Government accused of relying on industry to regulate fracking

Labour accused the government yesterday of taking a “lackadaisical” approach to regulating fracking by relying on voluntary agreements with the industry.

The Labour peer, Baroness Worthington, told a committee of the House of Lords there was a “deep sense of mistrust” to fracking. Opposition to the process was “genuine and very heart-felt”.

This distrust needs to be addressed, she said. “It can only be done when the government comes forward with comprehensive regulations that ensure that the environment is put at the heart of this and not just seen as an after-thought.”

Baroness Worthington said: “My sense is that the government is taking rather a lackadaisical approach to this and thinking that if the industry says it is doing it, it must be doing it. That is not how you engender trust.”

The discussion came during the committee stage of the Infrastructure Bill, which seeks to give oil and gas companies a right to drill for shale gas below 300m without the permission of a landowner. The government recently added amendments which would give operators rights to leave deep-level land in a different condition and to keep or pass substances deep underground. [See our report]

These amendments did not address any of the environmental aspects of fracking, Lady Worthington said, and this was “regrettable”. She proposed amendments that would require:

  • Environmental Impact Assessments for all shale sites
  • Baseline monitoring of methane emissions, ecology and surface water for 12 months before shale gas extraction could begin
  • Disclosure of the composition and quantity of hydraulic fluid used in fracking
  • A report on fugitive greenhouse gas emissions from onshore energy extraction within six months of the bill becoming law
  • Local authorities to consult water companies when considering a planning application for shale gas extraction

Amendments proposed by other peers included:

  • A mandatory contingency fund to meet the cost of damage to the environment or people (Lord Whitty)
  • The exclusion from the 14th licensing round of sensitive wildlife sites, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest, RAMSAR sites (internationally important wetland areas), and the European designations of Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation (Baroness Young of Old Scone).

Baroness Verma, for the government, said there were already regulations or voluntary agreements with the industry that would give the protection the amendments sought. She said: “There are robust regulations in place to ensure onsite safety, prevent water contamination, mitigate seismic activity and minimise air emissions and the government is not proposing to change these.”

On the contingency fund, Baroness Verma conceded: “If a shale gas operator becomes insolvent and no rescue mechanism for the company can be found … then liability could ultimately pass to the landowner.”

But she said planning authorities and regulators could require an upfront bond from an operator. As an alternative, the Department of Energy and Climate Change was working with the UK Onshore Operators’ Group to establish an industry scheme, which she said would protect landowners and the public.

On Environmental Impact Assessments, Baroness Verma said “Operators appreciate that at this early stage of development public confidence is key. They have therefore voluntarily agreed to conduct EIAs wherever fracking is involved.” But she described as “disproportionate” the proposal to legislate for mandatory EIAs for all shale sites.

On monitoring of methane emissions, she said: “A blanket approach of 12 months for all sites would not be appropriate “. And on the disclosure of chemicals, she said the industry had “committed to publishing this information, including each of the chemicals used, the total volume of frack fluid used and the maximum volume of each chemical within that.”

Baroness Worthington criticised this approach. “If you leave it to the operators to do everything on a voluntary basis, including paying for all of this, where is your reassurance that it is being done to the correct standards?”

She asked how the government proposed to monitor the voluntary agreements. Was it, for example, monitoring whether planning applications were being submitted with Environmental Impact Assessments? “I have had representation from groups to say that they are going in without publically-available Environmental Impact Assessments”, she said.

Baroness Worthington added: “It can only be a good thing if you can build confidence and demonstrate that you are taking those environmental questions seriously”. This was even more important, she said “when you have a prime minister who attends a climate change meeting in New York and uses it as a platform to say fracking is the answer and we have to get rid of the green tape holding it back. That is not the way to engender trust and support among the general public.”

There was no discussion on the government amendments, which were all passed. Baroness Verma said those dealing with a right to keep substances in deep-level land applied only to the exploitation of petroleum or deep geothermal energy. They would not, she said, “create any provision for nuclear waste”.

All the other amendments were withdrawn, which is usual at the committee stage of a bill, when key issues are traditionally debated but not forced to a vote. Baroness Worthington said Labour would return to the issues in its amendments later in the passage of the legislation.

List of amendments considered yesterday

[Post updated to include explanation for the withdrawal of amendments]

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