The Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom, told a meeting at Westminster today that the UK would need to drill 100-200 wells before it knew whether its shale gas could be fracked.
Speaking to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Gas and Oil, Mrs Leadsom said there were sound economic reasons for exploiting shale gas, if it could be done successfully.
But she said it was a big if.
“Until we actually start exploring and drilling, until we have probably got around one or two hundred wells drilled and producing, we won’t know for sure whether we can in fact extract gas from shale.”
“But if we do get it off the ground and properly up and running it could be worth 65,000 jobs to the UK and up to around £33bn to our economy.”
Mrs Leadsom spoke for about 10 minutes before answering questions from the meeting, which included Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla, and Ken Cronin, of the industry group UK Onshore Oil and Gas.
“Shale development is a top priority for the government but not at the risk of any environmental harm or damage to human beings”, she said.
As Energy Minister, she said shale and new nuclear were the two things she “really wanted to get going”. She said she had regular meetings with the industry and a bi-weekly session with officials to talk about shale. “We are really, really focussing on it”, she said.
“The key thing is that we have to reassure members of the public”.
She said they had to be reassured that fracking was as safe as onshore oil drilling or any other industrial process.
“I mean people do not mind having chemical plants on their door steps”, she said.
“It is a matter of people having to understand these things. So it is incumbent upon us to persuade them and inform them and to do some myth-busting on some of the things that are, I am afraid, being deliberately put out that are completely untrue.”
The minister denied the government was trying take planning decisions on shale gas out of local hands. Nor was it trying to “fast track fracking” by requiring local planning authorities to decide on oil and gas applications within 16 weeks, she said.
“That is not a fast track in anyway. That is merely saying that councils need to make efforts to meet the statutory time table for planning in order that we don’t draw out beyond what is acceptable.”
“We do want to try to give the industry a chance to get this underway.”
Mrs Leadsom struggled with a question on the definition of fracking in the Infrastructure Act asked by Sue Taylor, from Balcombe, in West Sussex, where Cuadrilla drilled an exploratory oil well in 2013.
Miss Taylor asked why fracking had been defined by the minimum volume of fluid, rather than the pressure used in the process.
For the purposes of the Infrastructure Act, hydraulic fracturing is extraction of petroleum from shale using more than 1,000 cubic metres of fluid at each fracturing stage, or more than 10,000 cubic metres of fluid in total.
Mrs Leadsom said: “I cannot directly answer that question. I can certainly write to you specifically on the definition of hydraulic fracturing that will be used. But there is absolutely no intention to try and obfuscate in anyway whatsoever.”
“I can assure you that onshore oil and gas has been drilled round the UK for many decades. And the definition of hydraulic fracturing is very distinctly different from onshore oil and gas drilling.”
Miss Taylor suggested that companies might try to get round the act by using less than the minimum volume of fluid.
Mrs Leadsom replied:
“That absolutely would not be in anyone’s interests to play games like that. That would be an appalling thing to do. I would absolutely not permit that sort of game-playing to happen. There will be a very clear definition.”
“It won’t be the case that you can simply flout the rules by having a litre or two less of water. That will not be the case I can assure you of that.”