Lots of constituents contacted me about yesterday's votes in the House of Commons on shale gas and fracking.
Shale gas is a potentially new energy source, which could:
• reduce our dependence on imported energy;
• create thousands of jobs;
• bring in billions of pounds of tax revenues to fund our public services;
• reduce carbon emissions by providing a cleaner alternative to coal; and
• help to reduce energy bills.
On the other hand, many people are concerned about the safety of this new technology and particularly the idea of companies operating beneath their property. The Government’s approach is to try to strike the right balance, ensuring that the UK gets the benefits of shale gas whilst addressing people’s legitimate concerns. Fracking should only proceed where it is proven to be safe.
The Infrastructure Bill, which Parliament is currently considering, does not in any way weaken the protections in place. Local councils can only grant planning permission if they are satisfied that shale will not have unacceptable adverse impacts on the environment and operators have to apply to the Environment Agency for permits.
Yesterday the Government yesterday accepted an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill that places even stricter conditions on when and where fracking can take place. There can be no fracking:
(a) in land within the boundary of a groundwater source protection zone;
(b) in land within protected areas like National Parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty;
(c) unless an environmental impact assessment has been carried out;
(d) unless an independent inspection is carried out of the integrity of the well;
(e) unless monitoring has been undertaken on the site over the previous 12 months;
(f) unless site-by-site measurement and public disclosure of emissions is carried out;
(g) unless the local council has considered the cumulative impact of fracking activities in the local area;
(h) unless the operator makes a financial contribution to the local community. Operators have committed to pay at least £100,000 per exploratory well and 1% of revenue if the well goes into production; and £20,000 for each unique lateral well that extends by more than 200 metres;
(i) unless residents in the affected area are notified on an individual basis;
(j) unless the substances used have been approved by the Environment Agency;
(j) unless land is restored to a condition required by the local council; and
(l) unless water companies are consulted by the local council.
The element of the Bill that has attracted the most comment is giving companies the right to operate under people’s properties. I can understand people worrying about this, but of course many other industries already access underground land to lay cables and build infrastructure such as water pipes and tunnels. These are much closer to the surface than the limit which this Bill is proposing, which is a right to use land 300 metres or more below the surface. To put this in context, that’s three times the depth of the Channel Tunnel. There should be no impact whatsoever on landowners’ enjoyment of their land. Nevertheless to allay concerns, the Government announced yesterday that it would review the issue of depth limits.
My apologies for such a detailed post, but I wanted to reassure readers of this blog that the Government is trying to strike the right balance between ensuring that the UK benefits from the opportunities shale gas provides while protecting our homes and our groundwater.