Fracking headlines from this afternoon’s Infrastructure Bill committee

DrillOrDrop.com reviews this afternoon’s discussion  of Labour amendments to clauses on fracking in the Infrastructure Bill

Notification of fracking proposals

Labour sought to require operators to notify people individually of drilling under their properties, reversing a government decision, which came into effect in January last year. Currently operators must publish a notice in the local paper and install site notices.

The shadow Energy Minister,Tom Greatrex, referred to the findings of a report by the Director of Public Health for Lancashire which concluded that lack of information about fracking proposals was increasing levels of stress among residents.

He said:

“Ensuring that people are informed of something happening in their area presents them with an opportunity to be able to ask questions, to be able to have their concerns addressed, and to then take an informed position”.

The Climate Change Minister, Amber Rudd, said the current arrangements were adequate and the amendment would “unnecessarily delay bringing forward shale gas development”. The government was not hiding from scrutiny, she said, and the amendment does not add to the efforts to reassure the public.

She said she shared concerns about stress but added:

“I think it would be far better for those residents if the opposition accepted our reassuring comments on these amendments and would not raise their levels of stress by continuing to press them”.

Labour did not insist on a vote.

Protected areas

Labour said the protection from fracking for National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty should be extended to nationally and internationally important wildlife sites, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Tom Greatrex said there were gaps in the planning framework for these sites that should be closed.

Amber Rudd said there was already robust protection under the planning system and the amendment would not add to or strengthen this protection. She said new government guidance issued last July stated that planning applications should be refused for major hydrocarbon developments in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites except in exceptional circumstances and where the application is in the national interest.

When pressed on the definition of exceptional circumstances, she said: “It is very hard to describe what constitutes exceptional circumstances and that is the right approach. It gives local decision makers the discretion they need to make the right decisions for local people”.

Labour did not insist on a vote.

Cumulative impacts

Dr Alan Whitehead sought to ensure that the cumulative effect of fracking applications were considered by regulators.

Amber Rudd said the regulatory system already required planning authorities and the Environment Agency to take account of cumulative impacts. The amendment added nothing to the existing approach, she said, and only risk confusion in relation to the “well-established, well-functioning process.”

Labour did not insist on a vote.

Substances left underground

Labour sought to change the clause of the Infrastructure Bill, which would allow substances to be left underground by drilling companies by replacing the words “any substance” with the words “substances approved by the Environment Agency”.

Tom Greatrex said the use by the Bill of the words “any substance” was provocative, needlessly open-ended and had raised publicly concerns.

Amber Rudd said “There has been some confusion about this line in the Bill, which has been taken out of context sometimes and interpreted to mean that any substance, including some suggest even nuclear waste could be stored underground”.

She said substances were limited to those relating the exploitation of oil or gas or deep geothermal energy. Operators would have no new rights than they have under the existing system where they negotiate rights with a landowner, she said. They would still need to obtain planning permissions and environmental permits.

She said the word “substance” meant more than fracking fluids. It could include electricity or “any other intangible thing” needed for hydrocarbon or deep geothermal energy exploitation that were not currently dealt with by the Environment Agency.

Labour insisted on a vote. The amendment was defeated (8 votes in favour; 10 votes against).

Community benefit

Labour called for a government scheme, rather than one run by the industry, to ensure that local communities which experienced fracking received benefits. Tom Greatrex said the amendment was supported by the Local Government Association. He said the current scheme proposed by the industry organisation, UKOOG, was not guaranteed. There was nothing to stop developers or the trade body from reneging. In future, he said, operators may not be part of UKOOG and would not be bound by it.

Amber Rudd said the voluntary community benefit scheme “offers a multitude of benefits to communities when compared with a statutory system”. She said the schemes could be “flexibly applied and tailored to the community’s need”.

Labour did not insist on a vote.

