• MPs vote to increase restrictions on fracking.
  • Conservatives and Labour claim credit for creating a positive
    investment environment for UK shale gas industry.
  • Government agrees to obligation to outline how fracking fits
    within the UK’s climate targets.
  • Industry react positively to amendments. Environmental groups
    fear changes are superficial.
  • Opposition fails to remove a clause obligating the UK to
    “maximise” oil and gas extraction.
  • Infrastructure bill leaves House of Commons with watered-down
    proposal for building new zero-carbon homes.

MPs yesterday voted to increase restrictions on fracking while
continuing to try and maximise exploitation of the UK’s oil and gas
reserves. They also voted to water down a commitment to provide
zero-carbon homes.

All three items were contained in the mammoth
infrastructure bill
. The energy and climate provisions were the
focus of what has become an increasingly partisan fight to dictate
the future direction of the UK’s energy and climate policy.

Fracking

The most high-profile amendments to the bill were around the
issue of whether the UK should go “all
out” for shale gas
. After several hours of debating, amendments
were included to increase the stringency of regulations dictating
where shale-gas companies can explore, and place further
obligations on the government to explain how fracking fits with the
UK’s broader climate-change goals.

Before the debate, the parties made clear their positions on
whether the government should support the nascent industry.
Conservatives MPs, and
the chancellor in particular
, are
very keen
. Labour is willing to permit fracking with some
additional checks. Some Liberal Democrats and the Greens remain
staunchly against any fracking.

A cross party amendment for a fracking moratorium was rejected
by 308 votes to 52. The government accepted an opposition amendment
to allow fracking with “appropriate regulation and monitoring”,
broadly in line with recommendations from an
Environmental Audit Committee report
released yesterday.

That amendment says:

“Any hydraulic fracturing activity can
not take place:
(a) unless an environmental impact assessment has been carried
out;
(b) unless independent inspections are carried out of the
integrity of wells used;
(c) unless monitoring has been undertaken on the site over the
previous 12 month period;
(d) unless site-by-site measurement, monitoring and public
disclosure of existing and future fugitive emissions is carried
out;
(e) in land which is located within the boundary of a groundwater
source protection zone;
(f) within or under protected areas;
(g) in deep-level land at depths of less than 1,000 metres;
(h) unless planning authorities have considered the cumulative
impact of hydraulic fracturing activities in the local area;
(i) unless a provision is made for community benefit schemes to be
provided by companies engaged in the extraction of gas and oil
rock;
(j) unless residents in the affected area are notified on an
individual basis;
(k) unless substances used are subject to approval by the
Environment Agency
(l) unless land is left in a condition required by the planning
authority, and
(m) unless water companies are consulted by the planning
authority.”

A Green and Liberal Democrat amendment to prevent changes to
trespass laws to allow fracking under people’s homes was rejected.
Labour abstained from the vote in light of the government accepting
its amendment forcing shale-gas companies to comply with more
stringent environmental and planning regulations.

Energy minister Amber Rudd, who was charged with guiding the
bill through the Commons, also agreed to an “outright ban” on
fracking in “national parks, sites of special scientific interest
and areas of outstanding natural beauty.”

Rudd further promised to add a new amendment that requires the
government to outline how its support for fracking aligns with the
UK’s broader climate change goals.

The energy and climate secretary will now be required to
consider research from government advisor the Committee on Climate
Change. If the committee deems shale gas extraction to be contrary
to the UK’s climate targets, the secretary will either have to
remove companies’ licenses or explain why they are allowing
fracking to continue. Rudd explained:

“We will introduce a further amendment
in the Lords to place a duty on the Secretary of State to consider
in every carbon budget period advice from the Committee on Climate
Change as to the impact of UK shale development on the UK’s overall
climate change objectives. If the Committee on Climate Change
advises that shale development adversely impacts on climate change
objectives, the Secretary of State must either choose to deactivate
the right of use provisions or to make a written statement to
Parliament explaining the reasons.”

The Committee on Climate Change said in a
statement
that shale gas exploration “is a new and emerging
area and it is important to ensure that future exploitation is
consistent with existing carbon budgets and our 2050 target for
reducing emissions. The Committee on Climate Change is able to
provide that advice to Government and Parliament.” Its previous
work “suggests that some shale gas exploitation may be consistent
with meeting carbon budgets, if suitable regulation is in place”,
it added.

The amended bill showed the government was taking steps to
“develop the best shale gas environment we can, for the benefit of
the UK generally”, Rudd said.

Maximising oil and gas

MPs were allotted two hours to debate the energy elements of the
infrastructure bill, with the shale-gas amendments swallowing the
lion’s share of time. That meant other important amendments were
either overlooked or rushed through.

