Moved by Baroness McIntosh of Pickering
280: After Clause 133, insert the following new Clause—“Research into impact of offshore windfarms(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide that before planning permission is granted, research must be undertaken by companies seeking to construct and operate offshore windfarms into the cumulative impact on—(a) the environment, (b) marine life, and(c) sea mammals,of the construction and operation phase of such windfarms.(2) Regulations under this section are subject to the affirmative procedure.”
My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to debate Amendment 280 standing in my name. I am delighted to have to the support of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I also wish to speak briefly on Amendment 285 in this group, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. I would like to think that my noble friend the Minister will take the opportunity to confirm that there is currently a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing both on land and at sea in England which, in that case, would be extremely welcome. It is good, however, to debate the issue in the context of Amendment 285. I am mindful of how any proposal for fracking, particularly on land, causes great consternation among local people, as we saw in North Yorkshire.
To return to Amendment 280, may I ask the Minister for what reason there is currently no requirement for an undertaking to perform any form of research before planning permission is sought or granted in connection with offshore wind farms? My noble friend will be aware of what witnesses who appeared before the EU Environment Sub-Committee—so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, until it wound up earlier this year—told us about the increasing urbanisation of the sea by the introduction, increasingly, of turbines, and the sea-change, if noble Lords will pardon the phrase, and the stepping-up of wind farms that we are currently seeing. One witness in particular referred to how this changes the ecology and the whole ecosystem, in particular by introducing fixed structures, cables, armoury, turbines and so on. What assessment has been made of the cumulative impacts, not just at the construction phase but more especially at the operational phase? I know that the Minister is aware that I am concerned about the impact at the operation phase of wind farms on porpoises, dolphins and minke whales.
We should also be aware that offshore wind is a very new sector. Because it has expanded so incrementally and so quickly, having been around for only 10 years, we have never actually paused to consider what the repercussions will be on the seabed, marine life and mammals of extensive construction over such a short period of time. I understand that the focus to date has been largely on what the disbenefits might be to marine life of the construction phase, but my understanding is that no research has been undertaken to consider what the impact will be of the operation phase. I know that the Danes have done some work on this; at one stage, they stopped building wind farms on land because the farmers complained about the constant hum and the impact they were having on their animals.
I am equally aware that the Minister is aware—he has referred to this previously—of the tensions between offshore wind farms and other uses of the sea, in particular the North Sea, such as, for example, fishing and shipping. I am not yet convinced that the Government have set out how these tensions will be resolved. I also understand that, in relation to the North Sea, there is currently no government forum to facilitate international co-operation and, for example, the sharing of knowledge or, perhaps, the ability to undertake joint research in this regard. As the hosts of COP, which I am sure we are all immensely proud of, will the Government use that as an opportunity to show leadership and set out how the UK will deliver their offshore wind ambition in a sustainable way, and with international partners as well?
I will end with a couple of questions; perhaps we can carry on the discussion, now that we are planning to meet, which I warmly welcome. I felt very much left out, so my heart is severely warmed by this. How will the Government resolve the tension between competing interests such as wind farms, fishing and shipping, particularly in the context of the North Sea but also in other areas where this takes place? Will they take the opportunity to commission research on the potential cumulative impacts before further construction, or planning permission is given for the siting, of wind farms? Will the Minister commit to a more strategic and precautionary approach and set out exactly how marine life and mammals operating within the North Sea will be protected going forward?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my friend opposite, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. I sort of see the point in her amendment; I had better not say that I support it, because I would probably get rude emails from the Green Party saying it has not been party policy, but obviously I would be happy to discuss it. On the issue of not being invited to meet the Minister, the Greens still have not been invited to meet him, and I cannot decide whether that is because we completely trust the Minister to understand everything that we are saying; I cannot think of any other option. We obviously trust the Minister completely to take our point of view back to Defra.
