Labour wants to amend regulations for shale gas exploration. Photo: Getty
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Slowing the coalition's dash for gas: Labour will overhaul shale gas regulations

Labour’s amendments to the Infrastructure Bill would overhaul the existing framework and give us a regulatory regime that is fit for purpose.

In 2012, the Royal Academy of Engineers and the Royal Society produced a joint paper examining the regulatory regime for shale gas. They found that the “health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing” could be safely managed if proper regulation was in place. David Cameron took this as an all clear to go "all out for shale" and has since pushed ahead recklessly in his dash for gas, citing the most optimistic job projections and endorsing the misleading notion from George Osborne that somehow shale gas is automatically cheap.

The reality is that there are clear flaws in the existing framework, and without robust regulation and comprehensive monitoring then extraction of shale cannot go ahead. Environmental Impact Assessments are mandatory for sites over one hectare – shale gas operators have been buying up 0.99 hectare plots. The integrity of the well has to be inspected by an independent party – but the current definition of “independent” allows that person to be on the shale gas company’s payroll. Baseline assessments of levels of methane in the groundwater remain optional. But despite these obvious loopholes, David Cameron’s government have repeatedly side-lined genuine and legitimate environmental concern and seem prepared to accept shale gas at any cost.

That is not acceptable, and is why Labour will today propose a fundamental overhaul of the regulations for shale gas in a series of amendments to the coalition's Infrastructure Bill.

Each of our eleven amendments closes a loophole in the existing regulations which David Cameron has chosen to ignore. We require baseline assessments of methane in the groundwater, monitoring and reporting of fugitive emissions and properly independent inspections of well-integrity. We will introduce a presumption against development in protected areas such as national parks and will empower planning authorities to consider the cumulative impact of shale gas developments on an area, rather than considering individual applications on a case by case basis.

This measures are vital if we are to have a regulatory regime that is fit for purpose. But instead of fixing the regulatory framework, the Tories have tried to cut the “green tape” on shale, desperate to present shale gas as the silver bullet to all of our energy problems.

And whilst the coalition appears increasingly ambivalent about our climate change commitments, Labour are clear that shale gas extraction cannot come at the cost of our carbon budgets or longer term targets. That is why we will legislate for a 2030 target for the effective decarbonisation of the power sector.

Despite hyperbolic claims from those with an absolutist opposition to the development of any fossil fuels, the Committee on Climate Change concluded that, “meeting a given amount of UK gas demand via domestic shale gas production could lead to slightly lower emissions than importing LNG.” While eight out of ten homes still rely on gas for heating, shale gas may have a role to play in displacing some of the gas we currently import and improving our energy security – it is not about increasing how much gas we use, but where we get it from. That is why we should not absolutely rule out a potential source of the gas we will continue to need - but the regulatory regime needs to properly stand scrutiny and be effective.

Between David Cameron’s reckless dash for gas and the absolute anti-fossil fuel position of a small minority, there is a rational and evidence-led approach to shale gas that recognises the potential benefits but is not prepared to sacrifice proper environmental protection. Labour’s amendments to the Infrastructure Bill would overhaul the existing framework and give us a regulatory regime that is fit for purpose.

Tom Greatrex is the Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West and shadow energy minister

Tom Greatrex is shadow energy minister and Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West

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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.