Early days in the big debate over ‘fracking’

‘THESE are early days for shale gas exploration in the United Kingdom’.

That remark by the minister responsible for oil and gas exploration, Charles Hendry, came during a Commons debate last November on the potential impact of shale gas development by the process of hydraulic fracturing now familiar to readers as ‘fracking’.

For Balcombe residents in particular, the debate took off at a local level when it was rumoured that Cuadrilla – the energy company whose operations in Lancashire led to minor earth tremors – had renewed their licence to drill a well at Lower Stumble which they tested and capped back in the 1980s.

The fact that Cuadrilla’s report on the events in Lancashire concluded it was ‘highly probable’ shale gas test drilling triggered the tremors understandably rang alarm bells. Questions were raised at a public meeting and at my recent surgery in Balcombe where the topic was paramount.

Let’s take a cool look at some of the facts thrown up in that Commons debate which took note of Cuadrilla’s report, but was predominantly influenced by the findings of the Energy and Climate Change Committee.

* The UK has a long history of onshore gas exploration.

* Drilling for shale gas – like any other kind of oil or gas – is a hazardous operation that requires careful and consistent regulation.

* There is no evidence that the fracking process itself poses a direct risk to underground water resources... the risks are related to the integrity of the well and are not different from those encountered in conventional gas extraction.

* It is also important to assess potential benefits to the UK of exploiting our shale gas reserves.

* We support industry’s endeavours in pursuing such energy resources, as long as they are technically and economically viable, and have regard to the full protection of the environment.

* The decisions taken during this Parliament about energy policy will shape the UK’s energy infrastructure... Shale gas could help significantly by contributing both to improving our security and independence and to keeping prices down.

So choices have to be made. But do we read in this the green light for onshore oil and gas exploration? I will end as I began, with Charles Hendry’s measured perspective on this complex debate: ‘Clearly, we in the United Kingdom are right at the beginning of the process... and I think it is too early to know how significant shale gas may prove to be as a contributor to future energy supplies’.

FRANCIS MAUDE

MP for Horsham