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

Part of Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 24th November 2020.

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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 am, 24th 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.