Infrastructure

- Monday, 8th December 2014

 

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Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I get two kinds of letters about infrastructure. The first kind says: "The infrastructure in this country is inadequate. It is the cause of congestion, housing shortage and economic inefficiency. We must invest heavily and speedily in more infrastructure." The second kind objects to any specific item of infrastructure being built or proposed. Those letters say: "A new road? No. We should be investing in rail," or "A new rail line? No. We should be relying on short-haul aircraft," or, "More airport capacity? No. We should be staying at home," or, "Build more homes? No. We can't build more homes because we haven't got the infrastructure to support them." We suffer from infrastructural schizophrenia in this country. To some extent, that has been exemplified in the debate.

 

I congratulate the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who has responsibility for roads, on finding the one piece of infrastructure that does not arouse antagonism: the widening of the A1(M), for which my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) has campaigned so hard with my support. That has won near-unanimous support in our part of Hertfordshire, not least because it is economical, it will be done on an existing hard shoulder, it involves minimal disruption and it can be done rapidly.

 

I want to focus on the element of the Bill that empowers drilling under other people's land. When I initially heard those proposals I was worried, although I am sympathetic to promoting and developing the shale oil and gas industries in these countries. The proposals sounded like an unprecedented invasion of people's property and an act of trespass, but they are far from unprecedented. The London underground runs under the street where I live in London. I can often hear the rumble, even though we live a couple of floors above it. I doubt whether the owners of my property should have had the right to prevent the building of the London underground.

 

The tube is a maximum of 100 feet beneath the ground. Coal mining involves massive and relatively shallow tunnels, which can cause subsidence. Sewerage, water and other underground networks also run under other people's property. By contrast, a lateral gas or oil well is usually just a 7-inch bore about 1 mile below ground. It can cause no conceivable disturbance to the surface landowner.

 

Dr Whitehead: The right hon. Gentleman observes that lateral drilling and fracking for gas takes place a mile underground, so why do provisions in the Bill deem deep-level land to be 300 metres underground?

 

Mr Lilley: Well, 300 metres is 10 times as deep as the London underground. The Bill states that deep-level land is at least 300 metres down, but normally drilling will be about a mile down because—as the hon. Gentleman will know from serving on the Energy Committee—about 7,000 feet of rock is needed to compress the shale sufficiently to turn it into gas or oil.

 

Rightly or wrongly, mineral resources in this country were nationalised before the war and, unlike in the USA, landowners do not have the right to extract them. I do not see why landowners should have the right to prevent the extraction of a national resource that is collectively owned by us all. After all, we do not have the right to prevent aircraft from flying over our property, although frankly the chance of an aircraft falling on our property is rather greater than that of anything welling up through a mile of rock and affecting our homes.

 

In theory we could revert to the pre-war situation, as in America, and give landowners rights over subsurface minerals and their exploration. If we did so, the general taxpayer, who stands to benefit from a 61% tax on profits from any shale gas, not to mention royalties and fees, would be the loser, while landowners lucky enough to own land above any of that natural resource would become richer—I am not sure whether that is the direction in which the party of Keir Hardie or the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) are going, but I think we should keep things as they are. The resource is collectively owned; let us open it up for sensible, properly regulated and environmentally sound exploitation.

 

In the USA, when landowners are given the choice between preventing or allowing the exploitation of land from which they will profit, they overwhelmingly say yes. Despite strong campaigns to discourage the development of the fracking industry in north America, 2.5 million wells have been drilled and not a single person has been poisoned by contaminated water, nor a single building damaged by the minute seismic tremors that fracking can cause.

 

A lot of letters I receive say, "But this is against the laws of trespass. This is terrible. You're trespassing under my land, which is as bad as trespassing on it." Actually there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the law of trespass. My father did not have many political opinions but he was a libertarian. When we went out in the country and saw a sign saying, "Trespassers will be prosecuted", he would say, "My son, as a free-born Englishman you have the right to go anywhere as long as you do not cause damage. The landowners are bluffing and cannot stop you." He was right, of course. Subsequently, Mr Fagan wandered into Buckingham palace and the Queen's bedroom, but he could not be prosecuted because he had done no damage.

