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As the Member for Wells in Somerset, my constituency includes the Mendip hills, the southern fringes of the Chew valley and the very edge of the Bristol and Bath basin. It adjoins north-east Somerset and Bath. Both Bath and Wells are naturally completely intertwined with water—the clue is in the name, really. I, too, am delighted to hear of Bath and North East Somerset council’s recent unanimous, cross-party resolution formally to register with the Department of Energy and Climate Change its serious concerns about the potential impact of unconventional gas exploration and extraction in that critical area.

The source of the thermal waters feeding the Bath hot springs in the world heritage site is widely believed by experts to be in the Mendip hills. The hills also feed the city of Wells and the well known Somerset levels, with their several sites of special scientific interest and network of rhynes, most of which were dug under the aegis of the abbot of Glastonbury to ensure that there was water throughout the area. That beautiful and large environmentally sensitive area, with regionally important water supplies, is one of the most complex geological districts of the UK, and the state of geological knowledge of the lower coal measures rocks and the carboniferous shales is extremely limited. We simply do not understand the mechanisms by which those vulnerable hot springs are controlled.

The estimated economic value of the hot springs for tourism and employment is close to £100 million annually and, in my opinion, this is not an area in which any dash for gas can be allowed. The global embarrassment of damaging the world heritage site does not bear consideration. More concerning would be the unknown health and environmental effects of a pollution incident. The earthquakes in Lancashire triggered by lubrication of undetected and apparently still untraceable geological faults are an example of why it is crudely short-sighted to encourage a “drill and see what happens” approach for short-term commercial or revenue gain. Whatever the unconventional gas industry worldwide says, with the present level of technical understanding it is unable to rule out long-term disastrous impacts. Widely reported pollution incidents in the US and Australia seem to reinforce that.

I have no interests to declare, other than those of my constituents, their children and their grandchildren, in particular those who live in Compton Martin, Ston Easton, Glastonbury and Wells, but also the many residents of the villages and towns in the area where I have attended meetings and heard their concerns expressed. I am deeply concerned that any hasty legislative or regulatory streamlining that fast-tracks exploration will inevitably set us up for future environmental and geological failures. The precautionary principle must take precedence.

3.42 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing the debate.

I first want to dismiss the poor arguments produced this afternoon and previously on the merits of shale gas extraction: we should not have the slightest interest in where executives of oil and gas companies went to school; the possibility of a company making a profit in a market economy is not a serious argument or a reason

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to dismiss its proposals; and nor is it of any interest or significance that a businessman might at some point have met a Minister to discuss shale gas—heaven forfend! In the end, the Government have to make a judgment on the basis of the national interest, and that judgment must be approved by the House of Commons. We therefore have to consider the arguments sensibly and seriously, not merely chucking mud or rocks in the belief that that will somehow strengthen the argument. In actual fact, it will not; it will undermine it.

Secondly, I want to talk about my interests, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) did. I have a constituency interest, because the Sussex Weald basin, which covers a large part of my constituency, has been identified as an area that might contain significant reserves of exploitable shale gas. At the moment, we do not know the extent of any possible drilling or how exploitable any reserves might be. Test drilling is about to begin, subject to planning permissions being obtained.

I want to engage in the argument about what the national interest is. It cannot solely consist of the contention that shale gas might lead to cheaper energy and economic benefit, powerful though that argument might be—in any case, we have heard that it is debatable. There are of course other arguments about whether the form of energy generated is sustainable or the kind of clean energy that we should be investing in for the long term. For now, I set aside that important economic argument.

There are other national interests, one of which is our landscape. To pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), some of the areas in which the drilling would have to take place in Sussex are in the national park. National parks are areas with the highest landscape designation, and they are designated as such precisely because the landscape is treated like no other, so there should be a strong presumption against any kind of economic activity that may damage them. That does not mean that no activity can ever take place in a national park, or even that that should be the case, but it does mean that we have to make judgments carefully, recognising the national interest in protecting such areas, not only the local interest or vested local interest. That has to be considered. We must be able to balance the national interest properly.

