The government has rejected arguments for a moratorium on fracking and stricter regulation made by MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee.
In a response to the EAC’s report on the environmental impacts of fracking, the Department of Energy and Climate Charge (DECC) argued that shale development was compatible with the UK’s carbon budget.
The EAC report, published during the passage of the Infrastructure Bill in January, made 18 recommendations. As well as calling for a fracking ban on climate and environmental grounds, the MPs recommended a joint strategy for regulation of unconventional oil and gas, mandatory monitoring of abandoned wells, public disclosure of chemicals, consideration of cumulative impacts of fracking and full publication of a redacted report on the impact of shale gas on the rural economy.
DECC’s response, published on 28th March, said: “The government considers that all the concerns raised by the Environmental Audit Committee are already addressed by the existing policy and regulatory framework and therefore considers a moratorium unnecessary.
“It would be irresponsible to not explore our shale potential, where safe and sustainable to do so. Shale gas has the potential to enhance our energy security and grow the UK economy.”
Shale and carbon budgets
One of the EA’s main arguments was that only a small fraction of shale gas was burnable if the UK was not to breach its carbon budgets. The EAC said there was unlikely to be large-scale extraction of UK shale gas for another 10-15 years. Unless it developed at a significant scale, a shale industry would not be able to compete with an extensive renewable energy sector that should be in place by 2025-30. By then, the EAC argued, unabated coal-fired power generation would have been phased out to meet EU rules. So fracking would not substitute for more carbon intensive coal.
DECC responded that the EAC had not considered that 70% of homes used gas for heating. “This fact alone rather brings much of the committee’s analysis into question. It is regrettable such a mistake was made”, it said.
“We can develop shale gas and keep emissions low”, DECC added. “In fact, shale emissions for shale gas are likely to be lower than from liquefied natural gas that we hope that shale gas would replace.”
DECC referred to a clause in the Infrastructure Act, which requires the government to seek advice from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) on the implications of shale gas for carbon budgets and to take action if targets are put at risk.
The CCC confirmed in February that it could not comment on the impact of shale gas on carbon budgets after 2027. It had not yet done the detailed analysis required by the Infrastructure Act covering the 2030s and 204s. It added that UK shale gas could be consistent with UK carbon budgets up to 2027 only if fugitive methane emissions were low and there was an accompanying “strong commitment to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions (and therefore gas consumption), for example by setting a power sector decarbonisation target”.
The EAC recommended a joint strategy for regulation of unconventional oil and gas signed by all relevant national and local departments and agencies. It also called for a consolidated regulatory regime specifically for fracking. This was also recommended in March by the industry-funded Task Force on Shale Gas.
But DECC responded that agencies in England already working together effectively and a new regime was not needed. It said: “The UK has been successfully regulating gas and oil drilling for over 50 years and have tough regulations in place to ensure on-site safety, prevent water contamination and mitigate seismic activity and air pollution.” DECC referred to 13 requirements included in the Infrastructure Act, which it said must be met before consent could be given for hydraulic fracturing.
DECC also rejected the EAC’s concerns about the capacity of regulators to oversee the industry. As well as reiterating detailis of government support for regulators, It revealed that the Department of Communities and Local Government had commissioned five shale gas workshops, held during the winter, to explain basic science and planning issues to planning officers and councillors.
DECC also confirmed that National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest would be included in the definition of protected areas where fracking would be banned, to be confirmed before the end of July, DECC did not, however, accept the EAC’s calls for a ban on fracking in all water source protection zones and a minimum vertical separation distance between shale being fracked and groundwater aquifers.
DECC agreed with the EAC about the importance of baseline monitoring of methane in groundwater and pointed to the measure in the Infrastructure Act that required monitoring for a period of 12 months before fracking could begin. But it rejected the EAC’s recommendations on monitoring abandoned wells and on ensuring companies were held liable for damage.
The EAC had argued that the changes to trespass laws in the Infrastructure Act were not supported by a majority of the public who took part in a consultation. It argued that the measure undermined the democratic process for objecting to development.
DECC said: “All companies in the industry and energy groups voiced their support for the proposal, stating that the current system is not fit for purpose and that changes are required as industry cannot proceed without these”. DECC added that communities would be properly consulted on shale gas developments in their areas and that people with concerns could express their views through engagement opportunities offered by operators and the regulatory bodies.
The EAC had also called for the full publication of a heavily-redacted report commissioned by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the impact of shale on the rural economy.
DECC said the public must be “at the centre of a fair and balanced debate”. It agreed that “transparency must be an ongoing part of the developing industry. But it refused to publish an unredacted version of the report. It said the document, a literature review, was not exhaustive and not analytically robust.
“This is a highly sensitive and fast moving policy area and releasing information which is at the formative stage of being shared between government departments risks substantially undermining out ability to deliver effective policy”, DECC said.