Clause 38 - Petroleum and geothermal energy: right to use deep-level land

Infrastructure Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee on 13th January 2015.

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Amendment proposed (this day): 1, in clause 38, page 45, line 22, at end insert—

‘(3A) The Secretary of State shall, before the award of licences in relation to the use of deep-level land for onshore oil and gas exploration, issue additional planning guidance introducing a presumption against such developments within or under protected areas and functionally linked land.”—(Tom Greatrex.)

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Full Member)

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment 37, in clause 38, page 45, line 25, at end insert—

‘(6) The Secretary of State shall be required to commission and consider reports on—

(a) the cumulative impacts of water use in fracking and refracking of exploratory and productive gas wells;

(b) the cumulative impacts of flowback and waste water arising from fracking and refracking activity; and

(c) the cumulative impacts on communities of road and vehicle movements from fracking and refracking activity before providing any permission for the exploitation of petroleum on deep level land where one or more exploitation facility exists within one mile of a proposed site.”

New clause 1—Exploitation of petroleum on deep-level land: cumulative impacts—

“The Secretary of State should amend the National Planning Policy Framework to require planning authorities to consider the cumulative impacts of exploiting petroleum on deep-level land.”

New clause 20—Planning notification for the extraction of unconventional oil and gas—

“(1) The Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure and Section 62A Applications) (England) (Amendment No. 2) Order is amended as follows.

(2) In Article 2, “Amendments to the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2010”, paragraph (4), after “consisting of the” in inserted paragraph (2A), insert “conventional”.”

Photo of Amber Rudd Amber Rudd The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger.

We were looking at regulations to look after protected areas this morning. The regulations are supported by the national planning policy framework and associated  planning guidance, which recognise that there are areas designated for their nature conservation and biodiversity value and that they should be given a high level of protection. The regulations make it clear that protected areas need to be fully and appropriately considered by planning authorities when exercising their planning duties, both in preparing local plans and in determining planning applications.

For example, the national planning policy framework makes it clear that a development should not normally be permitted if, either individually or in combination with other developments, it is likely to have an adverse effect on a site of special scientific interest. The provision applies even if the development is outside the boundary of the site of special scientific interest. That is the robust protection that we are looking for.

New planning guidance published last July set out for the first time the specific approach to planning for unconventional hydrocarbons such as shale gas in national parks, the broads, areas of outstanding natural beauty and world heritage sites. The guidance explains that those areas have the highest status of protection for landscape and scenic beauty, and makes it clear that planning authorities should refuse planning applications there unless both exceptional circumstances and the fact that the application is in the public interest can be demonstrated.

The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West asked about that guidance, so I will expand a little, if I may. The new guidance for the first time specifically referred to unconventional hydrocarbons in the areas mentioned. It was felt that by bringing together planning policy that applied to unconventional hydrocarbons and areas of outstanding landscape and scenic beauty, the guidance clearly set out the high level of protection accorded to those areas in respect to development. Importantly, the guidance explains that the planning authorities should refuse a planning application where it is considered to be major development, unless it can be demonstrated that both exceptional circumstances exist and it is in the public interest.

The hon. Gentleman asked what “exceptional circumstances” were. The purpose of planning guidance is to help decision makers to make their decisions when faced with an application. Given the complexity and diversity of our great landscape, as well as local circumstances, it is hard to prescribe what constitutes “exceptional circumstances” and that is the right approach, because it gives local decision makers the discretion they need to make the right decisions for local people.

I hope that my explanation of the robust regulatory regime already in place and the full recognition that the planning system gives to protected areas reassures the hon. Gentleman that such areas are already afforded sufficient protection. The amendment would not add to or strengthen that protection.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test raised the issue of cumulative impacts. We understand that the purpose of the amendments is to ensure that the cumulative impact of exploiting petroleum on deep-level land is addressed by planning authorities as part of their consideration of planning applications. I reassure hon. Members that the planning system already requires the cumulative impact of development to be taken into account by planning authorities.

The national planning policy framework and supporting practice guidance state that with respect to minerals such as shale oil and gas,

“planning authorities should…set out environmental criteria…against which planning applications will be assessed so as to ensure that permitted operations do not have unacceptable adverse impacts on the natural and historic environment or human health”.

For example, impacts on groundwater contamination and noise are included. The policy framework also takes into account

“the cumulative effects of multiple impacts from individual sites”.

In addition, from an environmental perspective, the existing environmental impact assessment regulations require consideration of cumulative effects when determining whether an environmental statement is needed. If a development is considered likely to have significant effects, the environmental statement that is prepared by developers and publicly consulted on must detail, among other things, cumulative effects resulting from the existence of the development, the use of natural resources, the emission of pollutants, the creation of nuisances and the elimination of waste. The amendments add nothing to the existing approach and risk creating confusion in relation to a well-established, well-functioning process. I hope that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, who tabled amendment 37, finds that reassuring.

