Julian Sturdy: Common sense must prevail over fracking

AN influential Parliamentary Committee has called on the Government to streamline the “unnecessarily complicated” regulations surrounding fracking.

The Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee published its report on the economic impact on UK energy policy of shale gas and oil, arguing that our exploration for shale gas is too slow and that we should seriously consider overhauling our existing regulations to make fracking an urgent national priority.

I, for one, disagree. The potential benefits of fracking may well prove to be transformative, but they will only ever be achieved with the support of local communities and the necessary safeguards.

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Fracking has revolutionised the American energy market, where gas prices are now around a third of what we pay in Britain.

Plentiful shale gas deposits have not only allowed the United States to switch from costly gas imports to the lucrative role of a major energy exporter, they have also supported over two million new jobs and saved billions of dollars in constructing a new generation of nuclear power plants unnecessary.

There is no guarantee, however, that such radical benefits will be replicated on this side of the Atlantic. While the committee accepts that it is impossible to know exactly how much shale gas exists under our island, estimates range up to a high of a 40-year gas supply. This would enable us to reduce our increasingly precarious dependence on imported energy from an ever more unstable Middle East and belligerent Russia, insulating us from future energy shocks.

While I welcome any new jobs and investment, it is crucial that local communities benefit from any development in their area. After all, whilst the perils of fracking may well have been exaggerated, there can be no doubt that nearby residents will face disruption, as is the case with all new development.

As a result of a joint Government-industry package, a typical well could generate between £5 to £10m of community benefits over its lifetime. Whether this is enough to persuade the local community to support the project is entirely a matter for them alone. In light of the potential benefits, the committee laments that exploration is progressing at a “snail’s pace” preventing our industry from capitalising on a potentially lucrative windfall.

What their Lordships fails to recognise, however, is that such caution is vital to maintaining local support. Indeed the report itself accepts that “public acceptance at a local level is essential if shale gas is to be exploited”, which strangely does not feature as prominently in their conclusion as it should.

Given the sensationalist media coverage of earthquakes, falling house prices, and toxic tap water, it should be no surprise that public opinion remains largely hostile to fracking. In 2011 the Government placed a moratorium on it for over a year to investigate safety concerns after seismic activity was detected in Blackpool.

Despite being widely reported as an “earthquake”, the largest tremor was a reading of 2.3 on the Richter scale. No property damage occurred. A much stronger tremor occurred on the Norfolk coast earlier this month and went largely unnoticed despite measuring a far higher 3.4 on the Richter scale.

In light of such scaremongering in some of our more colourful newspapers, the Government rightly asked our two leading scientific communities, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, to examine the safety implications. After a detailed study of the evidence based on the latest scientific research available they duly concluded that fracking was safe, provided best practice was enforced.

Their Lordships should have paid closer attention as clearly best practice cannot be achieved if our safeguards are trivialised to a mere box ticking exercise in the dash for gas they advocate.

The UK currently has one of the most stringent regulatory regimes anywhere in the world and fracking can only ever take place after the necessary permits have been obtained from the Department for Energy and Climate Change, the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the relevant local council.

It is absolutely essential that we take the necessary steps to safeguard our rural communities and agricultural land in Yorkshire, which is amongst the most productive in Europe, and so I would exercise extreme caution over such irresponsible calls to speed up the process.

Ultimately a commonsense approach must prevail. This requires not only the support of local communities but also a widely respected regulatory system, and a well informed debate about how best to realise the potentially revolutionary benefits of what remains a highly controversial industry.

• Julian Sturdy is the Conservative MP for York Outer.