My amendment is on something that I care about very deeply, namely fracking. I have tabled it with a view to banning it once and for all. In doing so, I want to celebrate all the hard work of campaigners and activists across the country who delivered massive opposition against this dirty and dangerous polluting industry, often in the face of poor policy decisions by the Government and the fracking industry’s might-is-right attempts to quash them. In particular, I applaud the Preston New Road campaign in Lancashire. It was a thousand days of protest by the anti-fracking Nanas, a bunch of mainly older women led by Tina Rothery. They fought so hard in the face of well-financed and rather nasty, threatening behaviour by Cuadrilla.
In the 2019 general election, it was announced that we had won on this particular issue. The Conservatives, along with every other political party in Parliament, declared themselves to be against fracking. However, we in the UK are still supporting fracking in Argentina, which means we are offshoring the horrid stuff, so we do not have to count all the carbon emissions and so on, and Namibia is being exploited by a Canadian company. Ireland called for an international ban this year, and calls are now growing for an Irish-led global ban on fracking. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether that is something that the Government might support.
Here in the UK, there are still legal loopholes that could allow fracking to be forced on communities. I am most worried that, even if the Secretary of State did reject planning permission for fracking, this could be overturned in a judicial review. The Government may have changed their policy to be against fracking but, if this conflicts with the law in a judicial review, their policy will be ruled unlawful. For this reason, we must change the law to reflect what is now common agreement: that fracking is banned in the UK. I hope that the Minister will agree.
My Lords, I am very pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and her strong advocacy, which I very much respect. I am going to speak to Amendment 280, to which I was very pleased to put my name, alongside that of its proponent, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. As the noble Baroness said, this is an area that the EU Environment Sub-Committee looked at. When we started looking into the areas of research, planning and the various impacts of wind farms, we found far more questions than answers. I look forward to the Minister coming back in this area.
I clearly welcome the renewable energy programme that we have. Obviously, offshore wind—whether it be floating or on the seabed—is going to be a very major part of that. However, it is important to make sure that that programme has the least negative impact on the environment, whether it be all the marine areas that the noble Baroness talked about, or birdlife—seabirds and migratory birds as well. There is not enough research in this area; there ought to be research for the future shared among all the countries around both the North Sea and the Celtic Sea, so that we can make sure that we locate turbines in the most favourable way to protect—and, in some areas, to encourage—environmental life at marine level. As the noble Baroness said, there might be positives in this area as well.
I want to ask the Minister about the fora that we deal with now on energy in the North Sea. We have been excluded—I think unreasonably—from one of the main European ones, which was not an EU institution, and included us in the past. However, I understand that there is a new forum that we might be involved in where these discussions are taking place. This is important because, clearly, the locations of wind farms in the North Sea and, in future, the Celtic Sea should be co-ordinated, if for no other reason than to make sure that as much infrastructure as possible is shared. I would be interested to hear from the Minister how we will ensure, as we start to develop the Celtic Sea as well, that we do not have multiple landing points and multiple cables put down, as has happened in the North Sea. We should have some co-ordination there to minimise damage.
I will not detain the Committee further, except to say that this is a key area which will be increasingly important because of our renewable energy programme, much of which is based offshore. We are going to be moving ever more from ground-based or sea-based turbines to floating wind turbines; I am sure there will be differences there in ecological impact, so how will that be taken into consideration, in terms not just of research but of planning and, particularly, keeping our marine plans up to date and helping us make the right decisions in this area?
My Lords, I am here to speak against Amendment 285. It seems to me that making fracking effectively illegal is an extreme reaction. That seems short-sighted. It closes down any possibility of looking at the issue again or objectively, and potentially feeds into an atmosphere in which we cannot have a sensible debate on energy policy because we start criminalising innovations every time they come along. We have heard that the Government have a moratorium on fracking. I feel that is overcautious and potentially unhelpful but, regardless of that, to make it illegal feels completely over the top.
