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.

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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) 10:45 am, 24th November 2020

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.