Petroleum Licensing (Exploration and Production) (Landward Areas) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Regulations 2016
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
I have listened carefully to this morning’s exchanges. Fracking has been proposed within the half of my constituency that is covered by the South Downs national park, hich is a very sensitive landscape, and I take at face value the Government’s assurance that they intend to ban fracking in the national park. That is what many of us heard and I believe that it is what the Minister and the Government intend.
When we had this debate a while ago, as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test reminded us, despite the fact that the Government were clear that fracking was to be banned at the surface of national parks, a great campaign was got up, suggesting that because wells could be drilled laterally at enormous depths from outside the national park, that was somehow a breach of the Government’s undertaking and that fracking would be allowed in the national park. A lot of members of the public were stirred up to express their opposition. When it was actually explained to them that that was not the case and that these wells were going to be at enormous depths far below the level of aquifers, most were reassured and some considered themselves misled by the campaign that had been whipped up.
Similarly, I wonder whether the concerns raised this morning about the effect of these regulations are real. Just outside my constituency, in the South Downs national park, there is conventional drilling for oil. It is a completely unremarkable and uncontroversial activity. The wellhead is hidden behind some trees, on a very small footprint and sensibly located so that access is from a main road and lorry movements do not inconvenience members of the local community. I am unaware of any opposition to the activity at all. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think it has been the Government’s intention that conventional drilling of that kind should suddenly be outlawed in protected areas. The Government’s intention was clear—to outlaw fracking at the surface—and this is the final piece of the necessary legislation to ensure that that is the case.
The hon. Gentleman’s case seems to rest on the idea that some kind of mini-fracking can take place with smaller quantities of water, and that it therefore creates some great lacuna in the legislation that will allow fracking to take place. What he has not successfully done, as far as I am concerned, is explain whether such mini-fracking activity is usual—whether it is normally carried on using much smaller quantities of water. I simply invite the Minister to repeat what he said before: the Government’s intention is to ensure that all fracking activity—with emphasis on the word “all”—is prohibited within the protected areas, which includes national parks, and that that is the effect of these regulations as well as the intention behind them. I do not accept that there is some lacuna in the law, because I have seen too many campaigns of this kind suggest that fracking will somehow take place when it has clearly been the Government’s intention that it should not. If the Minister could confirm that that is the precise intention and effect of the legislation, I, for one, would be reassured.
Jesse Norman (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
I am grateful to colleagues in all parts of the Committee for their interventions and speeches, and I am happy to respond to them. Let me pick up a couple of points of information that were raised. First, I welcome what sounded like an endorsement from the hon. Member for Newport West of our strategy towards a low-carbon future. I would also like to assure my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds that the regulations apply to single wells in each case.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)
That is a concern. If the regulations apply to single wells, it would be quite possible to have multiple wells that, together, would breach the 10,000 cubic metre limit. Perhaps I have misunderstood the situation and my hon. Friend could clarify it.
The intention and the regulations are clear: hydraulic fracturing consent should be obtained for any operations that use more than 1,000 cubic metres at any single stage.
For any well?
Any well, so it is a tighter restriction than my hon. Friend perhaps recognises.
On the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, and the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, my right hon. Friend eloquently described the importance of drawing a distinction between conventional drilling and hydraulic fracturing. It is important that we do not get caught up in nomenclature. The Government’s intention is clear: to prohibit what we would describe as hydraulic fracking. There may be conventional, low-scale operations; they are not covered by the regulations. The purpose of the regulations is not to cover those, because there are other protections in the system that configure themselves to local circumstances, including protections in planning permission. It is important not to rule out those things that may have very beneficial local and community effects. The Government’s overall intention is clear. In particular, it is clear that small-scale operations should meet an equivalent range of safeguards to those set out in section 4 of the Petroleum Act 1998.
Let me close by saying that I am grateful to all hon. Members for their comments. Restricting hydraulic fracturing from sites at the surface of protected areas has been welcomed by many interested parties across the political spectrum. It demonstrates our commitment to protecting our most precious landscapes. The regulations will ensure that our excellent record of protecting the environment and maintaining safety for the general public will continue while we take advantage of the promising benefits that a shale gas industry will provide. I therefore commend them to the Committee.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Of course, in a spirit of generosity to a friend.
I am grateful. Could I invite my hon. Friend one last time to clarify the position? It is the contention of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, that something under half of fracking activity in the United States takes place with these smaller quantities of water and so would not apparently be covered by the regulations. Is it the case that such fracking activity could be permitted in protected areas under the regulations, because of the threshold set for the use of water? If it is, it seems to me that, contrary to what I suggested earlier, there is a lacuna. If the Minister can assure us that all fracking activity will be prevented in protected areas, we will accept his assurance.
I think I have been perfectly clear about the regulations and what the rules suggest. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test, brought a set of suggestions, or what he regards as facts or other evidence. I am more than happy for my officials to review that information, and to write to my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs to clarify the matter. I cannot comment on it now because it has just been presented to the Committee, but I am content and comfortable with writing to my right hon. Friend to give him the necessary reassurance after the debate.
You can find the full record of this debate on Hansard, here.