Lord Borwick is a businessman and elected hereditary peer.
Last year I visited Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in the United States. It is known as the centre of “Frackistan”, a place where shale oil and gas extraction is a rapidly growing industry.
It wasn’t the hub of noise and pollution that the activists in Lancashire seem to think will blight their county. At the natural gas production well we saw, there was nothing much higher than five metres. There wasn’t much noise there. The team had robust processes in place to prevent pollution.
It reminded me a little Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, which goes up for a couple of months around Christmas. Shale extraction can occur in beautiful spaces, like Winter Wonderland, but the initial activity with noise, lights and extra traffic soon comes to an end, just like the theme park which quietly disappears.
What is left behind to continue the extraction process is actually rather mundane.
It’s important to remember this as the Infrastructure Bill is discussed at Report stage in the Commons today. Several amendments seeking to address misguided environmental concerns about shale oil and gas have been tabled.
And nicely timed to coincide with this, the Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has released a report on its environmental concerns with fracking.
The report concludes that because large scale extraction of shale gas in the UK may be 10-15 years away, it won’t be able to compete against an “extensive” renewable energy sector. The conclusions foresee a future in which coal plants have been superseded by new renewables. Perhaps: but I cannot foresee a future in which solar panels can generate electricity at night, or windmills generate electricity in calm weather. Renewables are intermittent and need back up.
The subsidies involved in keeping these forms of power generation going are enormous and the Committee is extremely optimistic to think that shale gas and oil won’t – or needn’t – feature as a crucial part of the energy mix.
The Committee is also concerned that with shale extraction, we won’t meet our environmental obligations. The problem is, of course, that other countries like China don’t have any obligations.
They focus on the UK emissions targets but we must remember that it is global warming, not UK warming. A tonne of Chinese CO2 is as bad as a tonne of British CO2.
And in a paper for the Centre for Policy Studies, written by Professor Richard Muller, a world-renowned physicist, we are shown why environmentalists concerned about emissions on a global scale should actually support fracking.
Extracting shale gas more widely instead of burning coal will massively reduce the amount of harmful particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) in the air. PM2.5 penetrates deep into human lungs and causes thousands of deaths each year: 75,000 a year in the US and 400,000 a year in Europe, in fact.
The effects, as ever, are much more acute in the developing world where air pollution kills more people than AIDS or malaria.
Shale gas offers an opportunity massively reduce PM2.5 in the air. So what we should be trying to do is getting on with shale extraction and then sharing that expertise across the globe.
But thinking domestically again, the report seems to predict that the oil companies will fail to keep control of emissions when they have learnt in the US exactly how to keep control of a process that is no longer dangerous.
I believe that we should regulate well, but I also believe that companies will succeed rather than fail to keep their promises.
There are further issues that need attention today – with some bad amendments to the Infrastructure Bill, mainly from the Labour Party, that should be rejected.
Currently the law doesn’t allow companies to drill under people’s land without permission without an argument, even if the drilling causes no impact on the surface and the landowner can’t even detect it.
Shale extraction can involve horizontal drilling, which may span many kilometres. That means companies need to undertake individual negotiations with potentially thousands of people.
The proposals in the Infrastructure Bill will change this to allow drilling below a limit of 300 metres to allow the onshore oil and gas industries to develop.
A Labour amendment seeks to move this limit down to 1,000 metres, which is unnecessary. Further, it would prohibit the diagonal drilling that companies need to undertake shale gas development.
The EAC report claims that the industry “acknowledges it not necessary” for the Government to seek to allow drilling without individual permissions below 300 metres.
But that isn’t correct. The UK Onshore Operators Group and Centrica both make clear the need for this provision in their submissions to the Public Bill Committee of the Infrastructure Bill.
This is particularly important because activists have begun to split the ownership of land into many small parcels to place more hurdles in the way. Indeed, the campaign Wrongmove, run by Greenpeace, asks people around sites not to allow access for sub surface shale development.
My visit to Pennsylvania – and mountains of scientific evidence – showed me that we having nothing to fear. We must fight off the over-the-top amendments and put through an Infrastructure Bill which gives the green light for a shale revolution.