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8 December 2014

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.

By Tom Greatrex

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.

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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