Fracking and the Infrastructure Bill

I’ve received a number of emails regarding the Infrastructure Bill, which was debated in the House of Commons yesterday, and the consequences this could have for fracking in Scotland. I have reproduced my response – which I’ve just sent out – in full below:

Thank you for writing to me regarding shale gas extraction and the related Infrastructure Bill.

On Monday 26 January, Labour proposed an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill to stop fracking going ahead unless a series of tough conditions are first met. Labour’s amendment included establishing 13 specifications, without which no shale gas extraction could take place anywhere in the UK. Provisions within our amendment were supported by a number of organisations, including the National Trust, RSPB, Friends of the Earth, Local Government Association, Unite and GMB trade unions. The conditions are as follows:

  1. Prohibit shale gas extraction in groundwater protection zones.
  2. Require shale gas operators to individually notify residents of activity, rather than publishing a generic notice.
  3. Put the payment of community benefit onto a statutory footing.
  4. Introduce a presumption against development in Protected Areas.
  5. Prohibit the use of “any substance” in the frack fluid, as in current legislation.
  6. Ensure that decommissioned land is returned to a state required by the planning authority.
  7. Place an obligation on operators to monitor and report fugitive emissions.
  8. Empower local planning authorities to consider the cumulative impact of multiple developments in their area.
  9. Ensure that there is independent inspection of well integrity.
  10. Require 12 months of baseline assessments.
  11. Require all shale gas sites to conduct Environmental Impact Assessments
  12. Make water companies statutory consultees in the planning process.
  13. Extend the depth at which fracking can take place from 300m to 1000m.

At the last minute the Government accepted Labour’s amendments, and these robust regulatory conditions and protections are now in the Bill. This is the largest single overhaul of shale gas regulations to date, and if the Bill receives royal assent before the dissolution of Parliament, then we will have succeeded in stopping fracking until the robust regulation and comprehensive monitoring we have argued for is in place.

I abstained on New Clause 9, which would have introduced a temporary, 18-30 month suspension of shale gas development. New Clause 9 would have led to a pause in the process, but wouldn’t actually have obliged the Government to make any changes – normal service could have resumed after this period had elapsed. This is a much less robust position than Labour’s amendments, which establishes concrete conditions without which no development can take place at any time, and provides real protection in relation to water supplies, areas of natural beauty and fugitive emissions.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government already has responsibility for planning and environmental legislation. Following pressure from Labour, the UK Government has agreed to devolve all remaining regulation related to shale gas to the Scottish Parliament. The Government agreed to exempt Scotland from changes to underground access for mineral rights in the Infrastructure Bill, meaning that this legislative area becomes the responsibility of the Scottish Government, and so is effectively devolved.

The UK Government has also agreed to devolve the licencing process for shale gas extraction to Scotland. During Monday’s debate, Labour forced a vote on the immediate devolution of licensing to the Scottish Parliament rather than waiting until a Scotland Bill after the general election. Unfortunately this was defeated. We also argued that the government should suspend the current licensing process so that no new licences are issued for Scotland until this responsibility has been devolved. However, it is again important to stress that the Scottish Government still has an effective veto over fracking through its planning and environmental regime.

Scottish Labour has already announced that it would introduce a triple-lock system to halt any onshore fracking taking place in Scotland until environmental and health safeguards are in place. This involves:

  • A local referendum before final planning approval is given
  • Halting any fracking in Scotland until the lessons of fracking in the rest of the UK are learned
  • A comprehensive review of the baseline conditions before any planning application is granted

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has called on the SNP Government in Edinburgh to use its existing planning powers to stop any onshore fracking in Scotland immediately. He has also argued that the UK Government should suspend the current fracking licensing round in Scotland until new powers are devolved through the Smith Agreement process.

Thank you once again for writing to me.

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