What has struck me about the debate this afternoon is that we do not yet really know what the effect in each of our constituencies will be. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) suggested that there might be about 164 wells per constituency. I do not know whether that figure is right or wrong, but I do know that my constituents are completely bemused by the possible impact on their areas and the landscape in an entirely rural setting, which is tranquil and quiet and where the countryside is especially valued. Further concerns involve the supply of water in a stressed area and the impact on groundwater. It must be right that should any activity take place, it is conducted according to the highest environmental standards.

The kernel of my argument, however, is the importance of a system that properly balances the arguments both nationally, so that we take a careful view of the national interest and where we should do anything, and locally, so that we preserve the integrity of the local planning system. We must be able to judge locally where activity

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might be particularly damaging to the local area because of a high landscape designation or the impact on the local environment. The process should be gone through transparently, so that communities have a sense that their concerns are being properly weighed and balanced.

Caroline Lucas: I very much agree about the planning system. Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore share my disappointment that the guidelines we were promised from the Department for Communities and Local Government before the recess have not been forthcoming? Does he also share my disappointment that, when they finally arrive in the weeks or months to come, they will not be open to consultation, but simply there as a given?

Nick Herbert: My interest is in what the guidelines say; I will not criticise the Government for not bringing the guidelines forward. I am making a plea for the guidelines to ensure that we maintain the integrity of the local planning process.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) about the need for an evidence-led debate and a good supply of information. That is exactly what my constituents want. They are unclear about the impact of any proposals. We do not know whether the shale gas is exploitable, or what the impact of drilling would be—the footprint of the drills might be minimised, or there might not be as many as suggested, because the gas is not exploitable—and that unknown is fomenting a great deal of fear. The provision of sensible information and having a sensible debate are therefore incredibly important.

Barbara Keeley: The right hon. Gentleman is making some good points about uncertainty, which I can echo from my constituency. Is he slightly disturbed or alarmed, as I am, to hear that the Environment Agency aims to cut its process down to six weeks by September and to between one and two weeks by early next year, and to base that process on rules? I am concerned that each site should be considered on its own merits. We should not have a rulebook approach or deal with things using a method based on “Let’s get this out in one to two weeks.”

Nick Herbert: I am not sure that I accept the hon. Lady’s point. Timely provision of a view by the Environment Agency should be welcomed by constituents. Of course, we do not want to allow a situation in which decisions are in effect being bulldozed through—I accept that—and the independence of the Environment Agency and its ability to weigh such issues properly are important. However, timely provision of information without any obfuscation or delay by the Environment Agency, as can happen in a lot of areas where development proposals are concerned, would be welcome.

I am not here to say that shale gas development must be a bad thing and that we should not pursue the drive to exploit shale. I seek a careful debate in which we ensure a balance of interests and a recognition that the national interest does not consist only in economic advantage, however powerful that argument might be. It also consists in ensuring that we can protect national assets, including the countryside and our landscape. We must ensure that we balance that interest in our national consideration as we design the guidelines and so on,

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and that locally elected councillors can do so and take specific local concerns into account. We should not drive towards this potential new energy source regardless; we should attempt to engage with people and ensure democratic support for what is proposed.

