing out once again.

It is expected that it is the responsibility of the operator to pay for the decommissioning of a fracking site at the end of its life cycle. However, in March 2019 the Public Accounts Committee highlighted substantial fears that the taxpayer will be left to foot the bill for clean-up costs if the operator goes out of business. That is clearly an objectionable state of affairs given the wealth of the fracking companies. Furthermore, my constituents have worked hard all their lives to buy their homes, only for fracking to decimate the price of houses in the vicinity. Even laying the value of the houses aside, it does have to be asked: who wants to live next to an industrial site? That is particularly true in the case of Woodsetts and Harthill, to which many residents have moved because they want to live in a rural, idyllic location.

There is no doubt that this fight against fracking has exacted a heavy toll on my constituents’ mental health. They are faced not only with the prospect of losing access to the country lanes around the proposed fracking sites, which are used for exercise to ensure healthy body and mind, but with continuous uncertainty. One of my constituents has described this as “the great sword of Ineos” hanging over their heads—and he is absolutely right. Although the Government have issued a moratorium on fracking, that has not stopped Ineos circling around the sites in Harthill and Woodsetts like a vulture, biding its time and waiting for the moratorium to be eased.

Exploratory drilling and acidisation are still not covered by the moratorium and we fear that fracking companies seek to exploit that. The ban needs to cover exploratory drilling and acidisation. We all know that Ineos is willing to outspend local community groups many hundreds of times over on legal fees and feasibility reports. This unjust situation is akin to David versus Goliath. The status quo is not acceptable. If we are headed towards a low carbon future, on which we all agree in this House, surely a permanent ban on fracking would send a clear and strong message to the world of the UK’s commitment.

Time is of the essence for the people of Harthill and Woodsetts: no longer can we wait nervously for the threat of fracking to pass. I speak directly to Ineos when I say, “You will never be allowed to frack in Rother Valley. Your best endeavours will come to nothing. Leave my constituents in peace to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Do not come back.”

I speak to Rotherham Council directly when I say, “This Government have been unequivocal in their opposition to fracking.” The then Communities Secretary declared in a statement in May 2019 that paragraph 209(a) of the national planning policy framework, which concerned the benefits of shale gas, had now been quashed and was therefore no longer relevant for planning purposes.

I say to Rotherham council: “Stop wasting taxpayers’ money and your time and resources conducting traffic management plans and surveys on proposed fracking areas. There is no prospect of fracking taking place in Rother Valley, so you must now move on and focus your efforts on providing vital services for residents.” Many of my constituents feel that the Labour-run council is not listening to what the Government are saying on key issues such as fracking in our areas, so I say to Rotherham council, “Keep fighting the frackers! Do not support them by granting permissions of any sort.”

From a national perspective, fracking has no future in the United Kingdom. Prices for fossil fuels such as oil have completely collapsed, the Prime Minister has announced a green energy revolution, and around the globe there is consensus that renewables are the way forward. Even the Communist People’s Republic of China has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. We have our own net zero target of 2050 to meet, and we are hosting COP26 in Glasgow next year. Why on earth would we give the go-ahead to a fossil fuel industry practice that contributes to climate change and has no longevity?

Fracking is the technology of the past and is a retrograde step. We must not waste any more time looking back; instead, we must look to the future. Last week was Climate Week, which presents us with an opportunity to look ahead. Hon. Members will know that I have campaigned stridently in this House for the UK’s green recovery and I am particularly enthused by hydrogen as the fuel of the future, which will power our cars, buses and homes. I am supporting the opening of a hydrogen electrolyser factory on the border of Rother Valley and urging the Government to adopt a bold hydrogen strategy. I am also pushing the Government to issue green bonds and to set up a green development bank, in a bid to make Britain the biggest green economy on earth.

I have always said that UK plc must steal a march on our competitors by exporting our green technology and knowledge to the rest of the world. By leading the green revolution, we shall create jobs, turbocharge business and rejuvenate our left-behind communities. We must act decisively or risk losing out. I envision this new industry being centred in Rother Valley. I want, for example, renewables plants in Dinnington and Maltby and specialist training colleges in Thurcroft and Aston. I want hydrogen factories in Orgreave and distribution networks in Hellaby.

The possibilities are endless, and my ambition for Rother Valley is limitless too. Our area has the industrial heritage, the expertise and the desire; we just need to be given a chance. We should not be focusing on yesterday’s technologies such as fracking. How poetic would it be if Rother Valley were to transform from a centre of dirty fossil fuels to a hub of green renewable energy? That is the future I want for my constituency and the people who live there, and I am sure this Government will provide it.

As I draw to a close, I thank the House for its support and praise my wonderful constituents in Rother Valley for their tireless activism on the issue of fracking. I trust we have made it clear today that fracking has no future in Rother Valley or in the United Kingdom, and I look forward to leading the charge as Britain embarks on its green recovery and green economic revolution.

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute briefly to this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), whose constituency neighbours the one I have the privilege to represent, on securing this debate and on the strong words that he has used tonight. He is a doughty campaigner for his constituents, and I am grateful to see another hon. Member on these Benches join me and many other hon. Members from the previous Parliament who opposed fracking and recognised that it was not the direction that the country should go in. I welcome him and thank him again for his contribution.