I understand that fracking is controversial as a method of drawing shale gas from the ground. Certainly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, explained, environmental activists have been hyperactive in ensuring that there is a popular image of fracking as dangerous and dirty, but I do not know that that should pass for science or evidence. I am not for or against fracking, but I am against moralising on the issue and, right from the start, I have been shocked by the venomous demonisation of what, after all, is just an energy source. There has been a lot of misinformation and scare stories around the issue.
I call, rather, for a calm discussion about the kind of tremors caused—they would be caused by any mineral extraction, whether quarry blasting or any major civil engineering project. I worry about a tendency to portray the worst-case scenario, with scary stories of earthquakes, water contamination and poisoned water tables. I feel that is a distinctly evidence-free approach and I do not feel the Bill should be associated with something quite so ideological in that way. I am calling for a more neutral and nuanced cost-benefit analysis approach.
I remember when the former Labour MP and fracking tsar, Natascha Engel, said that government policy was being driven by environmental lobbying rather than science, evidence and a desire to see the UK industry flourish. Indeed, I was shocked by how many rejoiced at what Ms Engel described as a “perfectly viable” industry being wasted, regardless of that industry’s massive potential for jobs and local prosperity in places such as the north-west, North Yorkshire and north Derbyshire. It promised to bring energy prices down. If it did not work out, fine, but to celebrate that as a big gain seemed to me inappropriate.
I also worry about the billions being spent on importing gas, which could be better spent. I have plenty of ideas, particularly in health and social care and in rebuilding post-Covid society. I am not keen on dependence on Russian gas, but even beyond the question of energy security, it seems to me that, even within the terms set by net zero—even though that is not a target I am particularly obsessive about, as others are—shale gas production could have had few carbon emissions, far fewer than hydrocarbons. It always surprises me, when we talk about reaching carbon emission targets, that we would rule out getting gas out of the ground in the UK, rather than importing it. It feels, with nuclear power as well, that every time a new energy solution is proposed that is not wind or solar, we get a kind of moral panic led by activism.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, talked about the problem of finding any energy source that will not disrupt the environment and nature. I was involved in an argument some years ago after Lancashire County Council rejected an application for exploratory drilling—not in relation to the safety of fracking per se, but based on the negative visual impact, increased traffic on rural roads and that kind of environmental disruption. Would not such concerns condemn industrialisation in general? How can there be economic development without traffic, or some changes to the skyline or, indeed, to the environment? I think we need that.
My priorities are to generate wealth—not personally; I have never been able to do that—to see that society is able to generate wealth and, in the process, make people’s lives more comfortable and open opportunities for humanity. We need industrialisation in general, and more energy production in particular, and that will involve infrastructural environmental disruption. Shale gas might not be the energy we need, but we should note that the wider ideological rejection of economic growth and progress sometimes afflicts this discussion and we should avoid it. We definitely do not need an amendment to the Bill that would make fracking, or any energy source, illegal. I would even urge the Government to look again at the moratorium.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 280 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. This is a very interesting area and it is important that we continue to carefully research the impact of individual wind farms, as well as—perhaps more importantly, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, mentioned—their cumulative effect on many species, from benthic invertebrates through sand eels and fish to birds and the larger sea mammals. I shall start by highlighting the approach taken on this subject by the National Audubon Society, the equivalent of the RSPB in the USA. It says, and I gather that many scientists here agree, that climate change is the biggest enemy of our avian population. As wind farms are one of the best weapons in our arsenal to fight climate change, we must be careful about putting too many barriers in the way of their development, albeit with a clear understanding of their effects and what mitigation could be put in place.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, is right that research on the effect of offshore wind farms on marine mammals and cetaceans is still, shall we say, in its infancy. However, the research on wind farms and their effects on birds is reasonably well advanced, so I shall focus on that. The Scottish Government, through their all-encompassing research programme on marine energy, ScotMER, have taken a very good strategic approach to this issue, working with research institutions, notably the UK’s CEH, which I happen to chair, alongside some important private-sector players; the Swedish company Vattenfall and the Danish company Ørsted being two good examples.