3.51 pm

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Amess. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on allowing this debate to take place. This is the second debate on shale gas that we have had in this Chamber in the last couple of days; some Members here took part in that debate, and some did not.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) had the opportunity to read the Hansard report of Tuesday’s debate. I do not intend to repeat much of my contribution that day, partly because I am conscious that during this debate, Members have raised questions to which they seek responses from the Minister, and I want to ensure the maximum possible time for those answers that he has available to be forthcoming to those Members, who have expressed important points.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). Towards the end of his contribution, he made a crucial and important point about the balance in this debate between different issues that must be properly addressed. I have no financial or registrable interests in anything to do with any aspect of the energy industry, but I have an interest in ensuring that we have a balanced, rational, evidence-based debate and that conclusions are drawn and decisions made on the best evidence available.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion chided me for saying in the debate on Tuesday that some people had an absolutist position. It is not an insult; it is a statement of fact. She has an absolutist position against the extraction of unconventional gas. That is an entirely legitimate position for her to hold; it is a position held by some and diametrically opposed to the position held by others. It was not intended as a slight. My point in saying it was that some people will never be in favour. That is perfectly legitimate. I was interested during the debate on Tuesday, and I am interested during this debate, to consider properly all the factors involved and ensure that all the environmental concerns expressed by numerous Members with constituency interests—including my hon. Friends the Members for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer)—are properly addressed.

Caroline Lucas: The hon. Gentleman implied that it was ideological or absolutist to say that I cannot see what scientific evidence is out there that would persuade me that the extraction of shale gas is compatible with staying below 2ºC. That is an evidence-based position, and to say that it is ideological or absolutist undermines that. That is the point that I was making in my criticism.

Tom Greatrex: The hon. Lady makes my point for me. That is an absolutist position, and she has defined

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in her terms why it is absolutist. In relation to the evidence, I point her to the report by the Committee on Climate Change. Sometimes, when we get into debate on the issue of unconventional gas, we consider that it is only about electricity generation. She will be aware, as other hon. Members are, that we use a considerable amount of gas in this country for heating as well, and we will continue to do so well into the future. I have been on a platform with her in the past when she has made the point about the need for gas as peaking capacity as well. I do not think that she is suggesting that we will not need gas.

The consideration, then, is whether it can be done safely, whether the regulation can be right and whether it can be monitored properly. That is why, in March 2012—I will not read it into the record again, as I did so on Tuesday—I set a number of conditions that I believe need to be met in terms of regulation. However, the monitoring must also be in place, and it must be as comprehensive as the regulation is robust. That is where I have continuing concerns, particularly relating to the resources of the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and their ability to do that.

It is right that people should be concerned about some aspects of self-certification, particularly in the early stages. I take Government Members’ point that the technology is not new, but it is a new application of the technology in the UK context. For that reason, a higher public acceptability test must be met. If it is not met, planning applications will not be successful and shale gas development will not happen. There is an interest in ensuring that it is done properly, which is why I continue to have concerns about the level of monitoring.

Caroline Lucas: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tom Greatrex: I will give way one more time, but then I hope to conclude my remarks.

Caroline Lucas: The hon. Gentleman is kind to give way. I am only intervening again because he is quoting what he says I did or did not say. On the issue of whether we need gas, yes, we need a small amount of gas as a transition fuel to get us to the renewable future that we need, but the question is what to do over the next 10 years. Do we lock ourselves into or put in place the infrastructure for a whole new gas business here in Britain, or do we use the 10 years that it would take to get shale gas going in Britain to invest properly in renewables? There is an opportunity cost and a decision to be made. I would rather we invested in renewables.

Tom Greatrex: I would like us to invest in renewables, because I think that it is important, but I take a slightly different view of the prognosis for how long we will require gas both for heating and for electricity generation. In relation to our indigenous gas supply from the North sea, the hon. Lady will know as well as I do that the extent to which we rely on imports has changed massively in the past 10 years. The trajectory is going one way. If it is possible to extract shale gas safely, and if it is properly regulated and monitored, we may have the benefit of being able to replace some of what we import with indigenous supply. We should not close our minds to that or seek to block it.

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I would like to make a slightly different point to the other extreme. I have been listening to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) responding to other speeches from a sedentary position. He has said a number of times to Members with constituency interests in the issue that it is about showing leadership. With all due respect, leadership is not about hysterical hectoring; it is about ensuring that the approach is evidence-based and that all the arguments can be properly, systematically and fundamentally dealt with, so that people can see exactly what the level of risk is.

