What was your overall impression of fracking in Pennsylvania?
It was a fascinating trip. We spoke to an awful lot of people, which was the purpose behind the trip. It was to get to the reality, to see the facts behind fracking, rather than just the speculation and the hype and the scare stories. So it really was about meeting community groups, campaigners, academics and the regulators to get a true impression of what fracking is like.
And what impression did you come away with?
I have always had concerns about fracking, particularly around the safety, and particularly around how it impacts on a beautiful area, such as the area I represent, which is Thirsk and Malton. And I still have a lot of those concerns. One of the impressions I did get, which I didn’t really expect, was that if you drove around some of the rural parts of Pennsylvania, which are in many ways similar to rural North Yorkshire, you didn’t see a well at every turn, you didn’t see a processing plant on every corner. Most of it was fairly well hidden. So that was quite reassuring. But we did see some areas where things had gone wrong. Some things I am less concerned about. Others I am more concerned about.
You met, as you said, some people who live near fracking sites. What did they tell you about their experiences?
It did obviously vary. Some people said that they live quite happily in an area. Some people were very positive about fracking. 70 or 80% in the localities we went to were positive about fracking in the areas where they live. So that was obviously positive. Some people where mistakes had happened, clearly they had a different impression altogether.
What sort of problems did this group talk to you about?
We went to Dimock, for example, which is one place that many people refer to, where there had been methane contamination of the water. They clearly still had got problems and a new solution had to be found for those people to be able to get fresh water. So they were clearly affected. Those were in the early days of drilling. That kind of experience was not commonplace.
Newspaper reports have quoted you as saying that regulation in Pennsylvania has been tightened up over the past six years. What examples are there of regulations that have changed and how they have been tightened up?
One of the newspaper reports wasn’t really reflective of my impressions of my trip to Pennsylvania. In terms of what has been tightened up, in 2008 when fracking really began in earnest in Pennsylvania, there were only two people in the Department of Environmental Protection. And this was at a time when fracking was really gathering momentum. It is not just in terms of the regulations being tightened up but the number of regulators to oversee those regulations.
How do Pennsylvania’s regulations on, for example contaminated water, compare with those that we have in the UK? Are they comparable now?
I think they are not as tight in the US still. The industry is still exempt from the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, for example. Waste water can still be contained in open ponds, for example. Our regulations, from what I have read, are much tighter. Even though things have improved and the supervision, crucially, has improved in Pennsylvania, I think we still have, in many ways, a more robust regime in the UK than apparently is the case in the US.
While you were in Pennsylvania, it was revealed that two public drinking water supplies in Potter County in the state had been contaminated by a fracking company. And earlier this month, the investigative journalism website, Public Herald, showed that Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] kept hundreds of water contamination complaints related to oil and gas out of the records. What is your reaction to this news?
I read about these cases when I came back. I wouldn’t want to comment on these particular cases because a lot of these things, when they are checked out, could be for other reasons. So I don’t know whether these cases are true or not. But I have heard about them and read the article. The most important thing in anything like this is the regulation: the numbers of people who actually go in and visit these sites and investigate them properly. I was disturbed to see, according to the article, that the person at the DEP didn’t seem to be taking complaints seriously, which wasn’t appropriate. I very much want to see a very robust regime of regulation, where we have experienced, professionals, engineers, geologists, on these sites, looking at what is happening, as it is happening, at the drilling and fracking stages, in particular.
Are you confident that we have the regime in the UK yet? Are our regulations stringent enough and will they be properly enforced?
I think the regulations seem to be strong, although we need to keep ensuring that they are and that they evolve. Have we got enough regulators? As we haven’t got any fracking wells in the UK at the moment, we probably have. I want to know the precise detail on how often these inspectors, the people in the field from the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency, are going out to inspect these sites as this work is happening.
Frack Free Ryedale have accused you of an over-reliance on the power of regulation to protect the environment and public health in the UK. What is your reaction to this?
Public health is only affected if your water supplies or air quality is contaminated. So the key thing is: if we are measuring those things and we have those regulators on those sites all the time, taking the measurements, making sure that those levels don’t exceed what is permitted, then there shouldn’t be any impact on public health. So it has got to be about regulation. I’m certainly not going to take anything on trust. And I absolutely want to make sure those regulations are enforced properly.
