Energy minister dismisses fears about fracking

The government has dismissed concerns about the impact of fracking on health, water quality, climate change and local businesses. It also rejected criticism of conflicts of interest and a failure to take part in public debates about fracking.

Responding to questions from the organisation Talk Fracking, the new energy minister, Matthew Hancock, stressed repeatedly that the UK had a “strong regulatory system” and 50 years of experience of onshore oil and gas operations. He said the government was certain that public health would not be put at risk.

Talk Fracking, which promotes an open debate about hydraulic fracturing, sent seven questions to Mr Hancock in late August. The minister replied last week and his responses were released by the government yesterday. Click here for the full response

Question 1: Water and fracking

Talk Fracking asked whether contamination of British water supplies by fracking was inevitable. It cited 100 cases of water contamination in Pennsylvania and argued that the UK had 400 times more fault lines than US, suggesting that contamination would be more likely here. It also referred to a report by the British Geological Society which stated that it would be “difficult to guarantee” that hot water springs in Bath would not be contaminated by fracking.

Mr Hancock said contamination was not inevitable. He referred to what he described as the UK’s “strong and comprehensive regulatory system”. He said: “The UK has over 50 years of experience in regulating onshore oil and gas without any examples of groundwater contamination”. He also included this quote from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE): “There is a robust health and safety regulatory regime in place, aimed at ensuring there is no unplanned release of fluids from the well throughout its life.”

Question 2: Health and fracking

Talk Fracking asked Mr Hancock: “How can you be sure that our health will not be put at risk from fracking?” It said fracking was not a proven safe technology, and quoted the earthquakes at Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall well and reported threats to heath, which have included birth defects, respiratory problems and cancer.

Mr Hancock replied: “We are certain public health will not be put at risk and public safety is our number one priority”. He said: “We have a strong regulatory framework in place to ensure a comprehensive regime for exploratory activities”. He again mentioned the UK’s 50 years of experience in oil and gas drilling.

Mr Hancock also referred to a report by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering which, he said, “concluded that environmental and health and safety risks can be managed effectively in the UK, when operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation”.

[The Royal Society and Royal Academy report made 10 recommendations for the regulation of shale gas. So far, only one has been implemented. We’ll be looking into this issue soon].

Question 3: Fracking and climate change

Talk Fracking said there was international agreement that if temperatures rose above 2 degrees centigrade runaway climate change was inevitable. To achieve this, the organisation said, 80% of known fossil fuel reserves needed to remain in the ground. It asked: How does backing fracking instead of renewables help avoid catastrophic climate change?

Mr Hancock said the government believed in a “strong and diverse energy mix”. He said there had been record investment in renewable energy and the government saw shale gas as bridge fuel to a greener future. He said the government was taking “strident action” to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, through home insulation, renewable heating and replacing polluting power stations.

Mr Hancock quoted the report by Professor David Mackay and Dr Tim Stone which he said “concluded that the carbon footprint of UK produced shale gas would likely be significantly less than coal and also lower than imported Liquefied Natural Gas.”

[The Mckay and Stone report also said that any increase in emissions associated with domestic shale gas operations would have to be offset by emissions cuts elsewhere in the economy.]

Question 4: Public debate

Mr Hancock was asked if he would attend a Talk Fracking debate to address public concerns. The organisation said the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the UK Onshore Operators’ Group and Cuadrilla had failed to provide anyone to take part in its debates earlier this year.

Mr Hancock said government ministers and officials had “attended numerous public events” and had listened to concerns and answered questions. “We are grateful for opportunities to discuss this important issue”, he said, “but cannot accept every invitation so choose the ones we think most constructively meet the public’s needs.”

Question 5: Fracking and threats to local businesses

Talk Fracking said fracking may have an adverse effect on tourism, brewing, farming and fishing. It cited concerns by the National Farmers’ Union and the Anglers’ Trust. It asked: “How will you ensure fracking companies have responsibility for compensation in the event of environmental or economic damage?

Mr Hancock replied: “The UK has a long history of offshore and onshore oil and gas exploitation over 50 years and has developed a robust regulatory framework”. He said operators were responsible for meeting very “exact standards” and their work would be scrutinised by the HSE. He quoted from a report by EY, which projected that a flourishing shale gas industry could lead to 64,500 jobs.

[The EY report assumes that each fracking pad has 10 wells with 4 laterals each. 6,100 of the projected jobs would be direct roles].

Question 6: Fracking and conflicts of interest

Talk Fracking drew attention to the government’s close connections to the drilling industry. The organisation singled out Lord Browne, the chair of Cuadrilla and the Government’s Lead Non-Executive, and Sir Phillip Dilley, the incoming chair of the Environment Agency and former chair of Arup, which worked for Cuadrilla. How can we trust the government on fracking when there are clear conflicts of interest? the organisation asked.

Mr Hancock replied that all onshore oil and gas projects underwent scrutiny by DECC, the HSE and the planning system. He said Lord Browne did not advise the government on shale gas or energy policy. Sir Phillip’s appointment had been confirmed after a review by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee.

Question 7: Fracking and energy security

Talk Fracking asked how fracking would provide energy security, given doubts about the economic viability and size of shale reserves.

Mr Hancock said: “The shale gas beneath the UK is an important domestic energy resource that has the potential to bolster our energy security, create jobs and provide a bridge to a green future”. He said recent events in Eastern Europe underlined the importance of continued energy security.

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