It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate Mark Menzies on the lucid and clear way in which he introduced the debate.
There are many views of fracking. Some, I do not agree with, although I respect them. The Tyndall view of fracking and shale gas is simply that getting them out will add to the greenhouse gases circulating around the globe, so they should be left where they are. I do not agree, for reasons that may or may not be correct, although I believe them. Principally, I do not think that our energy consumption will fall much over the next 20 years or that renewables will be sufficiently developed by that stage to plug the gap. Other alternatives also seem pretty unattractive. One is the extensive building of nuclear power stations. Buying ever cheaper coal—coal is becoming cheaper—is another. Importing gas is probably the favoured alternative, and we will probably face a choice between using Russian, Kazakhstani or Qatari gas or shale gas, which we have in appreciable abundance in Lancashire—the shale there is much deeper than in many parts of the United States, where shale gas is being exploited to some effect.
I have the advantage of having visited one of the exploratory wells and seen the precautions taken to ensure that what happens is not environmentally intrusive or damaging. I therefore have a better feeling about the regulations the industry must currently abide by, although we are looking at a tougher regulatory environment in the future. We already have extensive planning controls and health and safety regulations, as well as oversight from the Environment Agency.
Clearly, good regulation is crucial to the successful development of shale gas. I say that because I have also seen some slightly alarmist anti-fracking propaganda. We have probably all had sight of “Gasland”, with the taps that catch fire and so on, and we have probably all heard the exaggerations about the chances of pipes fracturing, threats to the water supply and subsidence. People have also exaggerated the number of wellheads we need, and they have talked about traffic densities and movements that are unlikely to materialise—producers are unlikely to want to move gas around by lorry if they can find a better way to move it. To be fair, a lot of the people who object would object if all those concerns were set aside; in other words, they have the same fundamental objection as the Tyndall climate change group—they think shale gas is not something we should dally with and is not something for the future.
Against that argument, there are clearly powerful economic arguments. If shale gas materialises as Cuadrilla and others hope it will, that will be good for the country’s balance of payments and it could have huge implications for the north-west’s economy. My constituency, which is on the edge of the Bowland special protection area, will, I hope, benefit in some way. I am not holding my breath on that, because we have seen false dawns locally before. Gas was discovered in the bay, and the production facilities can be seen from Southport beach. We hoped that that would have enormous benefits for the local economy, but it led to Hamilton Oil sponsoring a few events, and that was it. When one of the few fibre-optic cables from America came on land on Southport beach, I dreamed of Southport becoming not the Aberdeen of the north, but the silicon valley of England, but, somehow, that did not happen; we just got a quietly humming shed on an industrial park and little in the way of local employment. I am not, therefore, holding my breath, but I am none the less encouraged by the fact that the shale gas industry has made some pretty good opening moves, which will, I hope, move us in the direction of rebalancing the economy and provide some local community benefit.
Through the Treasury, the Government are concentrating principally on incentivising shale gas development. I am in favour of that, and we certainly need to explore it, because this business could be hugely profitable. The issue then is, what will happen to all the profits? Will they simply leach out to the south-east or wherever the company headquarters are, or will we feel the benefit locally? If I can throw my two pennies-worth on the table, I would like to see a levy that is channelled towards investing in permanent renewable energy in the area. At some point, the shale gas, like all other such energy sources, will run out. Other Members have other attitudes and other proposals. The hon. Member for
Fylde talked about the supply chain, and I agree with what he said about that. He also talked about energy rebates, and none of my constituents would be unhappy to receive them.
We are at the beginning of what will probably be quite a protracted discussion with the Government and the industry, but it is important that we discuss these issues among ourselves. Those of us who are embittered northerners have too often seen wealth generated in the north accumulated and spent somewhere else. That is the one thing, above all, that we wish to prevent.