Perhaps unsurprisingly, yesterday afternoon’s House of Commons debate on the Infrastructure Bill did not result in the introduction of the explicit moratorium on further attempts to develop a UK shale gas industry that had been proposed by a number of MPs opposed to fracking.  However, two significant changes have been made to the Bill’s provisions on shale gas exploitation in the UK.

Pre-match build-up

The debate was at the Bill’s “Report” stage in the Commons: this is the first opportunity that the full House, rather than the Committee which has done most of the line-by-line scrutiny work, has to vote on changes to a Bill.  (It is also the last such opportunity, unless the House of Lords subsequently disagrees with changes made by the Commons.)  A large number of amendments had been tabled, mostly seeking either to restrict fracking in some way or requiring further investigation of and reporting on its impacts on climate change, for example as a result of fugitive emissions of methane from fracking sites.  Whilst both the Government and the official Labour Party lines are that fracking should be allowed subject to proper safeguards, there are differences of view as to how far existing legislation and institutions provide sufficient protection for the environment.  And there are a number of MPs of all parties who disapprove of fracking in any circumstances.

This strain of opposition to fracking in principle was demonstrated when the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which has been considering fracking, chose to publish its report on the morning of the debate.  The report puts the case against developing a UK shale industry on the grounds that it would inevitably be inconsistent with the UK’s climate change emissions reductions targets to do so.  The EAC argue that the Government is wrong if it argues that shale gas is good because it will displace coal as a fuel for electricity generation and so reduce emissions.  They believe that a flourishing shale industry would be bound to breach the UK’s carbon budgets, set under the Climate Change Act 2008.  Essentially, they see the UK’s apparent shale reserves as a prime example of “unburnable carbon“.  The Committee also express concern about the uncertainty surrounding some other impacts of fracking, e.g. on water, and cite “a lack of public acceptance” for the technology.  They conclude that “a moratorium on the extraction of unconventional gas through fracking” is required to “allow the uncertainty surrounding environmental risks to be resolved”.

By a further happy coincidence, The Guardian simultaneously published a leaked letter from George Osborne to Cabinet colleagues on fracking.  The letter demonstrates in some detail the extent of the efforts being made by central Government to ensure that it does everything that it can properly do to facilitate consent for fracking through processes that it does not entirely control (because planning and other consents are administered by local government or the Environment Agency).

Finally, in the days between the end of the Committee sessions and the debate, there was a slow drip-feed of anti-fracking amendments being published and trailed in the media – and Vivienne Westwood and others turned up to protest outside Parliament on the day.

The main event

In the end, as often happens, the debate itself was something of an anti-climax.  The Government used its control of the House to confine the debate to less than two hours, which was followed by votes on a more or less representative sample of the amendments.  Some of the debate generated (in participants’ own words) more heat than light.  Attention was paid to the fate of a report by Defra on the impact of shale gas on the rural economy, which has so far been published only in redacted form.  Some suspect that the Government is suppressing unwelcome analysis.  Ministers have done little to dispel this by saying that the report should not have been produced, is not analytically robust and would not help the debate.  A fair amount of time was also devoted to the question of whether or not MPs had received a copy of a letter from a Minister following up on an earlier debate.

But there was also a considerable amount of substantive discussion.  For example, the arguments from the EAC report were rehearsed, and rebutted by a number of speakers, who pointed out the continuing importance of gas to our heating, as well as electricity generation needs, and that the life-cycle carbon emissions of LNG (on which we are likely to depend in the long-term if we do not find new sources of indigenous gas) have been found to be higher than those associated with shale gas.

The question of further devolution of powers to Scotland was also raised: if legislative competence for the licensing of onshore oil and gas exploration and extraction is to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, as the Government has proposed following the recommendations of the Smith Commission, should the Government not wait before awarding further licences in Scotland?  Unsurprisingly, Ministers were not persuaded by this view.  After all, they are not proposing to devolve the actual granting of licences to the Scottish Government.

If you don’t want to know the result, look away now…

In the end, only two substantive amendments have been introduced into the Bill in relation to shale gas as a result of yesterday’s debate.

  • A Government amendment requiring the Secretary of State to request the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to provide advice on the impact which “combustion of, and fugitive emissions from, petroleum got through onshore activity” is likely to have on the Secretary of State’s ability to meet the Climate Change Act duties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 and to meet each of the carbon budgets set under the Act in the meantime.  Future Governments will be obliged to report on the conclusions they have reached after considering the advice of the CCC – a sort of “comply or explain” mechanism.
  • As was expected, the Government allowed a Labour front bench amendment to pass.  The intention of the new clause it introduced is said to be: “to ensure that shale gas exploration and extraction can only proceed with appropriate regulation and comprehensive monitoring and to ensure that any activity is consistent with climate change obligations and local environmental considerations”.  Politically, accepting the new clause was clearly the expedient course.  From a legal point of view, it may cause more problems than it solves.

The new clause lists 13 things that must happen before “any hydraulic fracturing activity” can take place in Great Britain.  The list is a mixture.  Some of the pre-conditions it sets reflect existing legislation – for example requirements to carry out an environmental impact assessment; for planning authorities to consider the cumulative impact of fracking proposals in a given area; and to seek Environment Agency approval of fracking fluids.  Others include monitoring of the site for 12 months before fracking begins; “site-by-site measurement, monitoring and public disclosure of existing and future fugitive emissions”; independent inspection of well integrity; avoidance of groundwater source protection zones; a statutory requirement for the kind of community benefit schemes the industry has already promised; bans on fracking in “protected areas” (undefined), or at depths of less than 1,000 metres; and notification of residents in the area “on an individual basis”.

The House of Lords will now have an opportunity to consider the amendments made by the Commons.  Unless some changes are made to clarify the less tidy parts of the new clause’s drafting, uncertainties over what it requires may lead to a moratorium on GB fracking by the back door if and when the new clause comes into effect.