A Conservative MP said this evening he was disappointed with the response of senior civil servants to his questions on the decommissioning of shale gas wells.
Lee Rowley (left), who has a prospective Ineos shale gas site in his North East Derbyshire constituency, wanted to know what would happen if shale gas companies went out of business before land had been restored.
He said the questions had still not been answered, many years after the start of attempts to frack.
Mr Rowley raised the issue at Westminster during a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee. It was taking evidence from Alex Chisholm, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Emily Bourne, the department’s Director for the Energy Development and Resilience Directorate.
Mr Rowley told the civil servants:
“The reason I ask you is because this has not been adequately answered anywhere and I want an answer to it.”
Miss Bourne (above left) replied:
“As with the offshore, there’s a liability on the operator going forwards. The Environment Agency is the regulator for environmental issues onshore. They will consider these issues as part of their permit and their regulatory regime.”
Mr Chisholm (above right) said:
“If the company is no longer responsible or is no longer in existence anybody else responsible associated with that, the Environment Agency – not one of our agencies – enforces a polluter pays principle.
“Ultimately, I think the landowner has responsibility.”
The committee’s chair, Meg Hillier, responded:
“It is all a bit vague isn’t it?”
Mr Rowley added:
“Landowners are potentially being forced to allow fracking to happen on their land, contrary to their wishes. Ineos threatened to take the National Trust to court for that, for example, under the 1966 Mines Act.
“How can it be the landowners’ responsibility for something that has occurred on their land that they didn’t want to happen?”
After the meeting, Mr Rowley said:
“I am disappointed that the department and the OGA were unable to give clear answers on the pressing questions around decommissioning.
“Whatever one’s thoughts on the fracking industry as a whole, it cannot be right that these questions, which could lumber the country with hundreds of millions, or even billions of pounds of liability, are unanswered now many years into attempts to frack.
“I will continue to pursue this.”
The committee had been discussing decommissioning of North Sea oil and gas wells. The Oil and Gas Authority had provided members with a booklet on the process. Mr Rowley asked when a similar booklet would be produced for the onshore industry. Ms Bourne replied:
“At the moment we have got a very small scale – we have got two sites – one of which I think has already been plugged and abandoned.”
She said BEIS could consider a similar document.
Mr Rowley replied:
“I don’t want your consideration. I want you to tell me when I will see one?”
He said fracking sites could require decommissioning in far less than 50 years and some of the companies may not be in business when that happened.
Meg Hillier asked:
“How big does the industry have to be before you start planning the decommissioning?”
Miss Bourne replied:
“It is one of the things we take very seriously and you’ll have seen the Secretary of State announcements that before giving hydraulic fracturing consent to any site he would require the finances of the company concerned to be looked into. And that specifically includes their ability to meet their decommissioning cost. So it is a very important part of the consideration. It is something that we take very seriously.”
The officials said the OGA had different responsibilities onshore than offshore and that the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive were the lead regulators for decommissioning.
Ms Hillier said:
“So the message is that you have got lots of different people with fingers in this pie.”
Traffic light system
Mr Rowley also welcomed the restatement by Mr Chisholm that there were no plans to review the traffic light system rules on fracking-induced seismicity.
In the past week, Ineos, Cuadrilla, and a group of geologists – many with links to the oil and gas industry – had called for the rules to be relaxed. Mr Chisholm repeated there were no plans for a change:
“The minister has been absolutely clear in public statement she has said there is no proposal to review the traffic light system”.
Mr Rowley asked:
“Can I take it as read that the traffic light system will not be changed?”
Mr Chisholm replied:
“I am not really the best person to make forward projections for policy. That should be for ministers but they will were very clear in their statement.”