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My Lords, the Government understand that there will be a range of public opinions and that communities need to be properly engaged and informed on the implications of pursuing the exploration of unconventional gas resources. We welcome the industry’s commitment to early engagement. The Government have set up the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil and have made it a priority to help people understand the facts about shale gas. The UK has a strong regulatory system that provides a comprehensive and fit-for-purpose regime for exploratory activities.
I thank the Minister for her Answer. However, does she agree that the fears of the villagers of Balcombe are very understandable—not only the thought of a very significant environmental footprint, as we have had in the United States, but, more fundamentally, the fear of water pollution? I know that the latest study of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering says that fracking takes place hundreds of metres below the aquifer, but does she not agree that the science is still in a fairly early stage? Would it not be better to wait until next year’s report of the United States Environmental Protection Agency before authorising any more fracking projects?
My Lords, I take the noble and right reverend Lord’s points very seriously. However, the Health and Safety Executive scrutinises well design and monitors progress to ensure that the operator manages risk effectively throughout the life cycle of the well. The well design is also reviewed by independent examiners. The Health and Safety Executive assesses all well notifications before construction and monitors well operations based on weekly reports to well specialists.
Release of substances into ground water is regulated also by the Environment Agency. We have a very strong regulatory framework in this country and we should leave it to the regulators to ensure that all that needs to be done is done thoroughly.
Does the Minister agree that the greater environmental threat at the moment from energy is the resurgence of coal being used for electricity generation? Coal has now overtaken gas and accounts for 40% of total generating capacity, with most of it coming from Russia. Will the Minister confirm that it is the Government’s intention that unabated coal generation should cease within the near term?
My Lords, my noble friend makes some very important points. He will be aware that the Government are doing exactly that through the measures that we have in our EMR package to make generation from low-carbon resources more attractive than generation from coal. All existing coal plants will be required to meet the requirements of the industrial emissions directive, which aims to reduce emissions of harmful oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, and in particular we will make sure that we work towards coming off coal in the long run.
My Lords, the RSPB yesterday highlighted the fact that updated planning guidance now recommends that decisions relating to wind farms must take into account protecting local amenity but does not require the same for fracking. Will the Minister explain the reason for this discrepancy? Also, given that the lobbying firm of the Prime Minister’s adviser, Lynton Crosby, has links to the fracking company, is this the latest example of putting the interests of big business ahead of the concerns of the general public?
My Lords, the noble Baroness will be fully aware that community engagement is the prime source from where we will get opinions for and against fracking and wind farms. On both issues the Government are working very hard and very closely with operators, developers and communities.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that it could be a mistake to discuss fracking in terms of the whole of the United Kingdom in one go? Obviously, in beautiful rural areas there are worries not just about drilling and fracking—which I think are exaggerated—but about trucks, deliveries, roads and disturbance, which are quite justified. However, there are large, uninhabited and desolate areas, certainly in parts of the north-east, where there is plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody’s residence, and where it could be conducted without any threat to the rural environment. Does the Minister agree that a distinction should be made between one area and another rather than lumping them together, and that if we can push ahead with this kind of gas production, it will take us fast away from coal burning, which is increasing at the moment because of the delays in authorising gas production that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, talked about a moment ago?
My Lords, my noble friend raised a number of very important points. As noble Lords are aware, we are in the early stages of exploration at the moment. There will be areas of the landscape that will not be suitable for fracking, as my noble friend rightly pointed out. However, we are in the early stages, and as the Government are determined to ensure that we are dependent not on coal but on gas and low-carbon energy sources, my noble friend made some very important points.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a resident of Lancashire who is aware of the enormous beauty of the Trough of Bowland. Will the Minister join me in condemning the alleged remarks of protesters in the south of England that all the fracking could be done in the north? Will she join me in insisting that the beauty of Lancashire is as important as—not more important than—the beauty surrounding, for example, Guildford?
My Lords, again I accept the noble Baroness makes some very important points. I am sure that my noble friend did not say that Lancashire was not as beautiful. All parts of this great country are beautiful.
My Lords, a large area in County Fermanagh has been identified as suitable for fracking. Of course, its successful development would mean a lot to the economy of Northern Ireland, and County Fermanagh in particular. Can the noble Baroness confirm that the recent tax incentives for those carrying out fracking will apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as to England?
My Lords, I believe that these are devolved matters but, in case I am wrong, I will write to the noble Lord and make available the information in the Library.
My Lords, when I get up every morning and look out the window I look across the valley at the beauty of Pendle Hill and reflect that Pendle Hill consists largely of Bowland shale. So not all Bowland shale is in remote, desolate and uninhabited places—in fact most of it is not. Does the Minister agree that what we really need is a properly organised commercial exploitation of shale gas in one place to see exactly how it works under the regulatory system that we have in this country? That might set everybody’s mind at rest, or it might not.
My Lords, I think that I made it clear in my opening remarks that we have an effective planning system that will ensure that we properly explore the feasibility of shale gas and other unconventional gas and oil in this country. DCLG has the lead on this but I will take the noble Lord’s views to the department.