My Lords, I want to put on record our appreciation of the work of the Economic Affairs Committee for this report. I thank in particular my noble friend Lord MacGregor and all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate today, as well as to the report, for the opportunity to discuss this really important issue.
We welcome the committee’s conclusion that realising our shale potential in a safe and sustainable way could enhance energy security and provide jobs and opportunities for economic growth. The Government have not been, and are not, complacent about responding quickly and being able to ensure that realising the potential for shale oil and gas is not hindered by unnecessary regulations. I hope that during the passage of my contribution, noble Lords will feel reassured that the Government are taking active steps to ensure that the environment in which this is happening is streamlined as quickly as possible. We are working very closely with other departments.
Home-grown gas, just like home-grown renewables and new nuclear, will of course assist our energy security, be compatible with our climate goals and provide jobs and tax revenue for our society. The Institute of Directors estimated that UK investment in shale gas could, at peak, reach £3.7 billion a year and, as my noble friend Lord MacGregor rightly points out, support 74,000 or 75,000 jobs in the oil, gas, construction, engineering and chemicals sectors, mostly highly skilled and highly paid. The Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Public Health England have concluded that the risks in shale development are manageable if industry follows best practice, enforced by regulation.
I hope that my comments will illustrate to noble Lords, as my noble friend Lord Ridley pointed out, that we are supporting every opportunity and taking every action to ensure that opportunities to explore shale gas and oil are there for companies to take advantage of. The Government are putting legislation through this House to ensure that drilling for shale oil and gas can go ahead without undue delay or cost and with the right environmental protections in place. The right to underground access, which is part of the Infrastructure Bill, will simplify the procedure for onshore gas and oil and deep geothermal developers to get underground drilling access. These new rules will help us unlock exploration for shale gas and deep geothermal, as we move towards a low-carbon economy.
This does not take away from our strong regulatory system, which provides a comprehensive and fit-for-purpose regime for exploratory activities. As has already been said, the UK has more than 50 years’ experience of regulating the onshore oil and gas industry to draw on. This is supported by an authoritative review of the scientific and engineering evidence on shale gas extraction conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society in 2012. This concluded:
“The health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing … as a means to extract shale gas can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation”.
My department’s Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil will work closely with regulators, such as the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, and industry to ensure that regulation is robust enough to safeguard public safety and protect the environment, imposes no unnecessary burdens on operators and is as simple and easy to understand as possible. On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, about the resourcing of the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, they have both said that they have at this time enough resources to meet current demands. Of course, if the demand gets bigger, we will review the situation.
We have already put in place appropriate measures to address seismic issues. As rightly pointed out by my noble friend Lord Lawson, seismic risks measured previously have been very small. I want to assure all noble Lords that it is very much the will of this Government to ensure that we have a regulatory road map so that operators and citizens can see the overall process and how it applies to the different nations in the UK. It confirms the roles and responsibilities of all the different regulators. We have also looked for opportunities to simplify regulations and speed up processes, while continuing to maintain a robust system. For example, we are reducing permitting times for low-risk activity from 13 weeks to around four weeks. Already, all onshore oil and gas projects, including shale gas, are subject to scrutiny through the planning system, which addresses impacts on local residents such as traffic movements, noise, working hours and so on.
Planning guidance has been produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government, making clear the planning and appeals processes for operators. It also encourages the planning authorities to engage with the regulator at an earlier stage, identify any issues and ensure that they are all involved at that earlier stage, rather than later, as has been the case in the past. The guidance also makes clear that operators can make all relevant required permit and planning applications in parallel.
In November 2012, the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency published a “working together” agreement for shale gas sites, which specifies when and at what stages they will conduct joint inspections.
It confirms that they together must be satisfied that wells are designed, constructed and operated to standards that protect safety and the environment. The Health and Safety Executive is also committed to visiting jointly with the Environment Agency all shale gas sites during the current exploratory phase of shale gas development.
The Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil based in my department co-ordinates across Whitehall. We have a very close working relationship with all departments to ensure that the policy is well informed, coherent across government, alert to the risks and challenges and delivered in the right order at the right time. That is why we have not sought to set up a sub-Cabinet committee on this. It is being led at the front by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. They are fully supportive of it. We think that the work we are doing across government satisfies all the concerns and issues raised as we are making progress.
Planning permission underscores the need to engage the public. Noble Lords have rightly pointed out that by properly engaging we will gain support and take communities with us. That is why the Government believe that a social licence is key to operate, so we are ensuring that there is access to evidence-based information that can address any questions the public may have. We have a range of materials on the gov.uk website which help to explain the processes involved in shale gas operations to the public. We agree with my noble friend Lord Shipley that proper public engagement is crucial.
All noble Lords have identified that the benefits that can be brought to communities are potentially huge. The communities that would benefit most are those where this potential has already been identified. We want to work actively with local communities. At their request, staff from my department regularly take part in events held by local councils and residents. We engage, address concerns that are raised and explain policy and regulation, and we bring along regulators and expert scientists so that we have proper public engagement. Events range from national events to local authority exhibitions and parish level. We engage at that level as well because we want to work with local communities and local authorities to ensure that concerns raised by some groups are addressed and the public are well informed about what will happen in their localities if exploration takes place there.