In particular, one clause that has come to symbolise the chasm
between the parties’ views on climate change was barely mentioned.

Clause 37
obligates governments to produce strategies for
“maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum”.

The position was first recommended by Sir Ian Wood in his
government-commissioned report
on how to maximise the returns
from the UK’s ageing North Sea oil and gas industry.
Environmentalist
George Monbiot
calls the clause “a legal obligation on current
and future governments to help trash the world’s atmosphere”.

A Green and Labour amendment to remove the clause was rejected
by Rudd, who said:

“The Government feel that oil and gas
recovery makes an important contribution to the national economy by
supporting jobs and growth. In June 2013, we commissioned Sir Ian
Wood to review UK offshore oil and gas recovery and its regulation,
and we have been making good progress implementing the
recommendations.”

So, unless the Lords remove the clause, the government will have
a legal obligation to “maximise” oil and gas extraction, though it
remains unclear what that may entail.

Zero carbon homes

Finally, MPs decided not to amend a clause defining how the
government goes about reducing the carbon footprints of new
homes.

The UK had plans in place for all newly built homes to be zero-carbon by
2016
. But the infrastructure bill watered down the proposals,
removing a recommended carbon performance standard for new homes.
It replaces it with a scheme where developers pay into a central
pot, effectively establishing a carbon tax to offset the failure to
reduce the new homes’ carbon footprints.

The government rejected a series of Labour amendments to bolster
the plans by forcing developers to prove the improvements couldn’t
be made during the building process.

Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrat communities and local
government minister, said the amendments would “cause uncertainty
and cost to house builders, because the house builder and the
building control body would have to agree a ‘reasonable’ on-site
energy performance level on a case-by-case basis before any
development could commence.”

John Hayes, the Conservative transport minister and former
energy minister, also endorsed the government’s approach, saying it
was more “cost-effective and practical” than Labour’s
alternative.

Reaction

The Conservatives and Labour both vied to take credit for
amended bill.

Hayes concluded the debate by saying the bill
“supports house building; introduces rights for communities to buy
a stake in new, commercial renewable electricity schemes; boosts
our energy security and economic growth by making the most of North
sea oil and gas reserves; and facilitates shale gas and geothermal
development.” It is “a bold bill”, he said, “introduced by a
far-sighted administration.”

Labour’s shadow energy and climate minister said in
a statement responding to the debate
that the opposition had
successfully forced a “massive U-turn” by the government on its
position on shale gas. Flint said:

“Labour has always said that shale gas
extraction cannot go ahead unless there is a system of robust
regulation and comprehensive inspection, but David Cameron has
repeatedly ignored people’s genuine and legitimate environmental
concerns over shale gas. Now, thanks to Labour’s amendment, the
Government has been forced to accept that tough protections and
proper safeguards must be in place before fracking can go
ahead.”

Environmental groups were concerned the amendments do not go far
enough, however. Donna Hume, energy campaigner at Friends of the
Earth, said in a statement that the amendments “would not prevent
fracking getting the green light in Lancashire, despite
overwhelming opposition from local communities”, adding that “the
only way to safeguard our climate, local communities and their
environment from the fracking threat is to halt shale gas
completely.”

Industry representatives were pleased fracking could now
proceed, albeit under restricted conditions. Ken Cronin, chief
executive of industry lobby group UK onshore oil and gas (UKOOG),
said:

“It is good news that MPs have rejected
the misguided attempts to introduce a moratorium on hydraulic
fracturing. Most of the amendments agreed are in line with best
practice in the industry or codify the directions of regulators,
which the industry would naturally comply with. We now need to get
on with exploratory drilling to find out the extent of the UK’s oil
and gas reserves.”

The infrastructure bill debate was just one obstacle the
industry is likely to face in the coming months. Philip Mace,
partner at law firm Clyde & Co, said in a statement:

“The rejection of the moratorium
proposal and approval of the main provisions facilitating fracking
will be seen as a positive step for the industry. However,
investors are still likely to see the future of unconventional oil
and gas in the UK as uncertain as we go into the general election.
The additional conditions placed on fracking will almost certainly
increase costs. This will need to be looked at carefully in a lower
oil and gas price environment.”

While yesterday’s debate was a major landmark for the
infrastructure bill, it is still not law. The House of Lords will
now consider the amendments, before deciding whether to send it
back to the Commons, or pass it into law.

Via: http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2015/01/in-depth-infrastructure-bill-amendments-on-fracking,-fossil-fuels,-and-zero-carbon-homes/