Andrea Leadsom: Yorkshire should welcome frackers with open arms

Our reliance on gas means it's too good an opportunity to miss

IT’S welcome to see a debate in your pages about how we power our country securely and affordably, and the role shale gas could play. But at the same time it’s important that such a debate doesn’t distort the facts.

That’s why I want to address the concerns expressed in your paper – “Government urged to withdraw permits for drilling” and “Planners draw up ‘fracking-free buffer zone’ near national park” – on February 20.

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Shale gas is a fantastic opportunity for Yorkshire. It would create a significant number of local jobs meaning financial security for hard working people and their families, boost our economy and strengthen our energy security.

In a recent survey carried out by my department, we found that over half of people asked believed that the UK uses more electricity than gas in their homes. This is not true, gas accounts for over 60 per cent of household energy use, while electricity accounts for only 25 per cent.

We use gas in our homes for heating and cooking, and it’s also used in factories up and down the country to produce products like soaps, paints and adhesives, textiles for clothes, and the plastics found everywhere from our mobile phones and computers to sterile medical equipment.

So the choice for people in Yorkshire, and across the UK, is not whether we want gas or don’t want gas. The choice we face is how much we want to rely on gas from abroad – some of which may not be reliable – or whether we extract more from here in the UK.

Having a choice of where we get our energy, including producing our own wherever we can, is the best way to make sure we have secure supplies for our homes and businesses.

But, crucially, this must be done safely – for people and the environment – and only take place in appropriate locations.

Safety is absolutely my priority. If there was clear evidence that fracking would lead to water contamination, damage our environment and risk people’s health, we just wouldn’t support it.

The reality is that credible studies, carried out by scientists and other experts, consistently find that fracking poses no more risk than similar, already established, industrial processes.

The UK’s regulations are some of the strongest in the world, and with over 50 years of successful and safe onshore and offshore oil and gas extraction, I am confident that the protections for the environment are totally rigorous.

The independent Task Force for Shale Gas review found that fracking would be safe as long as the Government insists on industry-leading standards – and I can assure you that we are doing exactly that.

We will only allow fracking at a depth of at least 1,000 metres below ground level – 600 metres below the deepest point that most drinking water aquifers may be found, and we will not allow it in national parks and other protected areas.

We ask the Environment Agency to examine each individual fracking application to ascertain what chemicals are going to be used and where companies want to drill. If they find that any of the proposals present a risk to water supply, then they will not grant a permit.

I also want to address head on suggestions that national parks could become ringed by fracking sites. I can categorically say that this will not happen. The decision as to whether or not a site is given planning permission must not only consider the impact of individual sites, but the cumulative visual impact of having a number of sites in one area.

I recently visited a conventional gas drilling site in the Sussex countryside which, while not a fracking site, was very similar to how one would look. I talked to local residents to find out what they thought about the site and they told me that while they had concerns when the site was proposed, in reality it was “practically invisible” and very quiet. Having visited the site, I saw this for myself. You could walk along a pathway nearby and have no idea that this site was even there. The drill heads are only six feet high, very quiet and the entire site, which is gravelled, is only about the size of two football pitches.

I was also glad to hear that, following local requests, the company concerned now keeps some activity to daylight hours only. This was welcomed by the community and we would expect the same level of local engagement from companies intending to extract shale gas.

I truly believe that shale gas is too good an opportunity to miss with real benefits providing home-grown gas for our homes and businesses, as well as skilled, long term jobs which will help boost economic growth and local investment.

But just to be clear – safety is paramount and will always come first. Now is the time to start exploration and find out just how much shale gas is there and how much we can get out of the ground.

Andrea Leadsom MP is the Energy Minister.