Lord Wigley: My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 115B, 115C and 123, which also stand in my name and are grouped with Amendment 114. First of all, could I say a word about the whole issue of fracking? Noble Lords will be aware that when this Bill was given its Second Reading there was no reference to the provision it now makes in relation to fracking. When we first started in Committee, there was no sign of the amendments we knew were being prepared. Ostensibly, we had to wait until the conclusion of the consultation process in August, before amendments were formulated. But since little notice seems to have been taken of the overwhelming opposition to fracking expressed by the general public, this seems to have been little short of a charade. It is not good enough to take an arrogant and disparaging attitude to those who harbour genuine fears.
Now that we have the amendments in the Bill and the provision for fracking is likely to be confirmed as part of it as we move forward from Report, unless we challenge it rigorously tonight, then the fears that people have will be underlined and reinforced. That is why I have tabled my amendments. But before I address the detailed wording, I will make it clear why I unreservedly oppose the application of fracking technology to extract underground gas. I have grave reservations about this technology. I do not express these doubts and concerns on the basis of a nimby approach. There are no identified areas of potential fracking activities in my home county of Gwynedd, nor do I harbour doubts about any form of modern applied technology.
My university degree, many years ago, was in physics, and I rejoice in the progress of science in making life so much better for millions around the world. But science needs to be applied with a degree of the precautionary principle. We all remember the tragedies of thalidomide, the dangers of radiation exposure, and the potential disaster which was associated with CFCs in the atmosphere. It is just as stupid to blindly accept the application of science as it is to blindly apply a knee-jerk reaction against the wonders of modern science, and what it can bring us. We need a balanced approach, and that means asking awkward questions and challenging glib assumptions. That is what I want to do in regard to our apparent acceptance of fracking technology.
The dangers associated with fracking can be summarised under five headings: first, direct dangers to human health and to animal and plant life arising from the chemicals used in the fracking process and the likelihood of them entering our water supply systems; secondly, the possibility of fracking technology triggering seismic tremors, as we have heard about in earlier debates tonight, and in the extreme, earthquakes, as apparently happened not so far from Blackpool in 2011; thirdly, the implications, by building a cheap gas economy, of worsening our carbon footprint at the very time when we should be putting every priority into reducing our fossil fuel usage and investing in reducing demand for fuels by insulation and fuel efficiency programmes, and re-orientating our energy systems into using renewable low-carbon technologies; fourthly, the highly questionable principle of giving developers carte blanche to enter people’s property or dig under their land under a blanket assumed permission to do so, undermining the checks and balances which have been carefully crafted into our town and country planning systems; and fifthly, the environmental squalor which fracking has left in its wake in so many of those communities in North America which have been blighted as a result of the fracking invasion of their countryside, and now this Bill will allow fracking companies to walk away from their clapped-out equipment, which they leave under the ground after them.
We are told of the economic benefits which will flood into these areas as a result of fracking, but all experience shows this to be a total nonsense. Only a handful of jobs are created, and they usually go to migrant workers who move from location to location as the fracked-out wells are exhausted, leaving behind them the industrial squalor so often associated with the extractive industries. We are told that there will be immense wealth from exploiting these untapped reserves of gas. But that wealth does not go to the communities which have suffered the ravages of exploitation; it goes to the supranational corporations, which are only too ready to respond to the Government’s inducements. Of course, the money will go into the Treasury to bail out a near-bankrupt economy, with the danger of being squandered in the same way as has happened to the UK’s North Sea oil reserves. Local families, local communities and local environment pay the price, and distant pockets bulge with the proceeds.
All these are matters of concern to me. But let me concentrate, in the limited time we have available on Report, on the dangers of chemicals contaminating the water systems of those areas where fracking takes place. In Wales, we provide water not only for our own communities, but for many English conurbations: in north-west England, in the Midlands, and in probably increasing quantities to southern England. The purity and safety of those water supplies have been taken for granted. Let me mention just some of the chemicals used in the fracking process. Each fracking “job” requires between a million and 8 million gallons of water, and each such job uses 40,000 gallons of chemicals, involving as many as 600 different chemicals, including carcinogens and toxins such as lead, uranium, mercury, ethylene glycol, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde.
In the United States, there have been over 1,000 cases of contaminated drinking water in locations next to areas of gas drilling, and these have led to cases of sensory, respiratory and neurological damage which have been attributed to ingesting contaminated water. Less than 50% of the fracturing fluid is recovered; the remainder of the toxic fluid is left in the ground. Overwhelmingly, it is not biodegradable.
