Thank you for contacting me on the issue of shale gas extraction and the government's announcement in the Queen's Speech.
We face three critical challenges, which we have to reconcile: ensuring a safe and secure energy supply; protecting our local environment against the risks of damaging exploitation and protecting our global environment against the threat of climate change.
Let me start with the first and last points before explaining what I think our safeguards should be.
Gas is a fuel which remains vital to the operation of our homes, services and businesses in the UK. 80% of our homes rely on gas for heating, while around 30% of our electricity comes from gas fired power stations. While low carbon power generation will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels over time, we will still need flexible power to help manage peaks in demand. Projections from National Grid expect gas continuing to play a vital role in our energy system for many years to come.
While demand for gas continues to be high, our ability to source this fuel from within our own borders has been steadily declining. In 2004, the UK became a net importer of gas for the first time since North Sea extraction began. For those reasons, the possibility to source gas from the UK should not be ruled out without careful consideration.
Importantly, ensuring a domestic gas supply does not conflict with the critical task of de-carbonising the power sector. I am wholly committed to the development of renewable power generation. The Labour Party has pledged to continue with the implementation of the ‘Contracts for Difference' mechanism to stimulate investment in renewables and low carbon generation, and has committed to a 2030 target for the effective decarbonisation of our power sector. The Committee on Climate Change has also said that shale gas could be developed in the UK within our legally binding carbon budgets. Within that framework, fracking is unlikely to lead to an increase in the total amount of fossil fuel burnt for electricity generation- it is more an issue of where that supply comes from.
So if we need to maintain a gas supply from secure sources, and should not rule out shale gas extraction from the mix, but what safeguards need to be in place?
I am clear that shale gas extraction should only go ahead in the context of robust regulation, comprehensive monitoring and strict enforcement, and in a way which is consistent with decarbonising our electricity supply by 2030.
The Government's Infrastructure Bill proposes changes to the regulations on fracking for shale gas.
Conventional oil and gas exploration and production mostly involves vertical or near-vertical drilling from one spot at the surface. A well for shale gas, however, will usually run vertically down and then extend horizontally for some distance - this could be as much as 2 miles, or even more. This would mean that companies would have to seek permission from a large number of landowners. As it stands, existing legislation allows coalmining, water, sewage and gas transportation pipelines to have underground access without needing the permission of the landowner, but it does not allow shale gas or deep geothermal development. In reality without bringing shale gas extraction legislation into line with that covering coalmining would provide an effective block on fracking activity and deep geothermal in the UK.
At the end of May the government published consultation on its proposed changes to trespass regulations and confirmed their intention to legislate in the forthcoming Infrastructure Bill. These changes will mean that while shale gas companies will still need the permission of landowners for surface access and still require local planning consent, underpinned by environmental impact assessments, they will not need permission for underground access at depths of 300m or more. I therefore do not oppose these reforms. However, the issue of underground access rights is separate from the environmental and safety framework. Only by fully addressing legitimate environmental and safety concerns about fracking with robust regulation, comprehensive monitoring and strict enforcement will people have confidence that the exploration and possible extraction of shale gas is a safe and reliable source that can contribute to the UK's energy mix.
I am therefore determined that we should push for the environmental framework to be strengthened. In 2012 Labour set out six tough environmental conditions which should be in place prior to any shale gas extraction taking place in the UK.
• Evidence of seismic activity led to the suspension of operations in Lancashire in 2011. As Labour set out in an article for Business Green on 7 March 2012, baseline conditions should be assessed prior to any exploratory work with micro-seismic monitoring, in order to discriminate natural from artificially induced seismic events once the drilling begins. An early warning detection system should also be implemented, similar to that used in the Netherlands and Germany, which would allow measures to be taken before seismic activity has a noticeable impact.
• There has been a lack of transparency and control in the USA on exactly what is being used to fracture shale rocks and extract the resulting gas. In the UK, the chemicals used must be restricted to those that are proven to be non-hazardous. Further, there should be mandated disclosure of all the chemicals to be used in fracking, including their toxicity levels.
• The integrity of each shale gas well must be assured to prevent water contamination. An independent assessment of the well design, the cement bond between the casing and well bore, in addition to the composition of the casing to determine its ability to resist corrosion, is essential.
• The level of methane in groundwater should also be assessed prior to any drilling. Methane can occur naturally in groundwater, but there is concern from the experience in the USA that it may also occur as a result of fracking. In each case, that needs to be assessed prior to any activity, so that there is robust baseline information to monitor against.
• All potential shale exploration sites should be subject to screening for an environmental impact assessment - at present, those below one hectare do not need to undertake such an assessment. This assessment should include the amount of water used, how much can then be recycled and the general availability of water in each case.
• All of the monitoring activity referred to above should take place over a twelve month period, to allow sufficient time to gather all of the evidence required to make an informed decision on whether to proceed with exploration
While the government accepted four of the six conditions in December 2012, we still believe that the regulatory framework is not sufficiently robust. It is not currently agreed clear that the level of methane in groundwater should be assessed prior to any drilling. Methane can occur naturally in groundwater, so it is important that robust baseline information exists to monitors activity against. Neither has it been agreed that all monitoring activity should take place over at least a twelve month period, to allow sufficient time to gather all of the evidence required to make an informed decision on whether to proceed with exploration. I will continue to push for the environmental framework to be strengthened in these areas and for assurances that the responsibility for clean-up costs and liability for any untoward consequences rests fairly and squarely with the industry and not with the public purse or with homeowners. Many other concerns remain, particularly regarding the effectiveness of the monitoring process and the capacity of the relevant bodies to undertake that monitoring and enforce the regulations, and these must also be addressed.
I hope this is helpful and thank you for taking the time to write to me on this important issue.
Karen Buck MP