Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): The one point on which I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) is that we have inadequate time to debate this important issue tonight. We also have inadequate time in which to debunk the many myths that she herself propagates. Indeed, she relies on their not being debunked. We all want our water supplies to be pure in quality and ample in quantity. One of my first successes in the House was to secure the closure of the Friars Wash extraction plant in my constituency following over-abstraction from the aquifer that was damaging the aquifer and threatening the chalk streams in the area. I would therefore support any measures to protect the quality of our water supply if I thought that it was threatened by fracking—but I do not think it is.


    A number of those who write to me are genuinely convinced that there is a serious threat and that as a result of fracking their water supplies will be contaminated and their health put at risk. We should be clear, however, that the majority of those who are hyping those fears are not primarily concerned with the quality of the water. Their campaign to prevent the extraction and use of fossil fuels in this country is what motivates them, and that is a perfectly legitimate objective, but it should not be achieved by hiding their real motives behind some grossly overblown, exaggerated fears relating to other matters. They know that they will not succeed on the CO2 thing, because to abandon the use of fossil fuels in this country would be dramatically to undermine our quality of life. In any case, if we did not extract shale gas and oil in this country, we would simply import it from abroad, so all we would be saying is that we should make other people rich while impoverishing ourselves and not creating jobs and opportunities where they are most needed in this country.


    Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend struck, as I am, by the fact that the Committee on Climate Change—hardly made up of a rabidly right-wing bunch of cut-throat business people—has expressly stated that a domestic shale gas industry can be entirely consistent with our emission reduction targets, because the lifecycle emissions of domestically produced shale gas are lower than those of imported liquefied natural gas? This is simply about gas substitution. It is not about burning more gas; it is about burning domestic gas.


    Mr Lilley: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. In addition, the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, where I used to be in a minority of one but I am now joined by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) in a minority of two, was unanimous on the issue of fracking: it could and should be pursued energetically in this country, with appropriate safeguards, of course.


    Dr Huppert: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?


    Mr Lilley: I hope the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, but I want to make a little progress.

    A number of fears have been raised about water supplies, the first of which is the fear of well failure. We have drilled 2,000 onshore wells in this country and, as far as I know, not one of them has resulted in contaminated water supplies. If that has happened, it has not resulted in any ill health to anybody.


    Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): This is one of the myths that my right hon. Friend has fallen into. We have only fracked at shallow depth for natural gas. The only time we have fracked at depth for shale gas was in Fylde, which is why the question of the independent regulation of this industry hangs in the balance this evening.


    Mr Lilley: I am sorry but my hon. Friend misheard me. I said that we have drilled 2,000 onshore wells—I was not talking about fracking wells. As for the risks of escape of gas, it does not matter whether it is fracked or not. We have drilled 2,000 such wells, only 200 of which have been fracked, and they tend to be shallow and small pressure. I will move on to the issue of fracking, but if people are worried about methane or liquids permeating to the surface, that is an issue about well casing. We have very adequate and strong controls on that, and, as far as I know, there is not a single case among those 2,000 wells where a problem has resulted.


    The second issue is whether fracking—the use of high pressures, at depth, as my hon. Friend says—will lead to those fractures reaching up to the water table. The useful report produced by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, which is studiously ignored by those who wish to raise fears and concerns, makes it absolutely clear that that is extremely unlikely. For fractures to permeate requires immense energy and for them to remain open proppants have to be put in; sand is injected to try to keep them open. The idea that they will be able to be kept open for several hundred if not thousands of feet, extending up to the aquifer, is almost laughable. Even this well-measured report states:


    “Sufficiently high upward pressures would be required during the fracturing process and then sustained afterwards over the long term once the fracturing process had ceased. It is very difficult to conceive of how this might occur given the UK’s shale gas hydrogeological environments.”


    Even if that did occur, an upward flow of fluids would not result unless


    “the permeability of the fractures”—




    “similar to that of the overlying aquifer for any significant quantity of fluid to flow. In reality, the permeability of the aquifer is likely to be several orders of magnitude greater than the permeability of the fractures. Upward flow of fluids from the zone of shale gas extraction to overlying aquifers via fractures in the intervening strata is highly unlikely.”


    That is an understatement.


    Concerns have also been raised about the process resulting in excessive abstraction of water—too much water being used—putting our water supplies under threat. The report states that the amount of water


    “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”.


    It states that


    “the amount lost to leaks in United Utilities’ region in north west England every hour”


    exceeds the water required by one shale gas well for a decade. So there is no danger of excessive water abstraction and use as a result of this process.


    Then we hear the frequent assertion, “We just can’t take the risk. This is a new, untried, untested process. We don’t know what dangers could result.” In fact, 2.5 million wells have been fracked worldwide and not a single person has been injured or harmed as a result of contaminated water. Not a single building has been damaged by the resultant seismic events that are so small that they would probably be less than if we dropped one of the Dispatch Boxes on the floor.


    We are dealing with a well-tried and tested procedure worldwide. In this country, we have drilled 2,000 wells well below the aquifer and had no problems of contamination. We know from very respected bodies such as the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society that the risks are negligible, certainly if we continue with the sort of processes and environmental protection that they say already exist, although they do recommend that they could be strengthened in certain ways.


    I urge the House not to be frightened by those who are trying to scare us into failing to exploit a resource that is potentially of immense value to this country and, not least, to those areas where shale is most prolific.