Mr Lilley indicated assent.

Tom Greatrex: I see that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me, so I do not want to chance my arm too much, but it does not help when he shouts across the Chamber to people that they should be showing leadership. They are entirely right to address and represent their constituents’ concerns in this debate, as we are in the early stages of potentially developing a new aspect of our energy supply.

I have a couple of final points to make. It is often considered whether shale is the answer to all our energy problems. This speaks to the point made by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) about the tenor of the debate sometimes. I do not think that that is a realistic suggestion. Sometimes, the language around the issue does not help. Suggestions that shale will yield cheap gas, or that an extrapolation of the US experience will apply in precisely the same way in the UK, do not stand up to much scrutiny. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) made a point about how gas is traded, which is one aspect, but there are a number of different factors that make it highly unlikely that the impact on costs here would be the same as in the US.

The Prime Minister talks, as he did yesterday, about making it easier for shale to be extracted. That is not particularly helpful or useful either. It should not be about making it easier; it should be about ensuring that it is done sensitively and appropriately. Members have mentioned the precautionary principle. I suppose that I would use the term “proportionate”. It needs to be proportionate. That is important. If it is not proportionate, it will not happen, and then the potential benefits may not be realised. It needs to be done proportionately and properly. We have had a couple of debates this week and I am sure there will be plenty more during the next few months. Some specific points have been raised with the Minister, and I hope that he will respond to them in those terms. If he does not, he may be in danger of stopping something rather than encouraging it.

4 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): I, too, thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for starting this debate, and all those who have contributed to it. For those of us who were here on Tuesday, this has been a slightly livelier debate, but none the worse for that. I will try to set some context, say more about the way in which the industry is being regulated, deal with some of the myths, and then turn to some of the specific questions and worries that have been expressed. I hope that colleagues will bear with me.

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I start by saying that oil and gas are vital for our economy. About three quarters of our current energy demand is met by oil and gas. Even as we move to lower-carbon sources, which we all want to do, 70% of the primary energy we consume here will come from oil and gas by 2020. They are a vital part of our economy and will remain so for some decades to come, even as we move to a low-carbon economy.

Before I deal with some of the specific questions, let me debunk some of the myths about shale gas: that it is a recent technology, that it is new technology, and that accelerating its exploration involves increasing the risks. Let me take those three myths in turn. The first is that onshore oil and gas production began recently. In fact, we have been exploiting oil and gas onshore for nearly 100 years.

The first production well was drilled onshore in 1919 at Hardstoft in Derbyshire. Since then more than 2,100 conventional wells have been drilled, and onshore production continues to take place throughout our country from the south of England up to Scotland. Just last week, I visited IGas operations in the South Downs national park in Sussex, which is a very good example of how oil and gas operations can work even in the most sensitive environments. We have nearly a century of experience of oil and gas production with no history of chemical spills or gas leaks comparable with the experience in the United States. During that century, we have put in place robust regulation to ensure that oil and gas operations are safe for people and the environment. Given that century of onshore exploration and the expertise and robust supply chains that exist as a result of extraction in the North sea, we are very well placed as a country to make the right decisions about shale.

The second myth is that fracking is new. It is not. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) said, some 2.5 million hydraulic fracturing operations have been performed at oil and gas wells worldwide. It is thought that as of 2010 around 60% of all new oil and gas wells are hydraulically fractured. Some 27,000 wells were drilled in the United States in 2011 and most of them were fracked. Even here, that has been happening in some form for the past 60 years. We have already had some 200 wells fracked in this country. With all that activity, there is still no confirmed evidence of contamination of aquifers caused by fracking.

Caroline Lucas: Will the Minister give way?

Michael Fallon: If the hon. Lady will excuse me, I will not give way.