 

Ian Lucas: It's the right to roam.

 

Mr Lilley: Indeed. Why on earth is it a sin to drill a hole a mile from where we live and separated from us by a mile of rock, when we do not prevent people from walking through woods as long as they cause no damage? I think we can dismiss the trespass argument. Of course, if there is damage on the surface from such activities, it is right and proper that people are compensated for that disturbance.

 

The organised opposition to shale gas drilling is part of a wider attack on fossil fuels. There is a legitimate case for opposing all drilling for oil and gas if we believe that hydrocarbons should be left in the ground to prevent emissions of carbon dioxide, and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley)—I do not know whether she is still in her place—honestly and frankly made that case. She does not want the stuff extracted because she does not want it to be burned, the energy used, or the CO2 emitted. I respect her and those who openly argue for that, but they know that they will not convince the people of Britain to give up using fossil fuels because our whole economy is based on them. If we were to try to transform our economy and move away from fossil fuels—well, we have been for 50 years, but with remarkably little impact—it would impoverish us and would be enormously disruptive. Those who cannot get that argument across therefore make it their duty to deploy unfounded scare stories and exaggerate them. They claim that fracking will harm the water table and trigger earthquakes, that it will use vast amounts of water and be of no advantage to society.

 

People with those fears should read the report by the Royal Society—our principal scientific body—and the Royal Academy of Engineering, which in its opening words concludes:

 

"The health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing…can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation. Hydraulic fracturing is an established technology that has been used in the oil and gas industries for many decades. The UK has 60 years' experience of regulating onshore and offshore oil and gas industries."

 

Why do eco-alarmists say that we must believe the Royal Society when it tells us that CO2 may increase the temperature by a degree or two in a century's time, but ignore it when it says that we can frack safely in this country as long as we adhere to regulations that we have developed over 60 years, with some sensible amendments that have been proposed?

 

A number of Members have said that fracking is a novel technology, but 2.5 million wells have been drilled and fracked since the process was developed in 1948. As the Royal Society report states,

 

"more than 2,000 wells have been drilled onshore in the UK",

 

of which 200 have been fracked, although relatively modest amounts of water and pressure were used compared 

 

with what is now proposed. I am not aware of any objections to those 200 wells. On the use of water the report states:

 

"Estimates indicate that the amount needed to operate a hydraulically fractured shale gas well for a decade may be equivalent to the amount needed to water a golf course for a month…and the amount lost to leaks in United Utilities' region in north west England every hour."

 

In other words, the idea that we do not have enough water in this country for fracking is an absurd exaggeration.

 

On seismic threats, the report states that we have "naturally occurring" seismic tremors, which infrequently reach force 5 in this country and force 4 rather more frequently. There is consensus that the maximum seismic tremor that could be caused by fracking would be less than force 3. Forces 3, 4 and 5 sound close together, but for each move from force 2 to force 3, or from force 3 to force 4, power is multiplied 32 times. We have "naturally occurring" tremors in this country, and, as Members will know, 32 times 32 is just over 1,000, so those tremors are 1,000 times larger than the largest seismic tremor likely to be triggered by fracking.

 

In truth, shale gas represents a tremendous opportunity for this country if it exists in the quantities that we hope and is economic to extract—we do not know that, and will not know until we have tried. Either shale gas will bring down the price of gas in this country, or if the price remains at the same level as on the continent, the profitability and tax revenues to the British taxpayer will be enormous. If successful, we will reduce either households' energy bills or their tax bills. What is more, it will create jobs in the areas of the country that need them most, and in the areas of our economy—manufacturing and related industries—where that is most important, and it will improve the security of our supply.

 

I hope that we will continue, using the powers in this Bill and in other legislation, to develop this industry with proper environmental and safety controls, not throw it away because of scare stories spread by people whose ultimate objective is simply to prevent it from ever getting off the ground, even if it would cause no damage in this country, as it has not done anywhere else it has been applied.

 

 

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