In the United States, waste fluid is often left in open-air pits to evaporate, releasing harmful, volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere, creating contaminated air, acid rain and ground-level ozone. A whole plethora of legal cases have arisen in the United States. In April, the Parr family in Texas were awarded
$3 million damages against the Aruba fracking company for the pollution of air, water and soil which had seriously impacted on the family’s health. The following month, in May, there was a rig blow-out in Morgan County, Ohio, with a spillage of 184 barrels of toxic fracking fluid, which apparently reached the nearby waterway. In Pennsylvania in June, a fracking company was fined almost $200,000 for a toxic hydraulic fracking fluid spill of over 200,000 gallons into the local environment that led to the evacuation of local families from their homes. In Texas in August, it was reported that in a survey of 100 water wells up to three kilometres away from the fracking locations, over 30% had arsenic levels above the safety limit. A survey by Dale University said that water sources—again in Pennsylvania—showed an elevated level of methane in locations a kilometre or more distant from drilled areas. In some instances, the methane concentration was so high as to be explosive.
Britain is much more densely populated than the United States, with consequently higher likelihood of water sources used for human or animal consumption being polluted. Given this sort of experience, it is of little surprise that states such as Vermont have banned fracking since 2012. They did so, in the words of the state governor, Peter Shumlin, in order for Vermont to,“preserve its clean water, its lakes, its rivers and its quality of life”.
I was told graphically when in America in August by Eluned Jones, Professor of Economics at South Dakota State University, that the economic benefit gained in her state by fracking had been attained at an environmental and social price that was a profound disaster. Other parts of America are waking to the dangers of fracking. Only last Tuesday, as we heard earlier, the city of Denton in Texas—in the heart of fracking country—voted in a referendum to ban any new fracking operations. Civilised European countries that put the safety of life and the environment above commercial profiteering have banned fracking. France has done so since 2011. Both Germany and the Netherlands have placed a moratorium on it. That is what my party, Plaid Cymru, has also called for.
In these amendments I urge the House to take a first step towards a moratorium throughout Britain by refusing to carry forward Clauses 32 and 33. They were inserted in a blind moment in Committee and I urge the whole House to reject them emphatically. If, for whatever reason, I cannot carry the House with me—as I suspect may be the case having heard earlier debates—then I implore the House to at the very least agree Amendment 114. That would allow this clause to be applied in Wales only if it was so approved by the National Assembly, and allows the National Assembly to impose whatever conditions it deems fit on any fracking development. My hope would be that, irrespective of what happens in England, it would say no to fracking in Wales.
However, there are cross-border issues relating to fracking. My parliamentary colleague, Hywel Williams, MP for Arfon, was told in a Written Answer that fracking developments in north-west England may well look to Wales for the enormous supplies of water they will need for those purposes. As noble Lords will be aware, water is an incendiary substance in Wales.
Any suggestion of the drowning of further valleys in Wales to provide water for fracking in England—no doubt without any compensatory payment—will generate a howl of outrage the length and breadth of my nation. Water is to Wales what oil is to Scotland, so let there be no misunderstanding whatever that the exploitation of water resources in Wales, without the sanction of the National Assembly or adequate payment, is a non-starter and will be fought every step of the way. I cannot make it clearer than that.
In many ways, it would be totally perverse not to devolve to the National Assembly responsibility for allowing, banning or putting conditions on fracking in Wales. The Assembly has responsibility for virtually all aspects of town and country planning in Wales, it has total responsibility for the environment and agriculture, and it has responsibility for the healthcare services in Wales. All these are policy portfolios impacted by the effects of fracking. If Wales is to have coherent public policy, then control of fracking must also be devolved. Indeed, the Government have tacitly admitted this in their response to the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee’s report on energy generation in Wales. The committee recommended that the UK and Welsh Governments should co-operate on regulatory and planning matters, including the “environmental risks” associated with hydraulic fracking. The Government’s response was that planning was a devolved matter. That being so, surely the Government must accept the thrust of my amendment.
Incidentally, I would be grateful to the Minister if we could have some clarification as to whether these draconian provisions will apply to Scotland directly, or whether the Scottish Parliament has some control over their applicability. I suspect that if you were to tell Mr Salmond that Scotland will have to allow fracking willy-nilly and by Westminster diktat, there would be such an eruption north of Hadrian’s Wall as to re-open the whole relationship between this place and Holyrood. Yet if Westminster were to allow a Scottish veto over fracking, then on what earthly basis is such a provision to be denied Wales?
My preferred outcome of this debate would be for the Government to withdraw or the House to vote these appalling clauses out of the Bill. In the event of failure to do this, I implore the Government to either accept my Amendment 114 to allow the National Assembly to determine these matters in Wales or undertake to bring forward their own clause in another place for the same purpose. Whichever way they proceed, this issue will not go away. I beg to move.