New Clause 3 - Well consents for hydraulic fracturing: cessation of issue and termination

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 24 November 2020.

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“(1) No well consent which permits associated hydraulic fracturing may be issued by the Oil and Gas Authority (‘OGA’).

(2) Sections 4A and 4B of the Petroleum Act 1998 (as inserted by section 50 of the Infrastructure Act 2015), are repealed.

(3) Any well consent which has been issued by the OGA which—

(a) permits associated hydraulic fracturing and

(b) is effective on the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent shall cease to be valid three months after this Act receives Royal Assent.

(4) In this section—

‘associated hydraulic fracturing’ means hydraulic fracturing of shale or strata encased in shale which—

(a) is carried out in connection with the use of the relevant well to search or bore for or get petroleum, and

(b) involves, or is expected to involve, the injection of—

‘well consent’ means a consent in writing of the OGA to the commencement of drilling of a well.”—

This new clause, as a response to recent hydraulic fracturing exploration activity including in Rother Valley, would prevent the Oil and Gas Authority from being able to provide licences for hydraulic fracturing, exploration or acidification, and would revoke current licences after a brief period to wind down activity.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 10:30, 24 November 2020

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause concerns well consents for hydraulic fracking: cessation of issue and termination. Hon. Members may ask themselves, “What has fracking got to do with this Bill? Why is there a new clause about fracking when we are talking about other issues entirely?” I would contend that fracking, or potential fracking, is central to many of the issues that we have discussed. The current fracking regime and whether or not wells are being fracked cut across, potentially considerably so, the Bill’s protections and provisions relating to the natural environment, biodiversity and various other issues. There are a number of worrying issues relating to how fracking is carried out, how its consequences are dealt with, and how its by-products come about and are or are not disposed of.

I am sure that hon. Members will have access to a fair amount of information about the fracking process and that they will be aware that, as far as this country is concerned, it has not got very far. The Cuadrilla well in Preston was paused on the grounds that it caused earthquakes when the fracking process began. Although the then BEIS Secretary, Andrea Leadsom, used a provision to direct that that particular drilling company should not proceeded, that provision also allowed for corners to be cut on standards, so that it could get going with the fracking process. The standard relating to seismic disturbance was only a small part of the substantial environmental consequences to which the widespread introduction of fracking would give rise.

Mercifully, fracking is not used substantially in this country, but it is in other countries. When I visited Texas some time ago, I went to Austin, which is right in the middle of the fracking industry, in the large, relatively easy-to-access basin that covers a lot of Texas and in which a lot of fracking wells have been drilled. As we came into the airport, we could see ahead of us what looked like a moonscape. There was a large number of circular pads with extraction equipment covering the landscape as far as the eye could see. It also glinted in the sun, inasmuch as attached to those fracking pads were a number of what looked like ponds or small lakes. It looked like a landscape of lakes, but it was not. It was a landscape of tailing ponds associated with the fracking pads, and in which were placed the results of the fracking process—the fracking fluid that had been used to blast the rocks apart, which contained substantial chemicals to assist in that process. If they were to be produced in this country in the quantities suggested—at least 10,000 or so cubic metres of fluid per fracking pad—they would be classed as hazardous waste and would need to be disposed of very carefully. There are actually very few hazardous waste sites in this country that can take that kind of waste. The solution in the United States was that, on some occasions, they injected the waste back down into deep basins, which is not ideal. Alternatively, they just kept it on the surface in tailing ponds on the landscape. That could be the future for us, if we were to develop fracking to any great extent.

As I say, we have had only two goes at fracking in this country so far. They happened to be in two areas of the UK that contain the seams from which gas can be extracted through the fracking process. One is the Bowland shale in the north-west of the country, which happens to encompass the Lake District national park. The other is across the Weald and into South Downs national park, an area of outstanding natural beauty that goes across Sussex and into Hampshire. If we had a substantial fracking industry in the UK, wells would be drilled in those two concentrated areas. There would be a concentration of wells in that precious landscape, possibly like the concentration that I saw in Austin, Texas.

The Infrastructure Act 2015 placed restrictions on where fracking can take place, but it did not have a great deal of traction in this country. Modern fracking can proceed by diagonal drilling; it does not have to involve drilling down. An interesting discussion emerged about the extent to which parts of the country could be declared to be surfaces on which fracking should not take place. The Government of the day identified some areas of outstanding beauty and national parks as areas where fracking should not take place, but all people need to do is set up a fracking plant right on the boundaries of a national park and drill diagonally.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Labour, Putney

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the new clause is not agreed to and fracking is not stopped, that will undermine a lot of the biodiversity and ecosystem protection elsewhere in the Bill? It is bad for the climate, the environment and pollution, and local people do not want it either.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend about a regime of substantial fracking. All that has happened at the moment is that fracking has been paused. All the infrastructure requirements and legislation allowing fracking on a reasonably unrestrained basis are still in place, so it is more than possible that a future Government, or indeed this Government, might decide that they no longer wish to pause fracking. Everything is ready to go. As she said, this raises the question not only of what happens to the fracking fluid but of the escape of fugitive emissions between the well being produced and the gas being conveyed. Indeed, it is the practice, when fracking has been completed, to have a so-called flare-off to clean the well’s tubes, as it were. Enormous amounts of gas mixed with elements of the fracking fluid are released into the atmosphere and simply flared.