You’ve said in the past you want to see a clearer, more robust and independent regime, particularly on groundwater monitoring. Is that still your view?
Absolutely it is, both in terms of well integrity and environmental impacts (that’s air and water quality). And that takes into account many things, whether it is traffic going to and from the sites or its potential for fugitive methane emissions. We need to keep an eye on it and make sure it is kept within the required levels.
So does that mean it is not acceptable for the companies to “mark their own homework”?
I have made that point to ministers many times. As far as I am concerned, it should be our agencies, the Environment Agency or the Health and Safety Executive, which manage the relationship, with the people that are going out there monitoring the water and air quality.
You have described fracking as a “heavily industrial process” but based on your trip to Pennsylvania you thought that the impact would be quite low apart from the first six to nine months of drilling and fracking. Is that a fair representation of your reaction to what you saw?
Yes and no. What I was talking about in terms of the low impact was talking about a particular site. So what I was trying to say was: in the early stages of a site, the first six to nine months, that activity on that site and the work that is carried out is very much industrial. But after that point, the impact on that particular site is much lower. That is what I was saying. It was not representative of what I thought it would be like right across the constituency.
Fracking clearly has the potential to have a high impact but what I would like to see for an area I represent is a Local Plan, just in the way you would develop a local plan for housing. It would decide where these sites are going to go, how the traffic is then going to be moderated, in terms of impact on villages and where people live, for example. So all these things are planned in advance and you engage with the community so that they can see exactly what will be happening and also have access to everything as it is rolled out, including any impacts on the environment, are all publicly available.
Your constituency could have 35 licence blocks, nearly twice as many as any other MP. And Third Energy has said it might drill 950 wells in a third of your constituency. How can it be low impact if, potentially, there is so many opportunities to frack and so many wells needed?
What Third Energy actually said is that they have nine conventional wells now across my constituency. Most people who live here would not actually know where they are. So at the moment, I would describe that as low impact. Third Energy have said for fracking they need to put more wells on a particular well pad. They said between 10 and 50. 50 sounds like an awful lot of me. A typical site in Pennsylvania has six or eight wells on a site. So if Third Energy say they need 10 more sites across the constituency, could I imagine a situation where we get 10 more sites when we already have nine that are well-hidden and well-screened? Yes I can believe that. But we need to make sure they are. And that is where that local plan would be all about.
If you have around 20 sites, with 20-50 wells on them, wouldn’t those sites be fracking and drilling pretty much continuously? Isn’t it likely that as one well becomes commercially unviable, after what is often from one to three years, the next one will be drilled, fracked, tested and prepared?
That is not what we saw in Pennsylvania. I know there is this discussion about re-fracking of sites but they started fracking in 2004 in Pennsylvania and I was told by the people in the local community and by the regulators and by the producers that they haven’t done any re-fracking yet. Since they were fracked, and it took six months to frack, the wells have been sat there producing gas quite happily without any major industrial activity.
Once they have been fracked and they start producing, does the company turn to the next well on that site or does it go somewhere else or does it just wait?
This is a key thing that I was expecting to see. I thought a site would take years to frack – you frack one well and that takes six months and then you frack another one. That is not what happens at all. That work on that site is done over a period of six months, however many wells need to be put on that site. And then it is done. And the equipment on there that handles the gas is left there and we visited sites that had been producing gas quite happily for many years without any more work being done to them.
And how confident are you that this situation would also happen in the UK?
We don’t know the answer to that. That is an answer we do need to know. But I think we will only know by actually taking the next step, which is a small step in the process, if this application is successful. We are speculating at the moment. At this point that is not all that helpful.
You said on your website you would “fight tooth and nail to prevent any attempt to produce shale gas in our area on an industrial scale”. How many sites would amount to an industrial scale? How many wells would result in that impact?
I don’t think there is a cut-off point. I think if there were 10 more sites across this constituency, which is a very big constituency – I think it is about 2,200 square miles – I am sure there are places we can put 10 more sites without it becoming an industrial location. If we are going to proceed, I think it should be on that basis. But that means engaging with communities to make sure that communities are fully part of that process, both before, during and after.
