Today I have replied to over a thousand constituents on the proposals for Hydraulic Fracturing, known as ‘fracking,’ in our part of Somerset.
It’s no secret that I am opposed to Fracking. Although fracking has been a fact of life in the UK for decades, the process intended for shale gas extraction is new and untested. Consequently, there should be an even greater duty to address worries about fracking raised by local residents and the scientific community. I believe that the greenhouse gases deposited safely inside shale rock over millions of years should remain there. We should be saving energy – investing in reducing our needs and in renewable technologies which already exist, not extracting every last bit of fossil fuel.
My chief concerns are the risks posed to our local and global environment; specifically, but not exclusively, climate change, water pollution and the storage, transportation and treatment of waste water.
Water is integral to our area – the fact that this Parliamentary constituency is named “Wells”, and that “Bath” is a short distance away, is an indication of how important water has been to the area for thousands of years. In 2014, water is no less important – as we have seen with the recent floods in the area, some of the worst in living memory.
Local people need ‘bulletproof’ guarantees that pollution will not take place. The fracking process involves pumping a solution containing huge numbers of chemicals deep into the earth, risking contamination of our water sources. As far as I am aware, no such guarantees exist. Another point, often overlooked, is that at the current time, there appear to be no treatment works able to take fracking waste water. The fate of waste water from Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall test well in Lancashire has not been revealed, but it is rumoured the waste is still untreated 2 years later.
My second concern is the ability of the relevant authorities to monitor operations, enforce regulations and take effective action when and where required. Ministers have suggested that the regulations currently in place are sufficient – I disagree. There are well-documented examples of breaches in existing gas extraction operations which have gone either unspotted or unchallenged. All too often, we see regulations put in place to protect the individual being flouted by large corporations, who know that the mega-profits they make will always outweigh any fine or penalty imposed. In these instances, the polluter rarely pays.
The Environment Agency, which deals with the enforcement of regulations, takes too gentle and consultative an approach, often giving ample notice to potential offenders of ‘surprise’ inspections and so-called ‘unannounced’ visits to facilities, allowing a scramble to get everything ‘ship-shape’ before the authorities arrive. And when things aren’t the way they should be, the Agency cajoles wrongdoers towards compliance, rather than using its powers to prosecute. This allows the suggestion of collusion and co-operation, when what is required is absolute transparency and action.
We know that pressure on Government budgets means swingeing cuts at Defra, which funds the Environment Agency. The Agency doesn’t have the resources to monitor and ‘police’ that for which it is already responsible, let alone taking on any new duties, particularly on the scale planned for fracking.
With fracking, there won’t be any second chances – the impact of damage to the environment could mean problems which take hundreds, or even thousands, of years to remedy.
Thirdly, I dispute the economic arguments used by supporters of fracking. Whilst there used to be coal fields in Somerset, things have changed significantly since and 26,000 people have jobs which are directly reliant on tourism, and the beauty of our rolling landscape is integral to this. I am not persuaded that thousands of jobs will come to Somerset as a result of this so-called innovation.
The promise of a vast reduction in the cost of energy, and comparisons with the United States should be treated with extreme caution too. The two situations are simply not comparable for a variety of reasons. The Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, has stated it’s “far from clear that UK shale gas production could ever replicate the price effects seen in the US”.
Fourthly, you may be aware of David Cameron’s recent statement that he is “going all out for shale” as he announced that Councils will be entitled to keep 100% of the business rates raised from fracking sites. If our Coalition partners force fracking on communities, then this money must be paid to at a local not regional level, the Parish Councils where fracking takes place must be involved here. This would be the only way to ensure the money finds its way to those individuals who are directly affected – localism in action!
Finally, I write to let you know that I have been invited to visit the Peel Group in Manchester, which has an interest in a site where IGas has received planning permission from Salford Council for an exploratory well at the Barton Moss site to drill through the rock formations, to collect samples which can then be analysed to confirm what potential the rocks have for commercial production. This invitation came to me as I am Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Oil and Gas, which I joined in order to keep updated on fracking. The visit takes place at the end of this month.
Given the proposals for the Mendip Hills around the villages of Ston Easton and Compton Martin, I have accepted this invitation. I would be very grateful if there are any particular questions you feel I should ask whilst I am there, I will do my best to ask them.
Please do not hesitate to contact me by email to [email protected]
It’s a constant source of encouragement to know I represent an area where so many people share my values.
24th January 2014