We understand that fracking sites will have multiple wells drilled with a very large amount of transport involved, with traffic coming to remote countryside areas, the levelling of an area several football pitches wide to make the pad, and a host of other things that result in environmental despoliation in pursuit of fracking. There are also the long-term consequences when the well is depleted: will it be re-fracked? If it is depleted, will it be properly capped off? One of the problems in Texas now is that the fracking wells have not proved to be as bountiful as had been thought––what a surprise––and several have simply been abandoned with little done to cap them off. There can be a regime for doing that properly, but in the countryside where the fracking has taken place, there is continuing danger and concern in respect of surface water and water in seams underground.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Does he agree that it is the unforeseen consequences that are so dangerous with fracking? We do not know what we do not yet know. In the mining industry near my constituency, we have mountain-top villages that are at risk of subsidence because of the extensive mine workings underneath. We need to be very careful about what we wish on future generations.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

That is an important point. These things do not appear and simply go away. An example of something that does appear and then go away is onshore wind. When the turbine’s life is up, it can simply be taken away. That is an advantage of that form of power, but this form of power leaves in its wake enormous environmental scars and a substantial legacy of worry for the communities in which it has taken place, even after it has finished its life. If the well is to be properly exploited, there is the potential legacy of re-fracking on several occasions when all that stuff starts again to keep the well producing. It is a grubby, dirty, environmentally unfriendly, legacy-rich business that we surely should not be inflicting upon ourselves in pursuit of something that we should leave in the ground anyway.

In an era when we say that our dependence on fossil fuel will greatly decrease—indeed, companies such as British Petroleum have said that they will cut down substantially the amount of oil that they get out of the ground, and that they will move into different areas—it does seem strange for us to be encouraging an activity that involves trying to locate the most securely fastened bits of climate-damaging hydrocarbons from the soil, blast them out of solid rock and bring them to the surface to use for fossil fuel activities. As far as this is concerned, I think the watchword is, “Just leave it in the ground.”

That is why we have given the Bill an opportunity to include protection against that happening—and, indeed, protection against the conflict that I believe exists between the Infrastructure Act 2015 and this Bill, in terms of which permissions override which protections, particularly as far as fracking is concerned. We have an opportunity to set out in the Bill that no well consents will be given, and that fracking will not take place in this country. The new clause essentially says that the Oil and Gas Authority will not issue well consents, with all the consequences that I have set out; and that permits that have been given should lapse over a period of time and the work should not be undertaken.

This is a serious issue for the future of our environment and for environmental protection, and we have the ability, literally at the stroke of a pen, to put it right in this Bill. We can put it beyond doubt that—no matter whether there is a pause, whether there are concerns about earthquakes, or whether there are concerns about the environmental consequences of wells drilled in particular places—we will grasp the issue firmly by the scruff of the neck and say, “No more. We are not doing this. It is not good for our environment, and we won’t have it anymore.”

I hope that hon. Members across the Committee will join us in making sure that that is part of the clean, safe and enjoyable environmental future that we all want to strive for, by agreeing to add the new clause to the Bill.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:45, 24 November 2020

In the last 25 minutes, we have been all the way to Texas and back, we have been up north and we have been all over the place. I thank the hon. Member for Southampton, Test for his proposed amendment. The Government continue to recognise the importance of natural gas as a source of secure and affordable energy as we aim to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Natural gas still makes up around a third of our current energy usage, and we will need it for many years to come, even as we decarbonise. I know that the shadow Minister has a great deal of knowledge and interest in the energy sector, but I am sure he understands that.

The Government have always been clear that the development of domestic energy sources, including shale gas, must be safe for local communities and for the environment. With regard to fracking and shale gas development, the Government have taken a science-led approach to exploring the potential of the industry, underpinned by world-leading environmental and safety regulations. In addition to a traffic light system to monitor real-time seismic activity during operations—with a clear framework of stopping operations in the event of specified levels of seismic activity—the Government also introduced tighter controls over the shale gas industry through the Infrastructure Act 2015.

A well consent is essentially permission to drill an oil or gas well, and it is required from the Oil and Gas Authority before an operator can explore for oil and gas onshore in the UK. All well consents issued by the OGA on or after 6 April 2016 contain a further requirement for operators to obtain hydraulic fracturing consent from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy before carrying out any associated hydraulic fracturing. That consent ensures that all necessary environmental and health and safety permits have been obtained before activities can commence.

