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Report (3rd Day)

Part of Infrastructure Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 10th November 2014.

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Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 5:30 pm, 10th November 2014

My Lords, I was a member of the Economic Affairs Committee, whose report, I am pleased to say, has received considerable praise today. When we started on our inquiry, I did not know what fracking was. I would have been hard pressed to distinguish it from another word beginning with “f” and ending with “ing”. However, in the months over which we heard evidence on the subject from every expert from every quarter, we had a clear impression of where the facts lay. The facts are reflected in a carefully balanced report, which says, quite clearly, that fracking must be allowed to go ahead for its enormous economic and social benefits but that we must have the right regulatory system in place. The report defines in some detail what that regulatory system should be.

That brings me to these innocent-looking amendments. If it is the mover’s intention merely to probe the Government’s intention, then I would go further and say that they are welcome amendments. In particular, the new clause proposed by Amendment 113G insists that the integrity of wells used should be independently assessed rather than it being possible for firms to use their own preferred consultants. I hope that the Minister heard the consensus around this House that that was a sensible recommendation and the disappointment that the Government have rejected it.

We need to set our arguments in a broader context. In the committee, we heard from the leading environmental groups, and I am afraid that the speech just given by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, confirms that they were not really interested in whether the wells were integral, how much methane should lapse out or whether there were any risks of earthquakes. Instead, they sought to raise every empty canard about fracking and treat it as if it were a genuine concern. Their aim was transparent—to surround fracking with regulations and planning constraints to ensure that in practice it never happened without having, in theory, to oppose it. For example, I asked a question of Mr Molho, the spokesman for the environmentalists. I said that,

“if there was no threat of global warming in this gas, would you still be against it, or would you say … that if the regulatory framework is right, it could be a goer?”.

He said:

“We would revise the position accordingly, yes”.

In other words, what the environmentalists want is to stop fracking, and the Trojan horse they use to hide their armies is more and more regulation, which is in danger of killing the whole thing.

That was the environmentalists and, unfortunately, they are not heavily represented in this House, so it is always a delight to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. Unfortunately, their philosophy has popped up within these amendments. Amendment 113G specifies a 12-month period for groundwater baseline monitoring. It pops up in Amendment 115A, which demands a monitoring programme, including on fugitive methane, to report within six months of the passing of the Act—not, as the committee did, a report only when extraction begins. The amendment sets up a whole new system designed to ensure that fracking is compatible with climate change aims.

Those features make me worry about the position of our Front Bench. It says that it is are not opposed to fracking. Indeed, I hope that the noble Baroness will say when she responds to this debate that she is in favour of fracking with the right regulation. However, in practice, it wants to make it more difficult than even your Lordships’ Economic Affairs Committee wanted. We are somehow left trying to ride two horses at once—no doubt, cheers from some environmentalists, although, in my experience, they are never satisfied by whatever concessions you make to them; not the extreme environmentalists. We are saying that we are in favour of fracking in principle but want to make it harder in practice. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, is not in the Chamber but his predecessor, Jimmy Maxton, said that if you could not ride two horses at once you should not be in the circus. In this particular case, the trick becomes a little demanding when the horses are galloping in opposite directions. Are we for fracking or against it, subject to the right regulation. At the end of reading these amendments, I was in great doubt.

The energy future of this country is a grave matter and may be one of the biggest issues in the years to come. On the one hand, there is global warming, and man’s contribution to it, and Britain’s contribution to man’s contribution. On the other hand—this should matter to the party of working people—there is energy security, industrial costs that feed into jobs, and the amount that people have to pay for their fuel. These complex considerations have to be balanced, as the Economic Affairs Committee balanced them. That balance will not be totally upset if these amendments are carried. It will not be the end of the world. It will just make it a tad more likely that the next generation will pay more for its fuel, a tad more likely that our industry will be less competitive relative to other nations, and a tad more likely—I put it no higher—that one hard winter the lights will go off in the homes of those who would have liked fracking to take place as well as in the homes of environmentalists.

As I say, if they are merely probing amendments, it is excellent that we have had this constructive debate about them and I look forward to the Minister’s reply. However, if our Front Bench was so unwise as to press them to a vote, I shall be in the Government’s Lobby.