A Conservative backbencher has challenged the Prime Minster to change the regulations that allow fracking companies to self-monitor their operations.
Anne McIntosh, the MP for Thirsk and Malton, also demanded David Cameron publish a full version of a redacted report on the impacts of shale gas. And she called for the compulsory production and publication of environmental impact assessments for all fracking planning applications.
Miss McIntosh, whose constituency includes a proposed fracking site at Kirby Misperton, made her calls during the Prime Minister’s appearance before the House of Commons Liaison Committee this afternoon (16/12/2014).
David Cameron, who promised to look into her requests, said: “I think we have a good [regulatory] regime in place. … I don’t believe this is an industry that is in danger of under-regulation”.
Miss McIntosh, who chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee, said she and the public were worried about companies regulating themselves. She was also concerned about the effect that staff and budget cuts at the Environment Agency would have on regulating the industry.
Mr Cameron said: “From everything I have heard about this, there is an enormous amount of regulatory hurdles that companies have to go through, arguably we are making it too complicated”.
Miss McIntosh replied: “With the greatest respect, Prime Minister, it [fracking] is not coming to Whitney any time soon”.
Mr Cameron said: “I would be very happy if it did”.
Consultation of water companies
Miss McIntosh also asked Mr Cameron why local authorities were not obliged to consult water companies when considering fracking applications.
Mr Cameron said: “In the planning system, everyone is consulted”.
“It doesn’t say that”, Miss McIntosh said.
Mr Cameron replied: “In planning, you know Anne, everyone is able to put their point across.” He then added: “One well uses less water in its life time than a golf course uses in a month. Interesting fact”.
The Prime Minister said: “This debate will only be won or lost when there are some wells in Britain carrying out unconventional gas recovery and people can see – as I believe it is – that this can be done cleanly, without environmental problems and it can have benefits for the community.”
“But Prime Minister, you are asking the public to take an awful lot on trust”, Miss McIntosh said.
“No I am not”, Mr Cameron replied.
“You said yourself that we need to carry the public with us”, Miss McIntosh added. “So why was the Shale Gas Rural Economic Impact Report so heavily redacted as published by DEFRA?”
Mr Cameron said he had not seen the report.
Companies that break the rules will be shut down
The Prime Minister said fracking companies that did not comply with regulations would “immediately lose their licence” and those that made any mistakes “would be shut down”.
He said: “My view is that if shale gas can be recovered safely, in an environmentally-protected way and local communities can benefit then we should do it”.
He criticised those environmental groups who were against shale gas “for the simple reason that it is gas”. He said: “They cannot bear the thought of another carbon-based fuel rearing its ugly head and they are opposing it with a religiosity that I think is frankly wrong”.
Timescale for shale
Another Conservative, David Davies, the MP for Monmouth, asked when the first shale gas wells were likely to be drilled.
Mr Cameron said: “I am hopeful that the first wells will be dug next year”. He added: “We hope that this industry, once the first wells are dug, will start to grow quite rapidly”.
The Prime Minister conceded: “People are very worried about it and I think they will go on being worried about it until they can see that there is much less to worry about than they think.”
In response to a suggestion from Tim Yeo (Conservative, South Suffolk) that there should be greater incentives to communities that accepted fracking early, Mr Cameron said: “I don’t think the problem at the moment is local communities saying if only there was another 1% we’d go for it. I think the problem is that people are worried and uncertain about it. And it is only when they see, when you get a community that is happy with what has happened and benefitting, that others will see that there are advantages”.