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

Part of Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 24th November 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

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