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My Lords I understand the case that has been made by the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington. I started my consideration of the details of this with the hugely important joint report of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering back in June 2012. Indeed, I had substantial discussions with the chairman of the Committee that produced the report, Sir Robert Mair, whom I had known previously. Perhaps the most important statement in that report—and it had a great deal of detail backing it up—was that they had reviewed the scientific and engineering evidence on risks associated with UK shale gas development and concluded that those risks,
“can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation”.
That has been at the heart of my continuing support for the development of the shale gas industry in this country.
My second point—and no doubt my noble friend will be able to elaborate on this—is that the regulation system that we have in this country, in general under the authority of the Environment Agency, is quite different from that in the United States. I am in no doubt that some of the regulation there has been quite seriously defective. That has given rise to accidents that have been reported, and to the lack of support that one is aware of here and that the noble Baroness has referred to. Of course, you only have to read the media to realise that every accident that happens there is greatly magnified through the media—with a trumpet, as it were. If noble Lords studied the various blogs that come out on this every day, I am sure they would realise what an unbalanced argument it has become because of the way in which all these things are presented here in this country.
I have been critical in the past of both the industry and the Government for failing to realise the extent to which they need to fight the case for the development of a shale gas industry. To be fair to the industry, it has now started a considerable programme called “Let’s talk about shale”. Briefly, the leaflet I have been sent speaks of the very considerable activities that the industry is now taking—primarily in the areas of the Bowland shale deposits, because that is where the main arguments come from at the moment, but of course that can eventually be spread nationwide. That is a welcome development, if perhaps a bit belated, but at least it is now happening.
The one point where I agree with the noble Baroness is that the Government have to match that as well, and take these scare stories seriously and counteract them. Indeed, when I talked to the head of the trade association UK Onshore Oil and Gas, I said, “Learn the lesson of instant rebuttal”. We learnt that from a previous Government. If they wanted to scotch a rumour, it had to be the subject of an instant rebuttal. I see very little sign in the media that either the industry or the Government are yet engaging effectively in the instant rebuttal of scare stories.
Having said that, I will perhaps anticipate what my noble friend will say. We now have the most effective system of regulation in the world for our oil and gas resources. It is of a very high standard and admired across the world. There is absolutely no suggestion that the existing powers of the Environment Agency and other bodies involved in this need reinforcing by additional statutory provisions, as in these amendments.
I read the amendments and thought, “For goodness sake, all this is happening already”. The noble Baroness mentioned baseline monitoring. The Environment Agency has the powers—as have the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Natural Resources Wales—to require baseline monitoring of those environmental indicators it considers appropriate and for the lengths of time it deems suitable for each given site. We discussed this in Grand Committee. I was certainly there arguing that baseline monitoring is hugely important. If there is to be any question of contamination, you have to know what you are starting with. That is what it means and we do that in this country already. I have never heard it suggested that it is anything other than fully effective.
I am not sure that we need the additional provisions in the noble Baroness’s amendments. I have great faith in the ability of our existing monitors. They have these powers and the duties imposed on them. They do not need to be told in detail by Parliament what to do and how to do their jobs, so this is probably unnecessary. I understand the motives behind the amendments, but the issue should be dealt with effectively by proper information programmes to counter the mischievous rumours that one reads in the press every day. I shall be interested to hear my noble friend’s response from the Front Bench, but I do not think that these amendments actually add anything to what we have already.