Bryony Worthington on the environmental checks needed if we’re to truly benefit from fracking
Last week, the citizens of Denton, Texas, voted through a ban on the use of hydraulic fracturing – or ‘fracking’ – for the extraction of shale oil and gas. Those supporting the ban described it as a “last resort”, after they had grown frustrated by the industry working around regulations to control any environmental impacts.
That a town, right in the heart of the oil and gas shale boom, should have taken this step reflects the fact that fracking, while delivering many benefits in the US, is not without its controversies. Ensuring we set off on the right foot in the UK, is of paramount importance if we are to enjoy the economic and environmental benefits shale gas could bring.
Over 40 years ago, the discovery of North Sea oil and gas brought a similar economic boost. Wells drilled miles offshore delivered fossil fuels to power our cars, heat our homes and drive our industries. Few people were aware of where it came from or were exercised by any potential environmental consequences. Fast forward to today and it is clear that some in the UK do have concerns over the development of on-shore oil and gas using fracking.
Patchy regulatory standards in the US allowed unfortunate scare stories to take root in the public discourse, and these are now hard to dislodge. Concerns about climate change are also more high profile here and so more needs to be done to ensure fracking can co-exist with, and even help to meet, our greenhouse gas emissions targets.
The Coalition has so far handled the issue very badly: over-hyping the potential and doing too little to address people’s genuine concerns. Plus, failing to comprehensively assess whether our regulatory framework is up to the task of ushering in this new industry safely and with public confidence.
Onshore extraction of fossil fuels needs careful independent regulation. Fracking is a relatively complex extraction process, involving the use of large volumes of water with novel additives, generating contaminated wastewater and risking fugitive emissions of powerful greenhouse gases. Individually, none of these elements presents an unsurmountable problem. However, fracking necessarily takes place in many distributed locations and this only serves to heighten the need for careful oversight.
Today in the House of Lords, we will debate proposals to close a legal loophole regarding trespass, which if left unchanged will be exploited to block any attempt to investigate and exploit new natural resources. We support the government in this approach. But we have also tabled two amendments that seek to establish a clearer regulatory framework for mitigating any environmental impacts from fracking.
In drafting these amendments, we drew from the excellent work of the Lords Economic Affairs Committee and its recent inquiry into the potential economic benefits of fracking in the UK. In their report, the members of the Committee set out a number of key recommendations necessary to build confidence, including the need for independent inspectors and on-going monitoring of fugitive emissions. We however, have added the need for Environmental Impact Assessments to be conducted as a matter of course (something the industry supports), and a requirement for baseline monitoring to be undertaken.
These are genuine attempts to address the public’s concerns about this new industry and how it will be allowed to develop. Our country has few places that are uninhabited or uncherished for their wild beauty. If fracking is to be integrated into our society, it will need to be done in an environmentally sensitive way under the independent oversight of our world class regulators. The Coalition has not introduced a single new provision to ensure this is what can happen – a failure that Labour is committed to correcting.
Baroness Bryony Worthington is Shadow DECC Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @bryworthington
Published 10th November 2014