As a passionate environmentalist and a member of both the Environmental Audit and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committees I fully appreciate your concerns on this matter. The protection of our wonderful wildlife and environment is very important to me and as a Vice-President of the Somerset Wildlife Trust I ensure that I regularly speak in Parliament for wildlife and nature.
Fracking as a means of exploring our shale gas reserves is a divisive issue and I had my own personal concerns about this method of extraction. However, following a personal conversation that I had before the recent vote with the Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change, I now feel reassured.
The Infrastructure Act 2015 is central to the Government commitment to establish a regulatory regime that provides clear and strong protection for the public and the environment. The Act sets out these protections and clearly specifies areas where hydraulic fracturing cannot take place. The Act also does not allow consent to be granted for a well if the fracking will take place within a ‘protected groundwater source area’.
The Environment Agency has already confirmed they are happy with this definition as it reinforces their approach to controlling risks from other groundwater activities. Indeed it is already the case that the agency does not permit drilling for oil or gas in ‘Source Protection Zones 1’ - areas close to drinking water sources where there is the greatest risk associated with groundwater contamination.
The Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations 2015 laid before the House in July, clearly set out and ensure that the process of hydraulic fracturing cannot take place at depths above 1,200 metres within a ‘protected groundwater source area’. The vast majority of drinking water supplies are located at depths above 400 metres. This limit therefore provides at least 800 metres between the depth of most drinking water sources and the highest possible level at which hydraulic fracturing can take.
The regulations contained within the Infrastructure Act 2015 serve to strengthen the protections in place for protected areas. The Government’s approach is guided by the Environment Agency and these regulations provides suitable protection against health risks and adverse effects on the environment.
I have been reassured that in the licensing process drilling equipment would be allowed in the Sites of Special Scientific Interest, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The prevented drilling equipment would have to be established outside of these protected areas with the pipework and tunnelling establishing a vertical path down until 1,200 metres before accessing the gas reserves.
The Petroleum Exploration and Development Licenses ensure that energy companies that seek to explore our shale potential work within the strong regulations set out by the Government. PEDLs do not give energy companies permission for specific operations, such as drilling. Rather, they grant exclusivity to licenses, in relation to hydrocarbon exploration and extraction (including for shale gas but also for other forms), within a defined area. Any licenses looking to explore for hydrocarbons would have to apply for planning permission and various permit in advance of any drilling.
On the issue of planning local communities must and will remain fully involved in planning decisions. I would like to stress that even with these regulations in place, a company looking to develop shale will always need to obtain all necessary permissions, including planning and environmental permits, before hydraulic fracturing can be carried out.
Finally, the Government has an obligation to explore the potential of shale gas, whilst maintaining the highest standards of safety and environment protection. A successful shale industry could help create jobs and grow local economies. Investment in shale could reach £33bn and support as many as 64,000 jobs in the oil, gas, construction, engineering and chemical sectors. The opportunity to extract this energy, as well as to secure jobs and investment, cannot be ignored.
I hope that this information provides reassurance that the Government is committed to safe exploration of shale gas.
Thank you if you have taken the time to contact me on this important issue.