Dec 2015

Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking)

Caroline writes; “I understand the concerns and have raised them personally, directly with the Minister, and assurances have been given – see below.  I will be watching this closely going forward, particularly in my role on the Environmental Audit Committee who meet regularly to monitor this.

There is clearly a place for shale in the energy market, not least for energy security in the future. Alongside this we need to continue to develop capacity in renewables, such as off shore wind and solar as we move to a lower carbon economy.

This is the response I have received from the Minister;

I’m afraid there has been a lot of misinformation and scare stories promoted by certain campaign groups which are misleading and unhelpful to you and your constituents.

Let me be clear that our regulatory regime provides clear and strong protections for the public and the environment. The UK has over 50 years’ experience of safely regulating oil and gas exploration — we have world-class, independent regulators who will not allow operations that are dangerous to local communities and the environment to go ahead. Safety is — and always will be — absolutely paramount.

The Infrastructure Act 2015 sets out additional protections for hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and clearly specifies that fracking cannot take place in protected areas. The Act required the Government to bring forward legislation describing these areas, and in July we laid the Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations 2015 before the House.

The regulations, which the House voted on in the division lobby yesterday, clearly ensure that fracking cannot take place at depths above 1,200 metres within a ‘protected groundwater source area’. The ‘protected groundwater source area’ definition in the regulations is equivalent to the existing definition of ‘Source Protection Zones 1’, which applies to those areas close to drinking water sources where there is the greatest risk associated with groundwater contamination. The Environment Agency has already confirmed they are content with this definition as it reinforces their approach to controlling risks from other groundwater activities. Indeed, it is already the case that the agency does not permit drilling for oil or gas in ‘Source Protection Zones 1’. Furthermore, the vast majority of drinking water supplies are located at depths above 400 metres. This limit therefore provides at least 800 metres between the depth of most drinking water sources and the highest possible level at which hydraulic fracturing can take place.

I know you have been particularly concerned about the commitment to ban fracking in protected areas. I want to make clear that it is the Secretary of State’s intention to prevent drilling surface wells for the purpose of hydraulic fracturing via the licencing regime. Of course, since the subsurface part of a well could extend a great distance, it would not be feasible or necessary to divert around protected areas at such great depths.

On the issue of planning, local communities must and will remain fully involved in planning decisions. I would like to stress that even with these regulations in place, a company looking to develop shale will always need to obtain all the necessary permissions, including planning and environmental permits, before hydraulic fracturing can be carried out.

Today, the Government will be announcing the result of the 14th Licencing Round for Petroleum Exploration and Development Licenses (PEDLs). PEDLs do not give permission for specific operations, such as drilling. Rather, they grant exclusivity to licensees, in relation to hydrocarbon exploration and extraction (including for shale gas but also for other forms), within a defined area. Any licensee looking to explore for hydrocarbons would have to apply for planning permission and various permits in advance of any drilling.

The Government has an obligation to explore the potential of shale gas, whilst maintaining the highest standards of safety and environmental protection. A successful shale industry could help create jobs and grow local economies. Investment in shale could reach E33 billion and support as many as 64,000 jobs in the oil, gas, construction, engineering and chemical sectors. The opportunity to extract this energy, as well as to secure jobs and investment, cannot be ignored.

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this matter with you and hope that this information brings assurances that the Government is committed to exploring the potential of the shale industry safely. I regret that the situation has in the past been unclear to some of your constituents, and I hope you can take the necessary steps to alleviate their concerns.”

I accept much of this, particularly given that the Environment Agency are content with the groundwater issue, and that local authorities will have full involvement should applications come forward.  I have never been opposed to ‘fracking’ in principle, as the benefits are enormous, as well as being vital to the energy security the UK needs.

As ever I am interested in your views, and you can contact me at caroline.ansell.mp@parliament.uk