The United States has felt the great difference that shale gas can make. It has reinvigorated the economy, gas prices have halved, reducing costs for industry and consumers, and billions of dollars of new investment and thousands of jobs have been created. Nations across the globe, including India and China, are looking in on that boom and joining in. We must start to think seriously about shale. We must get on and explore the resources that are there and understand the potential, to see whether shale gas can be extracted here as economically and as technically efficiently as it has been in the United States.

The third myth I must deal with is that we are somehow accelerating shale gas and that that means

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increasing the risk. Conditions vary from country to country, of course, and it is already clear that the shape and development of the industry here will be significantly different from that in the United States. We have the advantage of learning from experience in the United States, but we are, as the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) said, a much more densely populated country, which has implications for where and how we can drill. The geology of our shale, as has been said, is much thicker in some areas, but we are committed to ensuring that the industry can prosper here if the conditions are right.

Barbara Keeley: Will the Minister give way?

Michael Fallon: I will come to some of the hon. Lady’s concerns a little later.

First, we announced last December that fracking could resume with robust regulation, and I emphasise that nothing now prevents a licensee from bringing forward new drilling plans. Secondly, we provided the industry with much fuller geological data on the gas resource in the Bowland-Hodder basin, thanks to the work of the British Geological Survey, and our knowledge of shale resources will be further enhanced when we publish estimates for the Weald basin in the south of England by March next year. Thirdly, we have been very active in creating the right framework to accelerate shale gas exploration in a responsible way. Let me be clear. Accelerating shale gas exploration does not mean that communities will be put at risk.

We have a long history of successful onshore oil and gas production. Getting it right will benefit the industry where it matters in the long term, and across Government we are creating a coherent and concerted approach to shale. We have created the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil to co-ordinate the activities of the regulatory bodies and Departments. We have a world-class safety and environmental regime with a joint approach to inspecting new exploratory operations, and for new and first-time operators, their key operations will be inspected, including the cementing and the main hydraulic fracture.

We are providing tax incentives to create a fertile ground for shale to prosper. We will consult shortly on a new pad allowance to help to unlock investment and to provide significant support to the industry, particularly during the critical exploration phase. I have already announced that next year we will launch a new round of onshore licensing, in which we expect a great deal of interest.

I turn to the planning and regulatory system, which will have a high degree of local scrutiny and prior consultation, which we are setting out in guidance that we will publish very soon. That guidance will not cover every issue when considering proposals for shale gas. It must be read alongside other planning guidance and the national planning policy framework, but it will carry weight in the system. The Government have heard loud and clear what the industry and others in the community have said about the importance of clarifying that the main focus of planning should be on the surface issues—traffic, noise, visual impact and so on.

Responsibility for regulating activities beneath the surface rests largely with the other key regulators. For example, seismic activity is regulated by my Department under our licensing arrangements; potential pollution

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of ground water falls to the Environment Agency; and design and integrity of the wells rests with the Health and Safety Executive. It will, of course, be critical for planning authorities to be content at the planning decision-making stage that the issues that fall to the other regulators will be adequately regulated.

The Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive have already agreed to work closely together and have developed a joint approach to inspecting new exploratory shale gas operations under a memorandum of understanding. That means they have agreed a joint programme of inspection for the next series of hydraulic fracturing operations in England and Wales. For new and first-time shale operators, they will meet and advise them of their legal duties, and conduct a joint inspection of key operations, including the cementing and verification of cementing, and the main hydraulic fracture. In addition, my Department will check that the Environment Agency or its Scottish equivalent, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and the HSE have no objections before consenting to drilling operations.

If hydraulic fracturing for shale gas is intended, we will also require measures to address the risk of induced seismicity—namely, prior analysis of geological risks—and the submission of a detailed fracturing plan, including a traffic light control protocol, before my Department gives any consent for fracking operations.