Do you think communities are fully engaged yet?
No I don’t. T think we absolutely have to step that up. We’re doing a public consultation shortly on what we have seen. We will be bringing along the regulators as well so that people can ask the questions of the regulators. I can ask questions of the regulators from what I have seen. So I think the public needs far more information and far more education on what this will actually be like. But whatever steps we take, we take them one step at a time.
You have talked in the House of Commons about the possibility of a six-mile buffer zone. Is that something you have talked to Third Energy about?
Very much so. The six mile conversation is one we had right at the start when this application first went in. They said they could frack for a distance of three miles. If they can frack for a distance of three miles they shouldn’t need any sites more than six miles apart. Whether it is six miles or whatever it is, the point being it is making sure these sites are few and far between.
And do you think that buffer zone is necessary?
Absolutely, I would like to see these sites away from villages, away from schools, away from people, wherever possible. So that is a case of planning it, making sure they are close to an A-road so the lorries aren’t going through villages. All these things need to be considered.
How would that buffer zone be enforced? Through a local plan?
Yes, absolutely. One way our regulations are much further in front of those in the US is the planning permissions you have to go through: the hoops you have to jump through in the UK to get consent for a site. You have to go through a proper planning application, which has to consider the economy, traffic and noise and all these things. That doesn’t exist in the US. The cumulative impact of any activity has got to be considered by the planning authorities. All these things should be taken into account before any permission is given at any point. But certainly the local plan idea would bring in the community and make them part of this process.
Isn’t it too late for that in Ryedale?
I don’t think so. I’ve spoken to Third Energy, I’ve spoken to Cuadrilla. They’re very keen to do this in a way that the community needs to buy into it. Absolutely they do. They need to make sure that people feel they are being consulted and involved in a genuine way. If I was the producer, I would absolutely want to take those steps. Remember we haven’t got any fracking wells in the UK at the moment so I don’t think it is too late at all.
What about a minimum distance between fracking sites and properties? There isn’t a regulation covering this but should there be a minimum distances?
Yes I do think there should be a minimum distance. That again would form part of the local plan. I mean, there is a minimum distance at the moment to put an anaerobic digester away from a house, for example. So why wouldn’t you have a minimum distance to a fracking well?
What distance do you have in mind?
I think the distance for anaerobic digesters is 3-400m. I would like to see a bigger distance than that. I would like to see any fracking activity a mile away from homes and schools.
Would you buy a house 400m from a fracking site?
That’s one reason why I would like it a mile away.
Is the answer to that no?
It is difficult to give you a definitive answer to that because I think that would depend on the house, it would depend on the fracking well, how well screened it was. But I agree they should be further away.
Before you went into parliament you owned an estate agency business. What effect do you think fracking will have in Ryedale on house prices?
If it is done right I don’t think it would have a negative impact on house prices. My experience of Pennsylvania – and we met realtors, we met with people who live in that area – is that house prices have gone up not gone down because of the increased demand and the job opportunities. As long as it is done right, then that [falling prices] shouldn’t be the case.
In May, you said you were going to ask for a meeting with Amber Rudd [the Energy Secretary] to discuss your concerns about the impacts of Third Energy’s application on local people and the environment. Have you had that meeting yet?
I have had several meetings with Amber Rudd and with other ministers, including Andrea Leadsom. I have continued to make my points and my feelings known and I will continue to do so. From this visit, I’m drafting a report, which will be publically available and will go to ministers, in terms of what I think we need to do next to take the next steps in terms that the public will find acceptable.
What should those steps be?
I think we’ve covered some of them: it’s about independent regulation, a local plan, transparency, making sure the public can see exactly what’s happening, so that everything is recorded publically. I also think this should be a stepping stone to a green energy future. And I think that should form part of it. We invest some of the money that is coming out of this new economy into carbon capture and storage, and support for renewable energy. So all those things should form part of this, I believe.
On your website you said you were against fracking until you had satisfactory answers on independent water monitoring, well decommissioning and industrialisation of the countryside. Have you had any satisfactory answers yet from the UK government?
