From today our weekly political digest has a new name to mark the addition of questions and debate from the Scottish Parliament and the Irish and Welsh Assemblies.
In the first Fracking Week in Politics:
- Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron on community veto for fracking plans
- Lancashire drilling licences
- Questions over Infrastrata’s licence at Woodburn
- Scotland’s energy strategy
- INEOS and the Scottish Government on fracking
With thanks to TheyWorkForYou.com for the transcripts
Prime Minister’s Questions
16th March 2016
Jeremy Corbyn, Opposition leader, Labour, Islington North
If the Government and the Prime Minister are so keen on renewable and clean energy, can he explain why on Monday the House approved new legislation to allow communities a veto on clean energy projects such as onshore wind? I have a question from Amanda from Lancaster. She asks the Prime Minister this—[Interruption.] If I were him, I would listen. Will the Prime Minister offer the same right of veto to her community, and communities like hers across the country, of a veto on fracking?
David Cameron, Prime Minister, Conservative, Whitney
We have a proper planning system for deciding these things. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to know what is happening in terms of renewable energy, I point out to him that 99% of the solar panels in this country have been installed since I became Prime Minister. That is the green record that we have. The United Kingdom now has the second largest ultra-low emission vehicle market anywhere in the European Union. We have seen one of the strongest rates of growth in renewable energy.
16th March 2016
Extract of speech by John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham
I am pleased that the Budget is starting to tackle the issue of the oil industry offshore through tax changes. We need to do other work on that, and we also need to get on with gas extraction onshore. We will probably find further oil resources when we are prospecting for shale gas in the shale sands. We need to start bridging the gap on energy before it becomes even more damaging to our balance of payments.
Extract of speech by Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East
The Government could also have taken the opportunity to invest in renewables. So much work was going on, so many companies were producing stuff, and that was creating jobs. But what did the Government do? They scrapped all that. Now they say that there is an energy crisis, and that in order to deal with it, they will start fracking all over the United Kingdom, even though it has been well established that most fracking is dangerous. Lancashire is a beautiful county, but it seems that the Government have overridden local people’s and local authorities’ objections and granted exploratory licences, so the whole of Lancashire will be wrecked. Moreover, given the geography of the county, there is a real risk that our water will be poisoned. The Government say that they are concerned about energy, but they could have taken steps that would have saved energy, and there would have been no need for the fracking that will ruin and pollute our country. But we know that a Tory politician recently said, “Go and frack in the north, where they don’t mind. Just don’t do it in my backyard in the south.”
Northern Ireland assembly
Questions on exploration licences
14th March 2016
Question by David McNarry, UKIP, Strangford
How many petroleum and natural gas exploration licences are operational in Northern Ireland?
Question by Phil Flanagan, Sinn Fein, Fermanagh and South Tyrone
Given that the company failed to meet its original work programme targets, why his Department extended the petroleum licence awarded to InfraStrata.
Replies by Jonathan Bell, Enterprise Minister, DUP, Strangford
One petroleum licence is currently operational in Northern Ireland — petroleum licence PL 1/10 — for which InfraStrata plc is the licence holder. Petroleum licence PL 1/10 was not extended.
Question by Phil Flanagan
The licence has not been extended, but does the Minister accept that the decision to extend InfraStrata’s time frame for a work programme sets a dangerous precedent on fracking, particularly given that InfraStrata failed to meet its original work programme? Will he outline why he feels that it was appropriate to extend that time frame and give such a company such latitude to drill boreholes, using a novel form of drilling, so close to public water reservoirs?
Reply by Jonathan Bell
The Member should reflect carefully on what he is saying. It is not true, in whatever way it is expressed, that InfraStrata has been given more time by DETI to drill at Woodburn, when the company had clearly failed to meet its original work programme targets. That is the allegation. I was content to agree to a variation of the work programme of petroleum licence PL 1/10, and that was based on work that was carried out by the licensee to date to a highly professional standard, including but not limited to the acquisition, processing, reprocessing and interpretation of existing and new 2D seismic reflection data and the carrying out of studies, mapping and remodelling. The extent to which the factors that were impacting on the licensee’s capacity to drill were outside the licensee’s control.
The Member raised the issue of fracking, and it is important to state that my Department has issued no licences or permits for high-volume hydraulic fracturing. No company in Northern Ireland has been given permission to frack. InfraStrata has made it clear that the drilling in Woodburn forest does not involve fracking, and a no-fracking clause has been included in InfraStrata plc’s lease with Northern Ireland Water.
Question by Gordon Lyons, DUP, East Antrim
I thank the Minister for what he has said. There is a lot of concern in Woodburn about the issue, much of it coming from misinformation being spread so that an awful lot of people are under the illusion that fracking is taking place. I am very pleased that the Minister has confirmed that no fracking is taking place in this area. Does he believe that this sort of misinformation is useful?
Reply by Jonathan Bell
Misinformation, as we all know, can be very dangerous. I thank Mr Lyons. He has been on to me on a number of occasions with concerns that have been raised. Let me tell you specifically, from the Dispatch Box, that my Department has not issued any licence or permit for high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
We have not done it, and no company has been given permission in Northern Ireland to frack. As both the previous DETI Minister and I have indicated on many occasions, high-volume hydraulic fracturing is a novel and controversial issue and, as such, is a matter for the Executive as a whole to decide on, should the time come.
Question by Daniel McCrossan, Social Democratic and Labour Party, West Tyrone
I thank the Minister for his answers so far. How many of the sites being explored under licence are anticipated to require unconventional extraction techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing?
