May I join colleagues in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr Benton? I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Menzies on securing an important debate on this subject and on his constructive approach. If I may say so, I congratulate Members on the tone that they have adopted throughout their contributions. I will try to answer the various points that have been raised.
My hon. Friend began by rightly raising the interests of communities, and the debate has clearly demonstrated that community interests have a number of dimensions and apply to all potentially affected communities across our country. I will group my comments into four areas: first, local communities should be clear on the Government’s policy on shale; secondly, they should be clear on when they will be engaged locally and by whom, and have access wherever possible to objective information; thirdly, they should be reassured about shale development and that it will be carried out safely and in a way that protects the environment; and finally, they should know exactly what benefits should flow from hosting shale gas developments. I will tackle each in turn.
As a Government, we believe that shale has the potential to provide this country with greater energy security, an incentive to growth and more jobs. Through the co-ordination of the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, we are creating the framework to accelerate the development of shale responsibly. Looking at the big picture to see how our various energy sources fit together in the market as we transition to a low-carbon future, we quickly realise that oil and gas will form a key part of our energy requirements for some decades to come. We need to recognise that shale gas development is part of a historic continuum in the development of our domestic resources. Over 2,000 conventional oil and gas and coal bed methane wells have been drilled in the UK. Fracking, of course, is an established exploration technique used around the world. I see unconventional resources as a part of the bigger picture and continuum.
As Members will know, the British Geological Survey has now estimated the total volume of gas in the Bowland-Hodder shale, which includes Lancashire, at some 1,300 trillion cubic feet. Effective exploration of that resource is necessary to help us understand how much of that gas is technically or economically recoverable. We are therefore encouraging the safe and environmentally sound exploration that will help us determine that. With robust regulation now in place, there is nothing to prevent licensees from bringing forward new drilling plans and seeking the necessary permissions. In Lancashire, Cuadrilla has recently announced further plans for exploration, and of course we welcome Centrica’s recent investment in its licence in the area. We are therefore likely to see Lancashire lead the way in the exploration phase, which if proven will provide local communities with real benefits and opportunities.
Early community engagement by companies in the industry is essential to gaining public acceptance of and support for shale gas development. We have worked closely with the industry to encourage strong engagement that addresses local concerns. We are therefore pleased that the industry—through its trade body, the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group—has recently collectively adopted a community engagement charter. One of its objectives is to identify and proactively address local issues and concerns. In addition, each operator will engage with local communities and other stakeholders, beginning in advance of any operations or any application for planning permission. For our part, the Government have a role to play in supporting public engagement by ensuring access to evidence-based information that can address the questions raised and inform public debate.
My Department is looking urgently at how we can swiftly take forward the suggestion from my predecessor, my hon. Friend Charles Hendry, which has also been touched on this afternoon, to ensure that we provide clear information to the public on the myths that tend to surface about shale, so that we can help the public to separate fact from the fiction. An objective of the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil is to help people understand the facts about shale gas, and that includes supporting local authority engagement with communities where it can assist in resolving issues and allowing projects to proceed where appropriate. Officials are developing plans for how we can do that in practice and will be engaging with local authorities—particularly Lancashire, at this stage—on what assistance is needed from central Government to best deliver support.
Some of that is already happening. The Lancashire shale gas forum, established by the Environment Agency, already brings together county and district councils, regulators including the Health and Safety Executive, my Department and the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil to discuss strategic shale gas issues and matters of concern to local communities. That forum is meeting today.