The current definition of “associated hydraulic fracturing” is based on the approach taken by the European Commission, which I am sure the shadow Minister welcomes. Using that definition sets the right balance between capturing hydraulic fracturing operations and not capturing techniques used by conventional oil and gas operations, or more widely in the water industry, where processes such as acidisation are commonly used to clean wells after drilling.

The Environment Agency reviews any proposal involving the use of acid on a site-specific basis before deciding whether the activity is acceptable. The agency’s regulatory controls are in place to protect people and the environment, quite clearly. If the proposed activity poses an unacceptable risk, a permit will not be granted.

We have had such an eloquent description of what goes on in the US. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test paints a very clear picture of that lovely trip—although, it was probably not all that lovely, seeing that moonscape. Comparisons are not necessarily helpful because, of course, in the UK we have an entirely different regulatory system. Construction standards in the UK are robust and regulators have the tools to ensure that the risk of pollutants entering groundwater is minimised.

The EA also assesses the hazards presented by fracking fluid additives on a case-by-case basis and will not allow hazardous substances to be used where they may enter the groundwater and cause pollution. The EA has the power to restrict or prohibit the use of any substances where they pose an environmental risk. The shadow Minister touched on hazardous waste and flow-back fluids, which include fracking fluids. They are deemed to be mining waste and require an environmental permit for management onsite. Disposal of flow-back fluids must be at a regulated waste treatment works, which are also regulated by the EA. Shale gas operators must demonstrate that where any chemicals are left in the waste frack fluid, it will not lead to pollution in groundwater. I think it is quite clear that we have a very tight system already in place, which will address many of the issues raised by the shadow Minister.

Let us move on to what has happened recently, when I was involved as a Back Bencher, as were many colleagues. The Government announced in November 2019 that, although any application would be considered on its merits, in the absence of compelling new evidence, they will take a presumption against issuing any further consents for hydraulic fracturing for shale gas extraction, creating a moratorium.

The Government set out their position in full via a written statement to the House on 4 November 2019, and we are satisfied that the current regulations ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place. We therefore have no plans to repeal sections 4A and 4B of the Petroleum Act 1998, as inserted by section 50 of the Infrastructure Act 2015, and nor will we direct the OGA to withhold well consents that include provisions for associated hydraulic fracturing.

There are no plans to turn the moratorium on shale gas extraction into a ban. The moratorium will be maintained unless—this is absolutely crucial—compelling new evidence is provided to address the concerns about the prediction and management of induced seismicity. Such evidence is, it must be said, yet to be presented. I therefore respectfully ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The Minister has kindly and gently made quite a good case on our behalf. She has confirmed what we have said: in the UK, we are not talking about an end to or a ban on fracking, or indeed a resiling from the circumstances under which fracking was set up as an activity in the UK. The word “moratorium” means a pause; it does not mean the end of anything. It can be a more or less lengthy pause, as the Minister suggested, but it is still a pause, so the way is open for fracking to come back to this country if, as the Minister said, the circumstances permit that.

I agree with the Minister that the regimes in this country and in the US are not the same. The moonscape near Austin that I mentioned is a worse-case scenario—that is true—but even in the early applications for fracking in this country, there was pressure on the Government to cut corners. There were applications for tailing ponds, however briefly they would have been in place. A number of the environmental issues around fracking that I have mentioned would come to this country—not to the same extent as in the US, but they certainly would be part of the fracking process were it to recommence.

There are other differences between the US and the UK in terms of who owns the surface of the land. In this country, the Queen effectively has a hand in the ownership of the surface of the land, while in America, people can buy the rights to what is underneath someone’s land, drive a truck on to it and start drilling, because they have the right of access through the land to what is underneath it. That is not the case in this country. Indeed, as the Minister set out, the Infrastructure Act 2015 introduced a number of constraints on what can and cannot be done, and what cannot be done is along the lines of exactly what is done in America. The Government have nevertheless put forward, in a number of papers that they have published, a prospectus on how much fracking there would be in this country and where it would be undertaken. That would have a substantial impact on the environment in a country that is nothing like Texas.

Texas is enormous and, as everyone knows, this country is not. Not only is this country not enormous, but the shale to frack is specified as being concentrated in particular parts of it. Those areas, as I have emphasised, cover some of the most precious and beautiful parts of our country, and we should really go out of our way to preserve them and ensure that they continue, as much as possible, in their present state.

I was disappointed by what the Minister had to say about the fracking regime generally, but I accept her point that the intention in this country is to try to ensure that there are much higher standards for fracking permissions than in other parts of the world. I therefore do not think that I can withdraw the amendment. We need to make the point that we think this is important and should be part of the Bill, and to express our concern that the Minister does not agree with us and countenances—I would not say she is happy about it—the continuation of a regime that will allow this to happen in the future if circumstances permit it.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 49 Environment Bill — New Clause 3 - Well consents for hydraulic fracturing: cessation of issue and termination

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.