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Shale Gas Production

Volume 820: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend Greg Hands MP to an Urgent Question in another place:

“In response to Putin’s barbaric acts in Ukraine and against the Ukrainian people, we need to keep all our energy options open. We have always been clear that the development of shale gas in the UK must be safe and cause minimal disruption and damage to those living and working in nearby sites. This is not a new position. Shale gas and new approaches could be part of our future energy mix, but we need to be led by the science and have the support of local communities. That was in our general manifesto, on which my honourable friend and I stood at the last election.

The pause on fracking implemented in November 2019 on the basis of the difficulty in predicting and managing seismic activity caused by fracking remains in place, and we will continue to be led by the science in our approach. We are clear that shale gas is not the solution to near-term issues. It would take years of exploration and development before commercial quantities of shale gas could be produced. Additionally, fracking relies on a continued series of new wells, each of which produces gas for a relatively short time. Even if the pause were lifted, there are unlikely to be sufficient quantities of gas available to address the high prices affecting all of western Europe and it would certainly have no effect on prices in the near term.

As the Business Secretary has said, we will continue to back our vital North Sea oil and gas sector to maximise domestic production while transitioning to cheaper, cleaner, homegrown power at the same time. We will shortly set out an energy supply strategy that will supercharge our renewable energy and nuclear capacity, as well as supporting our North Sea oil and gas industry.”

My Lords, the Government’s consideration of fracking is a potentially dangerous and risky policy that neither addresses the real concerns about future affordable energy supplies nor contributes to achieving our net-zero targets. Surely, a better way to proceed would be to reintroduce government support for onshore wind as a cheap and generally reliable fuel source—it was abandoned by the then Conservative Government in 2015. Will the Government now reconsider this damaging decision by reinstating their support for major onshore wind farm developments?

As the noble Lord is aware, there was a further contracts for difference round held in December and onshore wind was able to bid into it. We will be announcing decisions on that shortly.

My Lords, in 2014 Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the then NATO Secretary-General and former Prime Minister of Denmark, told a Chatham House meeting in London that Putin’s Government were behind attempts to discredit fracking across Europe. He said that Russia had

“engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organisations - environmental organisations working against shale gas - to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas.”

In 2017, the US media and Congress picked this up too. The propaganda and scare tactics also became prevalent in the UK. If energy security was not a concern before, it certainly should be now. Does my noble friend agree with me that it is vital that we need to become energy self-sufficient sooner rather than later, and that we should no longer rule out shale gas extraction in the United Kingdom?

I thank my noble friend for her remarks. I suspect that she is probably right that there was an unholy alliance between Putin and some of the more extreme end of our environmental movement. Of course, both had the same objective in mind: to rule out shale gas production. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that there were some serious problems caused by the attempted fracking in Lancashire. I take the point which my noble friend is making. We are not ruling it out. If the scientific objectives can be overcome, and the tremors which were caused can be solved, it is potentially an option for the future.

Is the Minister aware of the remarks made this afternoon upstairs by the former Kenyan Prime Minister and current presidential candidate, Raila Odinga, about the impact of climate change on his country, including increased droughts and flooding and deteriorating food security? Does the Minister share my concern that those advocating fracking do not seem to recognise that it would provide no solution to the current energy crisis, would lock us into dependency on fossil fuels and takes no account of the climate emergency? In this situation, is it not the number one priority to reduce the amount of energy which we are wasting?

I have not seen the remarks to which the noble Lord is referring. Of course, we still have our commitments to net zero, which is now a legally binding commitment, but the reality of this situation, which we have debated many times before, is that there is a need for fossil fuels during the transition—unless we are proposing to disconnect everyone’s gas boiler and stop them driving their cars tomorrow, which I do not think is anyone’s sensible position. We need fossil fuels during the transition. It is unarguable that it makes much more sense to try to get those fossil fuels from our own production, rather than relying on Putin or other unstable parts of the world. Having said that, we also need to progress our nuclear generation capacity and invest in renewables, which we are doing. We are talking about quadrupling our renewables capacity from offshore wind alone, from something like 4 gigawatts up to 10 gigawatts. We need to be doing all those things; we need a diversity of supply.