On the question of where offshore windfarms should be situated, we are pretty well aware of their effects during the seabird breeding season. By putting GPS tags on birds during the breeding season, we now know precisely where wind farms should not go, which is a very good start. The winter season is more difficult, however. GPS tags are not yet light enough or durable enough to provide reliable long-term information during this highly sensitive period. I call it a sensitive period because most seabird mortality happens during winter, and winter deaths are the critical factor in the survival of their colonies—more so, it seems, than their breeding success.
The main problem encountered during winter by our seabirds is the lack of food. The main food they eat are sand eels, which, as their name indicates, live in the underwater sands of the North Sea, let us say, where most wind farms are. Maybe the abundance of sand eels is affected by the sands themselves being disturbed by the building of wind farms and, more importantly perhaps, by the submersion of miles and miles of cable. But we do not yet have the data on that.
However, I should point out at this stage that, where you have wind farms, you will probably not get fishing boats, because of the likelihood of drift and getting the nets entangled in turbine towers. In the long term—we do not yet know—by building wind farms, we might well be creating the equivalent of what should be happening in our marine protected areas in terms of no-go fishing areas, where many species, including sand eels, could be given a real chance to flourish. Wind farms could be the best thing for both our abundance of fish and our birds. Who knows?
Coming back to the existence of offshore wind farms and their effect on birds, it is notable that the worst effects are on high-flying birds such as gannets and kittiwakes, whereas low-flying birds such as razorbills, guillemots and shearwaters tend not to be too troubled by them. Kittiwakes seem to be the worst affected species, and it is good that Ørsted, for instance, is building artificial kittiwake nesting sites at the Hornsea Three development off the Yorkshire coast by way of mitigation.
Returning to the amendment, I am not sure that its emphasis is right. Private companies already have to carry out basic environmental monitoring exercises both before and after their developments. As I have said, some of them go very much further, with Vattenfall actually paying for a PhD student to assist in the ScotMER research project I mentioned just now.
In many ways, having private companies judge the environmental viability of their own project is not as good as getting them to contribute to more strategic research into the overall cumulative effects of offshore wind farms and the best ways of mitigating their effects. The current view is that having lots of small turbines placed close to each other is more damaging than having modern large turbines placed a kilometre or so apart, but we do not yet really know. Is it best to leave 2-kilometre-wide corridors through wind farms or does this only confuse the situation? Further research has found that if you paint one blade of each turbine all black, the birds seem to keep away—but again, more data is needed on this.
Coming back to the kittiwake issue, and on the subject of strategic planning, there is a big question as to whether we should be thinking of the kittiwake population as a local problem or, as they do in the United States, thinking of the kittiwake population as a whole. In other words, if a colony on the Yorkshire coast is threatened, maybe it would be better to encourage more kittiwake growth in Wales or Cornwall, and not in Yorkshire. We might have more overall success that way. Again, more research is going on in those fields. If overwintering is the main problem, as I said, we should definitely combine our research strategies, not only with all the UK nations involved but also, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, with other countries such as Iceland, Norway, Denmark, et cetera.
In conclusion, the problem is a very good one to raise in the context of this Bill. It is an important issue and I thank the noble Baroness for raising it, but I am not sure that the amendment as it stands quite puts its finger on the right solution.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 280 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and Amendment 285 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. It is great to see him in person, although we also appreciate seeing him virtually and hearing his expertise.
Amendment 280 would allow the Secretary of State to gain a stronger understanding of the impact of offshore wind farms on the environment, marine life and sea mammals. The UK is a global leader in offshore wind—Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that we are the Saudi Arabia of wind power—but, with the energy source powering millions of homes across the country, it is also an area that the Government have identified for growth, with the world’s largest wind farm under construction off the north-east coast. To allow such expansion, Ministers have been uncharacteristically generous in extending the work visa waiver scheme for relevant workers.
