It is a great pleasure to be given the opportunity to introduce this Adjournment debate on community interests in shale gas in Lancashire, and it is a great pleasure to do so under your chairmanship, Mr Benton.
It is important for Parliament to hold regular debates on shale gas, because there is considerable potential for it to impact on the constituencies of many right hon. and hon. Members. The title of my debate in the Order Paper suggests that I would like to focus exclusively on the financial benefits that shale gas could bring to communities in Lancashire following the recent announcement of a community benefits package by the Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. As we are still in the early stages of shale gas development, however, I firmly believe that further work is still to be done on a range of other related issues, most notably on regulation, community engagement, the development of a UK supply chain and the suitability of potential sites.
I have consistently campaigned on the regulation of the shale gas industry. In my Adjournment debate in October 2012, I addressed the need for a body to be formed to oversee the workings of the regulatory bodies on matters relating to onshore oil and gas development, because it is imperative that shale gas development takes place only if we have robust regulations in place. I pay tribute to the previous Minister with responsibility for energy, my right hon. Friend Mr Hayes, for responding to those and other issues that I raised in my Adjournment debate and for establishing the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil.
The Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil must take on responsibility for ensuring that the existing regulatory bodies, namely the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency, DECC and Lancashire county council as the planning and mineral rights authority in Lancashire, work together to deliver a world-leading, gold-standard regulatory framework. It is the responsibility of the office not to become a regulator but to ensure that those that are empowered to be regulators are doing so to an exemplary standard.
I also urge the Minister to ensure that regulations are robust and are developed to ensure the highest environmental safeguards, as opposed to what is simply convenient for the industry. The focus should be on robust regulations and we should try to get away from using words such as “streamlining.” When people hear about streamlining, they interpret it as the watering down of regulations, which I am sure is not the case. Were it the case, it would not be acceptable to me.
I welcome the decision to make environmental impact studies compulsory for shale gas development sites, regardless of size, which is an evolution from where we were two years ago. Regulation is not what is written on a piece of paper; it is about what is enforced. I therefore urge the Government to ensure that we have regular, on-the-ground visits by regulators and inspectors, some of which must be unannounced so that shale gas development sites have the authority of operating to the highest environmental standards and no one is beyond reproach. In order to achieve that, it is important that regulators are provided with sufficient resources to fulfil their role.
We must be able to anticipate future developments as the industry progresses, if shale gas development does take place. We must be fleet of foot to ensure technical changes as the industry evolves and that the regulators and regulations are fit for purpose. For example, it would be inconceivable for regulations on shale gas developments in Lancashire to be entirely enforced by the HSE from Aberdeen. The HSE is based in Aberdeen for various obvious reasons, and therefore if and when the shale gas industry develops in the north of England, it is important that it responds accordingly, with regulators based in a much more localised area. Consideration must therefore be given to the creation of a regulatory hub to monitor the development of shale gas at a local level so that anyone who puts in a freedom of information request or writes to the Minister to discover what he is doing can have confidence that this is being taken seriously and things are being done diligently.
In my first Adjournment debate, I stated my strong opposition to the suitability of the Anna’s road site for potential shale gas extraction. My position remains unchanged, and I welcome the announcement from Cuadrilla that it has put on hold any potential development of the site. Decisions will be taken not by Members of Parliament but by elected county councillors, and therefore I do not plan to say any more on that in this debate.
Finally, I urge the Minister to ensure that there is rigorous monitoring of the traffic light system that was put in place following the seismic tremors in Lancashire in 2011, because it is important that public confidence is absolutely maintained in the system. Much work was done to ensure that the traffic light system was put in place prior to the resumption of fracking, that it is indeed fit for purpose and that we constantly monitor and review it to ensure that it does the job for which it is intended so that we see no repetition of the seismic tremors that we experienced in Blackpool.
Public engagement in any controversial sector is critical, but in something as new and controversial as shale gas it is absolutely paramount. I therefore want to see engagement with the local community at the forefront of what is done by the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, the regulators and the industry itself. Although the industry has done some work to address that, it is an area that needs substantially more work as the industry evolves and potentially develops.
When the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil was established earlier this year, one of its main roles was to support public engagement and to help people to understand the facts about unconventional gas and oil production and what that could mean if it takes place in their area. With such a central role to play in the future of shale gas development, it is important that the office has the necessary resources to help drive public engagement.