Francis Maude: Balance between risk and reward

Horsham MP Francis Maude
Horsham MP Francis Maude

West Sussex county councillors took the decision on Tuesday to allow an application for flow testing of shale oil near Balcombe.

I heard Michael Fallon setting out the position on fossil fuels and renewables earlier this week, and he did it so clearly I thought it worth sharing with you.

Much of the government’s position is about security of the energy supply, for us and our children.

Some countries are 100 per cent dependent on Russia for oil and gas, not an ideal position in which to find themselves. In the UK, we were net exporters of gas until 2003; last year we imported half of our needs at a cost of £5billion, some from Russia, and by 2030 it is estimated that will rise to 70 per cent if nothing else changes, despite the progress we are making with renewable sources.

Nobody is arguing that we should not be pursuing renewable energy, and we are now producing about 15 per cent of our needs from solar and wind power. But that tends to be all or nothing at any given time: it’s sunny and windy, one of the two or neither. There’s no quick fix for this.

As you will all know, last year at Balcombe the exploration drill site attracted national anti-fracking protesters who occupied the roadside for months, despite the site being within a few metres of the drilling which went almost unnoticed in the 1980s. The community was divided, the rhetoric was impassioned and hugely emotional, and many myths grew up around the industry. There was no permission sought or granted yesterday for fracking.

We have learned much from the USA, where regulation was patchy and variable across states, so Britain has put in place a regulatory system which is internationally regarded as being the model in ensuring the safest possible processes.

Any application to explore for or exploit shale gas must go through five stages of permission: a block licence for the area has to have been granted by the DECC; the Environment Agency must approve the proposal against considerations of protection of the environment, water availability, water supply safety and post-treatment, and potential emissions; the HSE must satisfy themselves that local residents and workers are safe; the local minerals authority, in our case West Sussex County Council, must grant or refuse permission, having taken into account local opinion.

Finally, the Secretary of State must agree, when all of the above safeguards are in place.

Exploration for gas and oil in the UK is not new. The first oil well here was drilled in Derbyshire in 1919, and Wytch Farm in Dorset is the largest on-shore oil field in Europe.

Like all decisions in life, small or large, there is a balance to be struck between risk and reward. Are we prepared to put up with some short-lived inconvenience and very small risks to reap the rewards of secure independence and reliability of supply, as we manage the transition towards other energy sources? Do we consign future generations to overcoming the problems of our generation failing to get to grips with spiralling energy needs and the investment they demand, or do we embrace this new technology and exploit the natural resources upon which we sit?

I am delighted that the residents of Balcombe have decided to set up their own renewable energy company, because I am persuaded that we need to be exploring different energy sources to meet our energy needs, and there is room for them to operate side by side.