It remains our strong view that there should be early and constant engagement by the operators with local communities and the key regulators before any planning application is submitted. I therefore welcome the industry’s commitment, in the community engagement charter, to engage earlier with local communities and to be transparent in their activities. However, close engagement with the regulators by such firms is also beneficial, helping to identify issues to be addressed as part of the planning application and other approvals at an early stage. That is the right approach to create a sound basis for a shale industry that can provide more energy security, jobs and investment.

The industry has said that we can expect about 20 to 40 exploration wells to be drilled here in the next couple of years, but I am clear—this point was also made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex)—that success will come only if development is done in true partnership with communities. That means a responsibility to the communities that host shale operations, and there are two vital areas in achieving that: first, it is about engaging communities right at the start of every shale application, and secondly, it is about ensuring that where shale operations are hosted, local people feel that they are getting their fair share of benefit from the development of shale. The community charter that has just been adopted will now be consulted on in the autumn, and its proposals, I hope, will be developed further.

I now want to try to answer some of the questions that were put to me. The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South asked me about the impacts on adjacent wildlife sites, which are important issues to be addressed in the planning system. Where an environmental impact assessment is required, such issues will have to be addressed in the report. They will have to be consulted on and considered again by the planning authority on the basis of that report, before any decisions are made. If any SSSI or other European protected site might be affected,

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a habitats assessment must be made, and that, too, must be similarly considered by the planning authority before any decision is made on planning permission.

The hon. Lady also asked whether the Growth and Infrastructure Act could allow shale and gas projects somehow to bypass local authorities’ planning permission. The Act allows for certain business and commercial projects, defined by regulation, to go directly to the national regime for obtaining planning permission. The Department for Communities and Local Government has consulted on the possible inclusion of oil and gas projects in that process, but in light of the responses to that consultation, I can tell her that that option is not being pursued for the moment. We want those planning decisions to remain with the minerals planning authority in the normal way.

The hon. Lady also asked about the Columbia university study on the domino effect, where distant quakes in one place can trigger quakes at other water disposal sites. It is important to point out, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) did, that the research relates to waste water disposal wells involving volumes of water much greater than those used in fracking. The injection of very large volumes of water can trigger quakes in the ground. That is not news; it has been understood for some time. However, as he also pointed out, that particular technique of disposing of waste water is not used at the moment in the United Kingdom, and it is very unlikely that it would be approved if it were proposed.

Barbara Keeley: Will the Minister give way? There is a point that he has not moved on to, and I think there is time.

Michael Fallon: Of course.

Barbara Keeley: The potential site I mentioned is in a heavily populated urban area, and I spoke about pollution. There is a concern that the air quality is already poor enough and that pollution is exceeding what it should be, but there will no longer be a duty on local councils to monitor that. How can we go forward given that we already have very poor air quality and nobody will be monitoring it?

Michael Fallon: I must apologise to the hon. Lady. A large number of points have been made during this three-hour debate and I was not, I am afraid, going to attempt to answer each of them today. I will pick them up and, if I may, write to colleagues whose points I have not had time to consider.

The hon. Lady asked about pollution. During construction and drilling of the well, the operator will monitor emissions at the site, and that will have to be a permanent feature of operations should the activity proceed to commercial development. The Environment Agency has also recently published research to understand

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how emissions from a well can affect air quality, how they can be monitored and what controls are available. If I can give her any further information on that, I certainly will.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) had concerns about borehole users and whether there would be a reduction in their supplies. It is likely that most operations will use public water supplies so far as practicable, because that is the most likely way to reduce truck movements to and from sites. However, where operators want to extract water directly from aquifers, again, they will need a permit from the Environment Agency that will not be given if the quantities that they require are not sustainable.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made a very large number of points, and I am afraid that I may have to reply to her in writing about some of them. She specifically asked me about the disclosure of the use of chemicals. The answer to her question is yes, the Environment Agency will require disclosure of all substances proposed for injection into groundwater that might affect the water, and it will only approve the use of those chemicals if they are assessed as harmless in that context.