As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, has said, there has not been enough research in this area; the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said that we must look at the most favourable way to ensure that the decisions are right. The noble Baroness looked in particular at the impact of wind farms not just operationally but from a construction point of view on the ecosystem, looking at the fixed structures and turbines themselves.
Wind farming is an important part of our energy mix. Concerns have been voiced for many years over its impacts on the environment, including the potential for displacement of breeding grounds and broader destruction of ecosystems. I hope the Minister can explain the work being undertaken by the department to expand its evidence base in this area. As noble Lords have said, more data is needed.
Amendment 285 is on a very different but equally important topic. I am a resident of Lancashire so speak with great concern about the impact of fracking, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, said, and pay tribute to the activists at the Preston New Road site, who have been there for over 1,000 days—I visited one afternoon in solidarity with them. In 2018, Cuadrilla was given permission to frack by this Government, against the wishes of local people and local councils. When it started, in just two months 57—I repeat, 57—earthquakes were detected in Lancashire. Cuadrilla actually stopped fracking five times because it triggered earthquakes that were bigger than government rules allowed. Even more disturbingly, a year later an earthquake measuring 2.9 on the Richter scale led to a review by the Oil and Gas Authority. Worryingly, it concluded that it was not possible to predict the probability or size of tremors caused by fracking.
A few months later, the Government launched a moratorium halting fracking and exploration with immediate effect. The campaign group Friends of the Earth was naturally delighted, saying:
“This moratorium is a tremendous victory for communities and the climate. For nearly a decade local people across the country have fought a … battle against this powerful industry. We are proud to have been part of that fight. We must now ensure that legislation is passed so that the ban is made permanent.”
Where is the legislation? Many years later, it is not here in the Environment Bill. Why? We now know from the Lancashire experiment that fracking is a risky way of extracting dirty energy. France, Germany, Ireland, Bulgaria, New York state, the Netherlands, Scotland and Wales all agree. Many risks surround fracking. The Government know this, or they would not have called a moratorium.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, made some interesting points. Unfortunately, I cannot agree with any of them. According to the British Geological Survey, groundwater may be contaminated by extraction of shale gas, both from the constituents of shale gas, the formulation and deep injection of water containing a cocktail of additives used for hydraulic fracturing, and from flowback water, which may have a high content of saline formation water. In England, groundwater is used to supply a third of our drinking water.
The assertion that fracking will lead to a jobs boom is also not true; Cuadrilla stated in its Lancashire licence application that just 11 jobs would be created at each of the two sites. Most importantly, scientists agree that, if we are to avoid dangerous levels of global warming, fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. With every licence application comes huge environmental concern, local opposition and widespread protest. As mentioned in the other place by Ruth Jones MP, we believe this Bill is the Government’s chance to tell the fracking companies that their time is up. However, given the choice between doing something bold and doing nothing at all, we know what Defra under this Secretary of State always goes for.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. Although energy production is not directly covered by the scope of the Bill, its impact on the environment clearly is hugely important. The urgent need to decarbonise our economy means that we need to greatly increase our deployment of renewable energy projects in the coming years.
I thank my noble friend Lady McIntosh for Amendment 280. She is right that the development of offshore wind farms needs to be achieved in a way that protects fragile marine environments and, as she said, the many mammals and other forms of marine life that live there. It is all too common when pursuing a solution to one problem to simply brush aside the creation of other problems in the excitement. I pay tribute to her for raising these important issues, as she has done on many occasions in this House. I reassure her that applications for development consent for offshore wind farms made under the Planning Act 2008 are required to undertake an environmental assessment that includes consideration of the impact of development on marine life and sea mammals. This process can be used to secure mitigation to minimise any adverse effects of development.
I can confirm to my noble friend that Schedule 4 to the 2017 infrastructure planning regulations sets out the environmental information that developers have to provide in the environmental statements that accompany applications. This includes information on the cumulative impact. However, I am very happy to have that discussion with her when we meet shortly.