I would also like to say thank you formally to the Minister, who, since he came into his position last year, has listened very carefully to those of us who have concerns. I am immensely grateful for all the time he has given us, in both the last Parliament and this, to highlight those concerns and the impact they have on our constituencies. Most important, I thank him for the immensely brilliant decision that he took at the end of the last Parliament to institute the moratorium, which has made such a difference to my constituency and those who have been impacted, or faced the threat of being, impacted, by fracking.

Fracking was one of the big issues for me and my constituency in the last Parliament. We were one third of the unfortunate troika that my hon. Friend referred to, with our site in Marsh Lane, a beautiful village in the parish of Eckington. An exploratory drilling site was proposed in the middle of green-belt land, which had been untouched for several centuries, as far as we could tell. That was almost universally opposed by local residents, and I, along with many campaign groups, fought against it for three years. It was the Government’s willingness to listen during that process and take feedback from communities such as mine that led to the moratorium last October. I am immensely grateful for that. It has made a transformational difference to my constituency, and we thank the Minister for it.

I will end my short contribution by saying that the strength of feeling in Marsh Lane, Eckington parish and North East Derbyshire about fracking and the need to retain this moratorium remains as it was in October. I ask the Minister, if he can, to reconfirm the Government’s intentions in this regard, and to confirm that fracking will not go ahead in north Derbyshire.

It is always a pleasure to conduct these debates with you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am pleased to see you in your rightful place.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) for securing this debate on an issue that I know is of great interest to not only his constituents but the wider public. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), who has shown real leadership and passion in his campaign against fracking. He has had an impact in the short time he has been here, in terms of changing people’s minds and changing, to some degree, how the Government approach this issue.

I have to stress that the Government have always taken a precautionary and evidence-based approach to this issue. We will only support domestic shale gas production if it can be done safely and sustainably. I want to address that point because events last year led us ineluctably to the point where we had to have a moratorium, but I will address that later in my speech.

As I said, the Government have taken a science-led approach to exploring the potential of shale gas. We had an open mind, but we were absolutely focused on environmental and safety regulations. In principle, we have supported the idea of fracking in the past, but it was clear, as I will demonstrate briefly, that this was not a path we wanted to pursue.

In 2011, the Government introduced a traffic light system so that regulators could take action to mitigate the risk of seismic events. Four years later—I remember being a Back Bencher at the time—we passed the Infrastructure Act 2015, which required shale gas developers to obtain hydraulic fracturing consent from the Secretary of State. All the necessary planning, environmental and health and safety permits would have to be obtained before fracking could proceed. We have been clear from the start that fracking could only go ahead if it was safe and sustainable for the environment and, crucially, as demonstrated by my hon. Friends, for local people—their constituents had to have a measure of consent. There also had to be minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby.

Last year, as my hon. Friends will remember, a number of events occurred in the summer that led us to the conclusion that we reached. In August last year, we had a seismic event with a magnitude of 2.9 on the Richter scale, which was a game changer in the story of fracking in this country. Cuadrilla, at its site in Preston New Road in Lancashire, reached that 2.9 Richter scale seismic event through fracking. I remember it vividly, as I was in France at the time—this was in the days when we could travel freely—and I had been in my post as Energy Minister for precisely three weeks. I kept a record of the daily calls I had with officials here in London and with people on the ground. We measured the seismic activity every day, and I got read-outs of the activity in the relevant area.

My hon. Friends will remember that the threshold at that time was 0.5 on the Richter scale, and that anything over that would require a necessary cessation in the fracking. So you can imagine my surprise, Mr Deputy Speaker, when one morning I was told that the Richter scale had hit 2.9. It was immediately apparent at that point that there would be no further fracking, as far as I was concerned. Obviously we had to look at the event, and we had to understand and appreciate the wider context. As I have said, we looked at the science, and in the light of the scientific evidence that emerged, we announced a moratorium in November 2019, before the general election. It was my duty to inform the relevant business people and investors that we would impose that moratorium.

As a consequence of the moratorium, the Government have made it clear that we will take a presumption against issuing any further hydraulic fracturing consents in this country. This sends a clear message not only to the sector but to the local communities concerned that on current evidence—I stress that it is on current evidence—fracking will not be taken forward in England. Nor is it likely that it ever will be taken up again unless there is compelling new evidence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley implied, the world has rather moved on from fracking. He has eloquently championed the green revolution, hydrogen and a number of the new technologies that we think will get us to net zero. He described hydraulic fracturing as a technology of the past, and it is not something that we envisage in our future or in our progress towards net zero.

On that basis, the Government have no plans whatsoever to review the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. We will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely and without inconvenience. As I have said, this is extremely unlikely to happen, as far as I am concerned. In fact, there has been no fracking since August 2019 and no applications for hydraulic fracturing consents have been made. There will be no fracking for the foreseeable future in the Rother Valley or anywhere else in this country.

I would like to conclude by praising both my hon. Friends. They have not been in the House very long, but they have clearly made their voices and, more importantly, the voices of their constituents heard in this place, and they have been listened to. The objectives for which they have campaigned passionately over a number of years—certainly in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire—have been attained. They have been successful and I just enjoin them graciously to accept victory in this particular debate. I commend them both for the level of passion and enthusiasm with which they have engaged with green issues, including the green economy, the green revolution and what my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley called the “hub of green renewable energy”. I look forward to taking part in debates with them on the green revolution and seeing how best we can ensure that we reach a net zero future for ourselves and for future generations.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.