Tom Greatrex: The Minister will be aware that the Environment Agency requirement is for self-certification of what those chemicals are. Will he say any more about ensuring, particularly in any early exploration, that the Environment Agency, or the Scottish Environment Protection Agency is on site when the chemicals are injected, so that it can be absolutely sure about what is going into the process?

Michael Fallon: It is certainly the responsibility of the operator to disclose that; but obviously, it is for the Environment Agency or SEPA to ensure that what is disclosed is accurate. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to write to him on that point to ensure that there is a procedure whereby that information is verified, I would be happy to do so.

Tessa Munt: I hope that the Minister will forgive me a brief intervention. In my experience, the Environment Agency always gives at least a week’s notice, sometimes more, of a visit to inspect when it is looking at procedures. I wonder whether the Minister, while he is writing about the subject, might consider ensuring that spot checks and investigations take place without a period of notice given to the body that is doing the drilling.

Michael Fallon: I will certainly consider that suggestion, and if I may, I will write to my hon. Friend about it.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion also asked me about the differences in well designs between operations here and in the United States and about the possibility that we might have methane leaks on the scale that we have seen in Pennsylvania. I visited the United States to talk to experts, and I am aware that the standard of environmental regulation has varied widely across the different states of America. They do not have the overall, national regulatory system that we have. Practices appear to have been tolerated in some states that would not be acceptable in others.

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I understand that the repertoire of well design technology is essentially the same as in the United States, but the regulatory framework in the United Kingdom is quite different. Here, we have a national regulator—the Health and Safety Executive—which will require a full review of well design and construction by an independent competent person. I should point out to the hon. Lady that the Royal Academy of Engineering commented that that was a highly valuable feature of the United Kingdom’s system. We can certainly learn from the experience in the United States, but I want to emphasise to her that we start from a position of having what the United States did not have—a system of national regulation.

Caroline Lucas: The Minister has referenced, now and at the beginning of his winding-up speech, the fact that our regulations are essentially much stronger. In that respect, I wonder why he would think that it is all right, perhaps, that Britain’s offshore rigs and platforms have leaked oils or other chemicals into the North sea on 55 occasions in the last month alone, according to the figures from DECC. The idea that our drilling regulations generally are somehow much better than those elsewhere is more questionable than he suggests.

The Minister also spoke earlier about the number of countries that are falling over themselves now to go down the fracking route. He did not talk about countries such as France, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Austria, the Republic of Ireland, Spain, Denmark and Germany, all of which have full or partial bans or moratoriums on fracking. That gives a slightly different picture.

Finally—this was one of the key questions that I asked the Minister—why have the planning guidelines been delayed; what does “very soon” mean; and if he is seriously genuinely concerned about consultation with local people, why are those planning guidelines not open to some discussion with the communities?

Michael Fallon: I am coming to the point about planning guidance—I was due to do that—if the hon. Lady can contain herself, but first let me deal with the point about the North sea.

Caroline Lucas: Honestly!

Michael Fallon: I was coming to the point about planning guidance. The hon. Lady has somehow suggested that I was not or that I had missed it. Let us just deal with her slur on the North sea. The North sea has one of the most extensive safety regimes in the world. Of course, we have learned from the accident on Piper Alpha, which sadly took place 25 years ago this month. Of course we have learned from that, but if she compares operations in the North sea with operations in other seas right around the world, she will see that we have one of the best and safest regimes there is. The proof of that is precisely the fact that the incidents that she referred to have to be reported to the Heath and Safety Executive, which is at present in Aberdeen. They have to be monitored; explanations are required from those involved. I think that it is rather remiss of the hon. Lady to try to suggest somehow that there is laxity in our regime in the North sea.

Caroline Lucas: On that point—

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Michael Fallon: The hon. Lady raised two other questions in her last intervention, but I will give way if she wants to intervene again.