Both the examining authority and the Secretary of State are able to request further information during the application process if they consider that the information supplied by the applicant is insufficient. The information provided allows the Secretary of State to decide what level of mitigation or compensation should be required if there are adverse impacts on the marine environment. The Secretary of State must take into account both the benefits and the impacts of the project and any proposed mitigation or compensation in deciding whether to grant or refuse development consent.
More widely, the Secretary of State may set out in the relevant national policy statement any particular information applicants need to provide as part of their application for development consent for specific technologies. As my noble friend knows, the Government are in the process of updating the national policy statements for energy, and intend to publish the revised plans by the end of this year. There will be a full public consultation, as well as an opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny, before the updated statements are designated.
Supported by an investment from the Treasury’s shared outcomes fund, Defra is also leading work to improve the understanding of environmental impacts from construction, as well as looking at how we can reduce the impacts of underwater noise. We are also developing a mechanism for introducing net gain through offshore wind deployment and improving the accessibility and provision of data to improve consenting and monitoring. Defra is working very closely with BEIS, environmental NGOs and the offshore wind sector to make sure that any such mitigation or compensation is both effective and deliverable. The Government are also considering how future developments can be planned and delivered in such a way that any adverse environmental impact is significantly reduced.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh, the offshore transmission networks review, which is led by BEIS and Ofgem, is currently working to increase co-ordination of offshore transmission to reduce, we hope, the overall amount of new offshore investment that is going to be needed to achieve targets. I hope this reassures my noble friend and that she feels able to withdraw her amendment.
I move on to Amendment 285, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. It is not possible to have too many meetings with the noble Baroness, and so I would be delighted to have more. The Government have always been clear that the development of domestic energy sources, including shale gas, must be safe, both for communities and for the environment. The Minister, Rebecca Pow, offered numerous assurances on this in the other place, and I am very happy to repeat them now.
In November 2019, the Government set out their position in a Written Statement to the House, in which they stated:
“The Government will take a presumption against issuing any further hydraulic fracturing consent.”
As the noble Baroness has explained, the experience of fracking so far has been costly. There are undoubtedly numerous questions about safety and environmental impacts. In respect of fracking and shale gas development, the Government have taken a science-led approach to exploring the potential of the industry, underpinned by strong environmental and safety standards. Following the events during fracking operations in 2019, which the noble Baroness referenced, the Government subsequently introduced the moratorium.
I add that the latest joint annual Statutory Security of Supply Report from BEIS and Ofgem, published on
I end by thanking all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. I hope I have been able to reassure your Lordships’ sufficiently, so that my noble friend feels able to withdraw her amendment.
I am grateful to all noble Lord who have spoken, and give special thanks to the Minister for his full reply. I am delighted to hear of all the work that is currently ongoing. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for his support and confirmation of the issues that we heard during the evidence session in the sub-committee on the environment.
I listened very carefully to all the research that my noble friend—if I may call him so—Lord Cameron of Dillington set out on birds. It showed how much need there is for marine life and mammals to be considered. He mentioned Ørsted doing the research into birds. I do not know why, if it is good for private companies to look into birds, it is not good for them also to do research into mammals. I hope that is something that the Government will explore.
I hope also that my noble friend will be able to tell us what the procedure will be for reducing tensions between fishing, shipping and wind farms. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, mentioned, if we go down the path of floating structures, I imagine that this could be more of a problem to fishing and shipping as well. I obviously pay tribute to the energy that we are harvesting from the seas, but I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the mitigation measures that the Government have put in place.
I have one final word on fracking, in connection with Amendment 285. There are absolutely no economic grounds for fracking; I think that has been proven in this country and elsewhere. It causes distress to local communities, and there are other means of energy. Look at Denmark as an example. It had a torrid time during the 1973 energy crisis, because it had no energy reserves of any note. It has made a comeback, and now it is in a very strong position, because of renewables. There are other forms of energy.
I think the Government’s position is quite sound, although I am not saying that I would not like to see a permanent ban on fracking—I am well signed up to that. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 280 withdrawn.
Amendments 281 to 285 not moved.