IS shale gas exploration right for the UK, right now, and right for the constituency I represent?
The benefits of shale gas exploration are clear. Greater energy independence and security at a time of significant international uncertainty is a compelling proposition, as is the prospect of a prosperous new industry that can provide new jobs, business opportunities and direct financial benefit to local communities.
The economy is important, but no economic benefit, vested interest or party political pressure could ever lead me to support something that I believed would have a detrimental effect on our countryside or the health of local residents. Over the last 10 months, I have met parties on either side of the fracking debate in an attempt to get a clearer understanding of the issues.
On Saturday morning, I visited the village of Kirby Misperton in my constituency, where an application to drill for shale gas has recently been submitted. Of about 50 people in attendance, 44 were against fracking and six had an open mind; none was in favour. These people are not professional campaigners: they are decent local people, desperately worried that fracking will change their lives forever.
Their concerns mainly centre on safety – the potential for contamination of water supplies and air pollution – during production and after the producer has made their money and left; the spoiling of countryside by drilling rigs, noise and light pollution and lorry movements; and, at the end of the day, who cleans up and who pays up if things go wrong.
First, on safety, the fact that other administrations – France, Germany, New York state and so on – have banned fracking is a major worry to many. So too is the Shale Gas: Rural Economy Impacts report from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which had 63 redactions within 13 pages, including of a whole section on the impact on house prices. The Government’s position that “there is a strong public interest in withholding the information” did little to ease anxieties. It leads many members of the public to feel that they are being deceived, patronised or treated with contempt. We have only one chance: we need to get it right and to be seen to get it right.
Many are also concerned about the amount of water required and whether it can be safely decontaminated and recycled, and whether contaminates can be disposed of, particularly on the scale proposed.
The spoiling of countryside is another major concern. I would be first in a long line of local residents who would fight tooth and nail to prevent any attempt to produce shale gas in my area in a way that industrialises the landscape. Traditionally, the fracking process involves a high number of lorry movements and unsightly infrastructure.
Just one of the companies, Third Energy, has stated that it might drill 950 wells in less than a third of my constituency, which would require hundreds of thousands of lorry movements, all in one of the country’s most beautiful counties, with an economy dependent on agriculture and tourism.
The beauty of our countryside is North Yorkshire’s main asset and we must protect this at all costs. I propose clear planning guidance that there must be buffer zones, with a minimum distance between sites of, say, six miles. We do not want the images of a fracked industrial landscape from North Dakota to become a reality here.
The 2012 Royal Society report recommends recycling and reuse of waste water and that water disposal options should be planned from the outset, thereby reducing traffic and the impact on local communities. Who cleans up and who pays up if things go wrong?
As far as the jewels in the crown are concerned – Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Parks, ancient woodlands and sites of special scientific interest – we need to state unequivocally that production will not take place in such areas.
All energy sources have impacts. As MPs, we have constituents who might be against onshore wind, solar farms, nuclear power or energy from waste. Twenty years ago in my constituency, many had similar fears when proposals were announced to carry out conventional gas exploration. Protests took place, views were heard and compromises were reached.
Many members of the public have an open mind on fracking; others have genuine safety concerns. Whatever their viewpoint, it is critical that we keep the public informed.
In summary, we need independent monitoring and publicly available analysis; a defined minimum radius between production sites; a clear solution on water recycling and disposal to reduce traffic; additional blight compensation for any person or community directly impacted; the release of an unredacted version of the Defra report; a willingness to stop if lives and livelihoods are affected to unacceptable levels; and a clear answer to the question of who cleans up and who pays if the worst happens. We need to take the public with us, consult, provide expert scientific information and ensure that people do not feel they are being pushed or manipulated.
Kevin Hollinrake is the Thirsk and Malton MP who spoke in a Parliamentary debate on shale gas. This is an edited version of his speech.