Caroline Lucas: I should like to intervene again, first to say to you, Mr Amess, that I think that this is yet another example of the kind of patronising tone that we hear again and again from Government Members, particularly towards women in this Chamber, and I absolutely deplore it. Secondly, and more to the point of the debate, the Minister says that I am casting a slur on the North sea somehow. The facts are that there have been 55 leaks in the last month. Is he or is he not comfortable with that fact?

Mr David Amess (in the Chair): Order. This is a very warm afternoon. I just appeal to hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber to bear that in mind. We are the mother of all Parliaments. Let us continue to have a civilised debate, but obviously I have heard what has been said.

Michael Fallon: Yes, I am content that the safety regime in the North sea is fit for purpose. It is kept constantly under review. I was struck during the events to commemorate the Piper Alpha disaster that I attended by the commitment of those involved—the Health and Safety Executive and others—continuously to improve the safety regulation regime in the North sea, and that is what they are doing.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion asked me about the fact that some countries now do not want to go down the fracking route. That is perfectly true. Some have decided not to do so, but there is fracking in other countries right across Europe. In Poland, fracking is taking place. It is taking place right across the globe and as far away as Australia. As I said, there is worldwide interest in the success of shale gas in the United States and other unconventional oil and gas in Canada. I think that it would be a little unfortunate if we were to close our minds to that.

The hon. Lady asked why we have not consulted on planning guidance. The Government do not normally consult on planning guidance. We consult on planning policy. We have prepared the guidance in line with the principles set out by Lord Taylor of Goss Moor. This is a living, web-based resource that is easier to read alongside other parts of planning guidance. It will be on the website shortly, and it will be easier to adapt if we need to do so on the basis of experience.

Barbara Keeley: We were expecting something to be published today; the word “publish” was used. The Minister seems to be saying that it will be published only on a website. Some of my constituents live in a deprived area and will not necessarily have the internet. Is he saying that no printed version of the guidance will be available?

Michael Fallon: I will certainly check that, but the point of putting the guidance on the website is that it is a living document that can be and is adapted the whole time in the light of experience. That is what it is up there for and that is obviously more difficult with hard copies, but I will of course look into whether hard copies can be made available for colleagues in the House. We were

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hoping to get the guidance out before the House rose for the recess. It is possible now that we will miss that deadline by a few hours or a day or two. We have been trying very hard not to do that, but it will not be long now before that guidance is available to everyone involved.

As we move to a low-carbon future, oil and gas will continue to be a key part of our energy mix for decades to come. We believe that shale gas has the potential to provide the United Kingdom with greater energy security, more investment and more jobs. We have a strong regulatory system, which provides a comprehensive and fit-for-purpose regime for exploratory activities, but we do want continuously to improve it. We have taken important steps to streamline the regulatory framework, but that is not at the cost of robustness. It is about ensuring that the regulation does not duplicate things and is clear, simple and understandable not just for the developers, but for the public and the local communities that will be asked whether they are prepared to host shale exploration and production. It is very clear—it is even clearer after this debate—that to get those basics right, we must also work tirelessly to engage people with clear, evidence-based information, so that they have hard facts on which to make an informed decision about fracking.

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I think that I concluded Tuesday’s debate in Westminster Hall on this subject by saying that we should approach shale gas neither as zealots nor as victims, but looking at the evidence and going step by step to ensure that the potential of shale is thoroughly understood, analysed and explored, so that if it really can benefit our economy and our people in the way that it has benefited those in the United States, it will be able to do so.

Mr David Amess (in the Chair): I was not anticipating that any time would be left, but would the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion like to speak again?

4.27 pm

Caroline Lucas: That is very kind, Mr Amess. I sense that the mood in the room is one of warmth. We have probably done our best with this debate, so I thank the Minister for his words. It will not come as a surprise to him that I do not agree with him, and I am sure that the debate will continue.

Question put and agreed to.

4.28 pm

Sitting adjourned.