Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con) / Christopher Pincher (Tamworth, Con) / Phillip Lee (Bracknell, Con): What steps he is taking to encourage shale gas exploration in the UK?
Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks, Con): Further to my earlier answer to my hon. Friend Andrew Stephenson, the Government have commissioned the British Geological Survey to carry out a study of possible shale gas resources in the Weald basin in the south-east of England. This will be published in the early part of next year. We are also carrying out a strategic environmental assessment with a view to launching a further onshore licensing round for oil and gas in 2014.
Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Given that 2 million fracking wells have been drilled in the United States without harm to life or property, will my right hon. Friend act vigorously to thwart the vexatious use of environmental laws by Friends of the Earth and others to keep shale gas in the ground? In particular, will he introduce early legislation to clarify UK red-line planning laws and to restrict them to surface installations? Will he also tell us what he plans to do to prevent the mining waste directive and the groundwater directives from being used expansively to delay and prevent the exploitation of shale gas in this country?
Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks, Con): The Environment Agency has already announced its actions to streamline and simplify the system of permits required, which will be in the interest of everyone, including developers and local communities. My colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government will next week announce a simplified system of planning guidance so that the industry can be clear about the necessary planning permissions. As I have said, the Treasury will also announce next week the fiscal incentives that are necessary if we are to see this industry develop on anything like the scale that we have seen on the other side of the Atlantic.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth, Con): Further to the question from my right hon. Friend Mr Lilley, what action can the Government take to help to bust the myths about shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, so that local authorities—which are often a stumbling block—will be more inclined to grant planning applications? In that way, the Treasury, communities and energy users will be able to benefit from this vital national resource.
Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks, Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We all have a responsibility to ensure that the debate over shale and fracking is conducted on the basis of evidence rather than myths. I want to ensure that the developers of potential shale resources and those who want to dig exploration wells engage early with local communities. I also want to ensure that those communities that want to host shale are fully aware of the procedures involved and of the significant financial benefits that could accrue.
Phillip Lee (Bracknell, Con): Given the likely significant increase in Government revenue from shale gas exploration in the north-west, would the Minister consider using a proportion of that revenue to transform the plutonium stockpile in Cumbria from a liability into an electricity-generating asset for the nation and, in the process, secure jobs for the north-west region?
Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks, Con): We have a separate plutonium management strategy. I think that that will answer my hon. Friend’s inquiry on that matter. It is worth saying that local communities that are prepared to host shale will receive significant benefits, including some £100,000 for an exploration well and, potentially, between £5 million and £10 million over the lifetime of any production well. Those are significant amounts, and they would rightly recompense local communities for any of the disruption involved.
Andy Sawford (Corby, Lab): Bloomberg’s new energy analysis of shale gas states that “the expectation that UK shale gas could lead to gas prices similar to those which have been seen in the US in the last two years can be discounted”. Does the Minister accept and agree with that analysis?
Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks, Con): We know from the British Geological Survey, which we published two weeks ago, of the central estimate of 1,300 trillion cubic feet in the Bowland-Hodder basin. What we do not yet know is whether that resource can be recovered as economically or, indeed, technically as it has been recovered in the United States. That is why we need to get on and explore to see whether that resource can be made available in the same way and have the same significant reductions in the cost of energy for our businesses and our households.
Dennis Skinner (Bolsover, Lab): But do we not have to be careful about going into those old mining areas where the miners and the miners’ welfares were ethnically cleansed by previous Tory Governments? [Hon. Members: “What?”] Yes, that is exactly what I said. In Calow near Bolsover, Cuadrilla is actually thinking of drilling in an area not a mile away from where methane escaped and nearly killed several hundred people in the village of Arkwright. I warn the new Minister: be careful where these people operate. As for some great nirvana—some great future—from this fracking, it has not been proved at all that there is all that much in it for Britain.
Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks, Con): Let me utterly reject what the hon. Gentleman said about ethnic cleansing, which I find particularly distasteful in a week when this Government have assisted UK Coal in the safeguarding of 2,000 jobs at Kellingley and Thorseby collieries. We do not yet know the full potential of shale in this country. What is important is that we allow those developers to go down, have a look and see what the potential is. That is why we are simplifying and streamlining the planning and the environmental system to enable them to do that.