Reply by Jonathan Bell
There is always a danger of writing your question before you have heard the answers. However, let me be clear that what we are saying about high-volume hydraulic fracturing is that it is a novel and controversial issue and, as such, should the time come, it will be for the Executive as a whole to decide.
Question by Roy Beggs UUP, East Antrim
The Minister has said that he has varied the licence, but that will have the effect of extending the operation and will enable drilling and the associated chemicals to be located in the water catchment area of the Woodburn dams. Given that a high-quality water supply is important not only to people but to local manufacturing companies, what discussions has the Minister had with other Departments to satisfy himself that there is no danger to the public water supply should something go amiss during the drilling process, in which a considerable number of chemicals will be injected into the ground?
Reply by Jonathan Bell
That issue has been raised. The Department and the other Departments — they have answered for themselves on these matters from the Dispatch Box — have indicated that obviously, if there was any risk to the water supply, action would be taken. We are satisfied, from the information that we have, that those levels of risk are not there. The Member should reflect that there is a potential benefit to Northern Ireland of having the prospectivity of the licence area established through drilling because the development of Northern Ireland’s indigenous oil and gas resources could help to maintain security of supply and could bring direct and indirect economic benefit to Northern Ireland.
Question by Stewart Dickson, Alliance, East Antrim
In respect of the drilling at Woodburn, it is a bit of a smokescreen to suggest that people believe that hydraulic fracking is going on. We know that it is conventional drilling, and the protesters know that too.
You talk about security of supply for fuel, but can we be guaranteed security of supply when it comes to clean, fresh drinking water?
Energy Strategy debate
15th March 2016
Question by Sarah Boyack, Labour, Lothian
Will the minister also tell us now whether fracking will be part of the Scottish Government’s energy policy later this year?
Reply by Fergus Ewing, Energy Minister, Scottish National Party, Inverness and Nairn
We have made very clear our position on unconventional extraction. A moratorium is in place at the moment and there can be no developments. It is right, however, that we study the matter using an evidence-based approach; it is fair to say that we have set out extremely detailed plans about what evidence we will take and what will follow. We will then have a national debate. That is very clear indeed.
Question by Murdo Fraser, Conservative, Mid Scotland and Fife
Is not it time that the minister finally got off the fence on fracking? He talks a lot about scientific evidence. The Scottish Government’s own expert scientific panel concluded as long ago as July 2014 that fracking could be conducted safely in Scotland if properly controlled and regulated. Why is the Scottish Government not listening to its own scientists?
Reply by Fergus Ewing
The answer is exactly the same as it has been. Unlike the Conservative seats in the chamber, where they are gung-ho for fracking, or the Labour side, where somewhat belatedly and contrary to the position down south they have come out against it, we think that we should take a moderate approach based on analysing the evidence, following which we should have a debate and then come up with a conclusion, after the involvement of, and consultation of, all the people of Scotland.
If I may make one further point, I say that I suspect that quite a lot of people in our electorate—the people of Scotland—would like to know a bit more about fracking. They may not know enough about it, so providing them with evidence on it is an extremely valuable and necessary process if we wish to have a rational debate—which, of course, in Scotland we do.
Scotland Bill debate
16th March 2016
Extract of speech by Iain Gray, Labour, East Lothian
We should not forget that a number of other important responsibilities will devolve to us, such as powers over our democratic structure and elections and, topicaIly, complete control over unconventional gas exploitation—fracking. That has allowed Labour members to make it clear to the Scottish public that we would ban that process.
Extract of speech by Alison Johnstone, Green, Lothian
Power over oil and gas licensing will enable us to further ensure that Scotland rejects even more unequivocally and even more powerfully applications to further endanger our local and global environment and health and to ban fracking for once and for all.
Questions on fracking in central Scotland
17th March 2016
Question by Margaret McCulloch, Labour, Central Scotland
To ask the Scottish Government what impact fracking would have on Central Scotland.
Reply by Fergus Ewing
No fracking is permitted in Scotland as we have a moratorium on unconventional oil and gas developments.
The Scottish Government will take no risks with Scotland’s environment while unanswered questions remain about the potential impacts of unconventional oil and gas. One of the world’s most comprehensive programmes of research into the technology is now under way, and we will also hold an extensive public consultation to let the people of Scotland have their say. That is the only approach that clearly and consistently promises to engage with the evidence and the public on the issue.
Question by Margaret McCulloch
Even with the moratorium in place, people across Central Scotland are concerned about the impact of fracking and want to know that their leaders will fight against it, but Jim Ratcliffe of Ineos has reportedly received assurances that the Scottish National Party Government is not against fracking at all. He says that the Government “are being quite clear. What they’ve said to us is they’re not against fracking.”
For clarity, has anyone acting on behalf of the Scottish Government ever given such an assurance?
Reply by Fergus Ewing
Absolutely not. The position is as I have stated this week, last week and the week before—it remains the same. Unlike the Conservatives—who have now arrived in the chamber—and the Labour Party, we take a sensible approach: we look for the evidence.
I will run through some of the areas in which I think it is absolutely correct that we are looking at the evidence. They include: understanding and mitigating community-level impacts from transportation, including in Central Scotland; decommissioning site restoration and aftercare; understanding and monitoring of undue seismic activity; climate change impacts; economic impacts; and scenario development. For all those areas and more, it is essential that we provide the evidence to stakeholders and the public. What could conceivably be wrong with that approach?