The Tory government made a major U-turn on plans to fast-track UK fracking this week after accepting Labour proposals to tighten environmental regulations.
Labour have repeatedly sought to overhaul the regulatory regime for shale gas. It is simple common sense that shale gas extraction cannot go ahead in the UK without a proper system of robust regulation and comprehensive inspection. But up until this week the Coalition has chosen to ignore genuine and legitimate concerns about the current framework – David Cameron appeared to be prepared to accept shale gas at any cost.
Labour first pointed out flaws in the current regulation back in March 2012 – since then we’ve won concessions from the Government on proper seismic monitoring, well-by-well disclosure of frack fluid and protections for water supplies, but significant gaps remain. The Tories and Lib Dems stubbornly opposed further regulation, despite the clear evidence that it is necessary.
We have worked with organisations including the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and the Local Government Association, drawing on work by Royal Academy of Engineering and other bodies, and produced a list of 13 necessary conditions to reform the regulatory regime for shale gas. Labour will vote to prevent any fracking in the UK, until these conditions are in place.
The conditions cover independent inspection of well integrity, mandatory monitoring for fugitive emissions, a presumption against development in protected areas such as National Parks and other issues. They represent a comprehensive approach, based on scientific evidence, to bring coherence to the UK’s regulatory framework
The Tory and Lib Dem opposition to these measures stemmed from a near fanatical faith in the potential benefits of shale gas. These have been misleadingly overhyped at every turn. Just one well has been fracked in the UK – in Poland, they drilled almost 100 wells, only to discover that the resource was not economic to extract. Like many gold rushes, Poland’s shale gas turned out to be a fantasy, their estimated reserves cut by 90%. The lesson from Poland is that by trying to turn shale gas into a silver bullet for all our energy problems, David Cameron is banking on a resource whose potential in the UK is unknown.
Nor would UK shale gas deliver the benefits seen in the US, where widespread production led to falling prices. The geological, regulatory and market conditions of the UK mean that any gas produced will be more expensive to extract and will be sold at the current European price. David McKay, then the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, rubbished the argument for lower prices.
But if we can deliver a regulatory regime that is fit for purpose then shale gas could have a positive impact on our security of supply. 8 out of 10 homes still rely on gas for heating – this is not a fuel that we can do away with overnight. In the context of a declining North Sea, a new, indigenous source of gas could therefore help to reduce our dependence on imports. And because shale gas would simply displace imports, rather than increasing the overall amount of gas consumed, its development is compatible with our climate change commitments. The Committee on Climate Change concluded that the development of shale gas could actually lead to a slight decrease in UK emissions, since it is likely to be cleaner than imported Liquefied Natural Gas from Qatar.
Labour was glad to see a rare instance of common sense from the Coalition government when government ministers accepted 13 changes proposed by the Labour Party including independent inspection of the integrity of wells, monitoring for leaks of methane and informing residents individually of fracking in their area.