Planning conditions

Labour sought to ensure that planning conditions on fracking would be enforced. Its amendment inserted the words “subject to conditions laid out in planning permission” to the clause dealing with the use of deep-level land. The shadow planning minister, Roberta Blackman-Woods, said:

“Many communities will be very concerned about fracking happening in their area and will be relying on planning conditions to give them a degree of protection.”

Amber Rudd repeated that operators would continue to need the planning permissions and permits.

Labour insisted on a vote. The amendment was defeated (6 votes in favour; 11 against).

Fugitive methane emissions

Labour sought to require operators to measure, monitor and publicly disclose fugitive emissions on a site by site basis. Tom Greatrex said “It is important that the level of fugitive emissions are properly measured and assessed”. The data would, he said, give operators “robust evidence and objective information on how far they are contributing to the level of greenhouse gas emissions”.

Amber Rudd said the UK reported annual estimates of fugitive methane emissions, which would include any future shale gas sites. She said a research project was planned to measure and understand the scale of onsite emissions from shale gas activities.

Labour insisted on a vote. The amendment was defeated (7 votes in favour; 11 against).

Independent well examiners

Labour called for well inspections to be carried out by the Health and Safety Executive. Tom Greatrex said under current regulations an operator could appoint someone as a well examiner who was directly employed by the company.

“We felt that was undesirable and well examiners should be truly independent”.

He said companies should not be allowed to “mark their own homework”.

Amber Rudd said UK health and safety legislation placed “the job of managing risk in the hands of those best placed to do so – those that create the risk, which in this case are the operators”. She said the competence of the well examiner was the most important issue.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the existing arrangements and legislation do not work effectively”, she said.

Labour did not insist on a vote.

Environmental Impact Assessments

Labour sought to require mandatory EIAs for all oil and gas drilling operations, not as currently required for just those measuring 1ha or more. Tom Greatrex pointed to drilling sites that measured 0.99ha and had avoided the requirement of an EIAs.

Amber Rudd said the environmental effects of drilling were already “robustly assessed”. Mandatory EIAs for all petroleum activities, even when fracking was not involved, would be unnecessary, she said. EIAs involved substantial work, often taking a year. Requiring them would slow down development and add to costs, with no discernible environmental benefit. She said Labour’s amendment would “gold plate” the environmental impact regulations and could be seen to be “sanctioning an overly cautious approach” by planning authorities.

Labour did not insist on a vote.

Disclosure of chemicals

Labour said chemicals used in fracking, which the companies already disclose to the Environment Agency, should be required by law to be published.

Amber Rudd said there was already an industry scheme to disclose chemicals used in fracking. But the government acknowledged concerns about the industry complying with these commitments. The Environment Secretary would therefore instruct the Environment Agency to publish the information on chemicals that they required operators to disclose to them.

Labour did not insist on a vote.

Consultation with the water industry

Labour said water companies should be statutory consultees for any fracking panning applications. This would require them to make a substantive response to an application, including their reasons for any support or objection.

Amber Rudd said the government had been looking into the proposal as part of a broad review of statutory consultees. It would bring forward any necessary legislation before the general election.

Labour did not insist on a vote.

Groundwater baseline monitoring

Labour said there should be a requirement of groundwater baseline methane monitoring at fracking sites, before, during and after operations. Tom Greatrex said this would allow a “full and proper assessment of whether there has been any impact or not” on groundwater. Currently he said, claims could be made which were not possible to prove or refute because there was no the baseline information.

Labour also called for baseline monitoring to be carried out over a period of 12 months, in line with British Geological Survey practice. And baseline data should be published in a manner that allows it to be subjected to scientific peer review.”

Amber Rudd said the government supported the principle of baseline monitoring. She said the Environment Secretary would direct the Environment Agency to require operators to undertake baseline monitoring for at least three months of methane in groundwater before fracking could start. It should be published in a transparent way that could be of use to communities, she said. Fixed lengths for monitoring of biodiversity or surface water was not appropriate, she added.

Labour did not insist on a vote.

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