My Lords, I welcome elements of this Statement from the Government on fracking, particularly the reference to the support of local communities. This implicitly acknowledges the huge amount of work and passion that was put in by anti-fracking campaigners from Balcombe to Preston New Road, and many other places. However, the last two sentences of this Statement essentially repeat a desire to maximise North Sea oil and gas production. Last year, the Government, as the chair of the COP 26 climate talks, commissioned the International Energy Agency to produce a report which advised that no new fossil fuel exploration or development should take place from this year, if the world is to stay below 1.5 degrees centigrade. Does the Minister agree that this Statement does not line up with maximising North Sea oil and gas?

I am slightly nervous now if the noble Baroness is welcoming a Statement which we have made. We might have made a mistake in our energy policy—sorry, I am being facetious.

The difficulty with the Green Party’s position is that they say that everything should be done with renewables, but that does not give us solutions to the problems in the near term. This is a gradual transition. We already have some of the largest quantities of offshore wind and renewables in the world. I accept that the position of the noble Baroness is that we should go even further and faster, but we are progressing as fast as we possibly can. We have huge investments going into renewables. However, we need fossil fuels in the short term—unless the Greens are also proposing that we should stop driving our petrol and diesel fuel vehicles and disconnect our gas boilers. This is a gradual transition; there is a need for fossil fuels during the transition, and the independent Committee on Climate Change has accepted that. Even the noble Baroness might think that it was probably more sensible to gain those fuels during the transition from our own domestic production, rather than from Putin.

My Lords, I also welcome the Minister’s Statement. It is good to hear what the Minister said in general. Historically, I have not been that opposed to fracking done under absolutely the right conditions. However, he is absolutely right that the development period would now be far too long. History has moved on, and gas has to be cut down rather than supplied locally. For renewables developments such as offshore wind, which the Minister mentioned, the gestation period for those sort of investments is still something like 10 to 12 years from when the Crown Estates goes out and makes an offer. Does the Minister have any views about how that period can be cut down, without in any way compromising on the environmental investigation aspect? It seems to me that we should be able to do that sort of stuff quicker.

The noble Lord makes a good point; I think he has put his finger on the nub of the problem. Whenever there is a crisis in politics—and there is definitely a crisis at the moment—there is always a search for quick and easy solutions. Unfortunately, on energy infrastructure, there are no quick and easy solutions: these things take years, if not decades, to put into operation. We are progressing nuclear power, as indeed we should, but nothing is going to happen for a number of years—possibly not until the start of the next decade. We already have in motion the expansion that I mentioned earlier of offshore wind. We have the targets in place for 2030 and those developments are already proceeding.

The same problem occurs with the search for new licensing fields in the North Sea, if we push ahead with it: it will be a number of years before new fields can be developed. Even if we did progress shale, it would be a number of years—possibly a decade—before we would get meaningful quantities of gas out of the ground, even if we overcame all the environmental objections. I am afraid that there are no easy silver bullets to this problem. It is probably a silver buckshot: there are lots of different smaller-scale solutions that we will need to develop over a number of years.

Will the Minister expand on the investment of microgeneration at local level? At Bishop Auckland, one of the local estates is having a massive transformation through solar being installed on all the rooms on that estate. Could not more money be put into that? Let us forget fracking, to be honest, because it is not going to deliver us anything at any time.

Yes, is the short answer to the right reverend Prelate’s question. We are supporting microgeneration with feed-in tariffs et cetera, but we need to be cognisant of the scale of the problem. Microgeneration—solar panels, small wind turbines, small-scale running-water power, et cetera—will make a contribution, but it is unlikely to solve the problem in the meantime. We are talking about a few megawatts as opposed to the gigawatts we need in total. It would, however, make a contribution, and it is already making a contribution. Government policy is to support small-scale microgeneration, but it is unlikely to be a long-term solution to our problem.