Oral Question: Onshore Oil & Gas Exploration (Scotland)

- Thursday, 18th December 2014

 

Hydraulic Fracturing

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): How many licences for onshore oil and gas exploration in Scotland have been granted by his Department in the last five years. [906718]

 

The Minister for Business and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): In the past five years, the number of onshore licences for oil and gas exploration that have been granted in Scotland is zero.

 

Mr Weir: The Minister is aware that the Smith commission has recommended that the powers in relation to unconventional oil and gas be transferred to the Scottish Parliament where planning permission already rests. Will he press for an early transfer of those powers?

 

Matthew Hancock: As the hon. Gentleman says, the Scottish authorities already have control of planning for onshore oil and gas, and the Smith commission recommends that the licensing of onshore oil and gas underlying Scotland be devolved, whereas the licensing of offshore oil and gas will remain reserved. The proposals to bring this matter forward in a Scotland Bill are ongoing, but as he knows, the Infrastructure Bill is also going through this House as we speak, and we will look at the proposals for how we can make this agreement real.

 

Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): When my right hon. Friend hands out licences, particularly in Scotland if it remains his power, will he make it clear that those who claim that hydraulic fracturing is a novel and dangerous process are talking nonsense? Far from being novel, 2.5 million wells have been fractured. Far from being dangerous, nobody has been poisoned by contaminated water, and no building has been damaged by the minute tremors, which are one thousandth of the power of natural earthquakes in this country.

 

Matthew Hancock: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful argument. Of course the regulatory regime for onshore oil and gas extraction in the UK is very strong. Onshore oil and gas extraction has been going on for many, many decades and hydraulic fracturing has been used onshore over many decades in the UK. We will continue to try to make the most of these huge reserves underneath the UK and do so in a careful and cautious way.

 

Mr Speaker: Ah, a lion to roar. Mr John Robertson.

 

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that the price of oil has come down, which means that there will be a lack of investment in the North sea either side of the Shetland islands and into the Atlantic as well. What will the Government do about the jobs shortages that are starting to come through the system, and how we will maintain the reduced prices for customers?

 

Matthew Hancock: One of the advantages of onshore oil and gas exploration is that the jobs offshore often require similar skills sets, so there is the potential for crossover. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Wood review is being implemented to improve the regulatory regime offshore to ensure that it is more flexible and that we can get maximum economic recovery from under the North sea. We are also reviewing the fiscal regime to ensure that we incentivise the production of North sea oil, which is good for the whole of the UK.

 

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): As the Minister is aware, planning powers and the permitting regime that takes place through the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which is responsible to Ministers in Edinburgh, mean that no fracking can happen in Scotland without the approval of the SNP in Holyrood. It is a matter for them and, frankly, they should stop trying to distort that debate by suggesting that it is not. Following submissions made by me and others, the cross-party Smith agreement included commitments not just on licensing but to devolve underground mineral access rights, which are effectively a secondary aspect of the planning process, to Scotland. Labour has tabled an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill, which is now in Committee, to make that commitment good now. Will the Minister commit to supporting that amendment, which will help make it clear and consistent, beyond nationalist distortion, where responsibility for such matters lies?

 

Matthew Hancock: We are absolutely clear about the policy: Scotland will be responsible for onshore oil and gas exploration. That will include not only planning, as is the case now and which is an effective veto, but the positive aspects of licensing. It is a matter for the Scottish Government now, and in the future it will be unambiguously a matter for the Scottish Government. We are carefully considering whether that is done through the Infrastructure Bill or through a future Scotland Bill, but we can put beyond any doubt the clear commitment of the two Front Benches of the major parties in the UK that the onshore exploration of oil and gas is a matter for the Scottish Government in Scotland.

 

 

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