Over the last few years, there has been a great deal of debate about the extraction of shale gas via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it’s commonly known.
Many people have expressed quite understandable concerns about the environmental impact of this process. A couple of years ago, I made it clear to ministers that I would not support fracking in Hampshire if it endangered our water supply.
Since then, I have conducted a considerable amount of research and many of my fears have been reduced. My remaining concerns now centre on two issues: the integrity of well casings and therefore the inspection regime around them, and the disposal of waste water produced by the fracking process. I continue to seek information on these issues that are really about safeguarding the drinking water supply.
But there is no doubt that fracking could be of great benefit to the country. The Government is very aware of its potential to lower energy bills, but not at any cost to the environment. To help address concerns while making the technology practical, the recently passed Infrastructure Bill has changed the rules of trespass to allow energy companies the same rights as utility companies when operating under private land in an attempt to make the whole process actually work.
There has been opposition to this but it seems to me that if fracking pipes have to be moved sideward to extract gas then it seems reasonable and practicable that there is legislation that allows it, particularly in such a crowded island. The proposals will only allow access to underground land below 300m (nearly 1000ft) and any hydraulic fracturing would actually only occur at far greater depths of 1.5 kilometres (around 5000ft) or more.
What was largely missed by the media were the added protections in the final bill, which go a long way to satisfy me about the safety of this process. Energy companies will now have to carry out an environmental impact assessment prior to being granted permission to drill and rigorous, independent inspections and monitoring will be carried out. Importantly, the bill also forbids fracking directly inside in some sensitive environmental areas like national parks, although fracking can take place underneath such places, if it started outside the boundary.
Does all this mean we are now ready to ‘frack’? No, but it shows that a thorough regulatory framework is slowly being constructed.