I have had a very positive and engaged reaction from ministers. Every time I speak to ministers I talk about the things we have talked about just now. And I will continue to push for that. I have met with agencies, such as the Environment Agency, who assure me that they will be independently monitoring what happens on these drilling sites. So, to some extent I get that reassurance. But I want to see more detail and also what will happen in a future beyond this potential first well.
So would you say you were still against fracking?
I’ve never been against fracking per se, when you put it like that. I have been consistent about this. If you can do it safely and do it in a way that doesn’t industrialise the countryside then I think it would be the wrong thing to rule it out. I have nothing against it like that. But certainly for me to be happy with it I would have to make sure that we are getting that proper regime of regulation.
Has the trip to Pennsylvania changed your mind in anyway?
It certainly has raised more questions. But I felt before I went that this can be done in a way that is acceptable to local communities and is beneficial to local communities.
How do you see a community benefits package working in Ryedale if the Third Energy fracking site were to go ahead?
We need more clarity on that. At the moment, there is £100,000 for each well site and then 1% of revenue, which we are told could be £5-10m per site. I don’t know where that is going to go. I don’t know how they define community. That is a question I asked the ministers only a week or so ago. I would need to have more clarity about that in terms of direct financial benefit.
From what I saw in Pennsylvania, the people I spoke to who have restaurants and hotels and businesses, they have seen a big economic benefit from this. So there clearly are benefits, other than the ones from that community fund. It does look like there is good opportunity there but that is only if we get the other things right.
A group formed recently in Ryedale of businesses, many in tourism, who are campaigning against fracking because they say it will damage their businesses.
Yes, I’m aware of that and I’ve been in business myself for 20 years and I think I would be concerned too. But that is not what I saw in Pennsylvania, which is an area that benefits from tourism. Their businesses have not suffered. In fact, quite the opposite. So the key is that if we are going to do it, we need to make sure that we do it right and that shouldn’t have the impact that people are worried about on their businesses.
Turning to the government’s recent announcement on the requirement of local authorities to decide at least half of their oil and gas applications within 16 weeks. Is this a realistic timescale to decide these applications properly, particularly bearing in mind that some of these applications include 800+ page background documents?
Some of those pages relate to other agencies. The Environment Agency has to look at those documents to make sure they are happy with it. So does the Health and Safety Executive and Highways. It is not all for the members of the planning committee to decide upon. It remains to be seen. We need to make sure that they can give it their due attention in that period of time. But the planning committee can refuse that application.
You have said we need a debate on fracking. How successful and useful has this been so far in Ryedale and across the UK generally?
I think me going to Pennsylvania has helped because it has certainly increased the number of emails coming into my inbox, which have been almost without exception very positive that we are taking this seriously enough to go out to see what’s actually happening. But I think there’s a need to do more to engage with communities. We’ve arranged a feedback session based on our visit to Pennsylvania and I think we need to do more things like that to make sure that the agencies who are regulating fracking are there and talking to the public about how it will work and how this area will be protected.
What’s the mood about Third Energy’s plans among your constituents?
Most people are concerned. I would guess probably around 80% of people would have real concerns about fracking. It is very localised, to be fair. If you’re in an area where an application hasn’t gone in people seem to see the benefits of a domestic source of energy. But in the areas affected, of course, people are very concerned. In the US, where it has happened, you see about 80% of the public are in favour of fracking. [In Ryedale] As many people are concerned about what might happen, rather than being assured about what does happen.
Having returned from Pennsylvania, what is your message to your constituents?
People should listen to the facts, Iisten to the evidence, keep an open mind and read my report. We will continue to engage, continue to listen to what people are saying and we need to make sure that these things that we see as being essential are implemented to make sure we protect this community.
I am the Member of Parliament for Thirsk and Malton. I represent Thirsk and Malton in Westminster. I am not there to represent Westminster in Thirsk and Malton. So if I don’t think it is right for Thirsk and Malton, and I live here, then I will certainly not support it. I will oppose it, whether it is Conservative policy or not.
Interview carried out on 29/9/15