My Lords, I, too, begin by congratulating the committee on this excellent report. As has already been pointed out, it is the last in a long line of distinguished reports produced under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord MacGregor. I am honoured to have been a member of the committee for part of the time that he was chairman, so I can, with great sincerity, pay my tribute to the skills that he deployed in that role, to which others have referred.
My noble friend Lord Lawson referred to his background in the energy industry. I have a background which goes back further even than his, although it is of a less distinguished nature. Back in the 1960s, I was energy editor of the Financial Times. In that capacity, I covered the discovery and development of North Sea oil—and how very exciting that was for a young journalist. It was exciting for me but it was also very exciting for the country. I remember clearly how something which at first seemed like a dream came true, and how what seemed as though it might be a peripheral contribution to the national economy turned into a major contribution. I remember how first the Wilson Government and then the Heath Government did everything possible to encourage the development of this great new resource. When I was energy editor of the FT, which was before my noble friend was Secretary of State, world oil reserves were reckoned to last for 20 years, not even 30 years. That gives some idea of the importance that the North Sea assumed in the national imagination.
As has been pointed out, we do not know whether shale gas or even shale oil reserves will have anything like the impact on the British and wider European economy that the North Sea has had. The one point that I really want to make in this short speech is that it is of major importance that we determine whether we have a real bonanza lying under our island or something less important. If it is something very important we cannot let the opportunity slip: it would not only be of great significance to the British and the wider European economy but would also contribute, as the discoveries in the United States have done, to depressing the oil price and reducing the dependence of this country and the economies in the rest of the EU—which play such an important role in our prosperity or otherwise—on those suppliers. To the extent that it would help other countries it would help us. To the extent that developments in this country could encourage developments in other countries, the benefit of shale gas would be increased.
As my noble friend Lord Shipley and others have pointed out, the environment must be effectively safeguarded and a stringent safety regime put in place. That applied in the North Sea. There were many people then who argued that it would be impossible. The predecessors of some of the organisations that gave evidence of a rather doleful and pessimistic nature to the Select Committee were saying exactly the same things back in the 1960s, but an effective safety regime was put in place. The North Sea environment has also been sufficiently safeguarded.
Due account must also be taken of the economic interests and the quality of life of those who live in the areas where production takes place. It has, however, been pointed out several times that we are not talking about the sort of massive disruption that coal mines constituted in the 19th century or the early 20th century; we are talking about inconvenience of a much more modest nature.