The purpose of new clause 20 is to undo changes to planning notification procedures in relation to underground, unconventional oil and gas development that came into effect last January. The regulations require people submitting planning applications for the winning and working of minerals, including oil and natural gas, to serve notice on individual owners and tenants of land where surface works are required. In addition, they must publish a notice in a local newspaper and put up site notices. The new clause would additionally require shale operators to identify individual owners and tenants of land where solely underground operations may take place and serve notice on them directly.

We believe that the measures introduced last January strike the right balance between the need to notify affected owners and tenants and the need to ensure a proportionate and pragmatic approach for operators, given the unique circumstances of onshore oil and gas development, particularly the distances travelled by works deep below the surface. Specifically, the requirement to publish notices in newspapers and to erect site displays, as required by the existing regulations, is sufficient to ensure that owners and tenants of land above shale workings are given due notice of applications for planning permission for development under their land. They continue to have the opportunity to make representations on applications. The new clause would unnecessarily delay shale gas developments and adds nothing to address the Opposition’s broader concern about the environmental effects of shale.

We are not hiding, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West suggested, from any scrutiny; we simply do not think that the provision adds to the efforts to reassure the public. He referred to his concerns about higher stress levels for residents who have shale exploration going on in their area. Naturally, I share those concerns, but I think it would be far better for those residents if the Opposition accepted our reassuring comments on the amendments and did not raise their levels of stress by continuing to press them.

Finally, I thank the hon. Member for Taunton Deane for his wise words highlighting the difficulties of new energy development in local areas, despite Government efforts to provide a national policy. He made some interesting points, and I hope that the hon. Member for Daventry, who is not in his place, is reassured by my comments on that point. Therefore, I hope that the Opposition will not press their amendments and will accept clause 38.

Photo of Tom Greatrex Tom Greatrex Shadow Minister (Energy)

It is a pleasure, Sir Roger, to serve under your chairmanship again this afternoon. I listened carefully to what the Minister said. To begin with the point about stress, I might have introduced that slightly less seriously, but there is a serious point behind it. It is not only me—the director of public health in Lancashire provided a report for Lancashire county council. I am not sure whether the Minister has had the opportunity to read it, but it is a serious piece of work and makes a number of very good points that the Government should take seriously in our discussions.

Ensuring that people are informed of something happening in their area presents them with an opportunity to ask questions, to have their concerns addressed and to take an informed position. New clause 20 enables that to happen and helps to ensure, along with the other things that are put in place, that there is individual notification. I am sure that, as constituency representatives, we would not look kindly on developers, of whatever sort, whether to do with energy or anything else, not ensuring that we were informed and aware of development that might have an impact on the areas in which we live and work. That is the point we are seeking to make in relation to new clause 20. We will reflect on the Minister’s points on new clause 1, but we may come back to that.

Amendment 1 addresses protected areas. I do not seek to gainsay the Minister’s comments, but the scope of the planning framework leaves gaps for the future, and it would be much better if those gaps were closed now. We are not talking about huge numbers of sites; we are talking about specific sites with special features in relation to heritage, scientific interest, species or biodiversity, and having such protection is important. As the Minister said, Baroness Young pushed such protection in another place, and those concerns are just as valid today. I will reflect on the Minister’s comments, and we may wish to come back to this on Report, rather than pushing the amendment to a Division this afternoon.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Full Member)

I understand that there has been considerable debate on this clause, and I am therefore satisfied that the matters arising from it have been fully covered. I propose to put the clause to the Committee without a stand part debate.

Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

On a point of order, Sir Roger. Has amendment 37 been withdrawn?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Full Member)

It has not been moved. The hon. Gentleman cannot withdraw an amendment that has not been moved. If he wishes to propose the amendment formally,  he has the opportunity to do so. The debate has been wound up, but if he wishes to press amendment 37 to a Division, he is entitled to do so.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

I was going to withdraw the amendment anyway, but I thought I had already moved it.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Full Member)

For everybody’s benefit, because this is a common complaint, only the lead amendment is moved at the start of a debate on a group of amendments. Any other amendments, once they have all been debated, may then be proposed formally at the appropriate place in the Bill. The appropriate place to propose amendment 37, as the Clerk has very kindly reminded me, is now, because it comes before the stand part vote. If the hon. Gentleman does not wish to propose amendment 37, that is the end of the debate.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

Thank you, Sir Roger. I may have been slightly confused because amendment 36, which I also tabled, was the lead amendment in the previous group.