The Labour party believes the rules covering fracking – or hydraulic fracturing – for gas are not tight enough and will attempt to strengthen regulation of the controversial drilling method by tabling a series of amendments to the infrastructure bill in the House of Lords on Tuesday.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) says there are adequate safeguards covering drilling for shale gas under existing rules or voluntary agreements. However, Tom Greatrex, the shadow energy minister, believes current agreements do not go far enough.
The opposition wants to see well-by-well disclosure of the fracking fluid being pumped into the well, baseline monitoring of methane levels in the groundwater and environmental impact assessments for all fracking sites.
Public unease about drilling for shale gas has already led to substantial protest, despite hopes that new energy supplies could counter the need for imports as North Sea production continues to fall.
“Shale gas extraction must only be permitted to happen in the UK with robust regulation and comprehensive monitoring. Too often, David Cameron’s government has ignored genuine and legitimate environmental concerns in pursuit of a rhetoric-led policy,” said Greatrex, who is also calling for water companies to be given more say in the planning of shale wells and wants baseline monitoring to take place over a 12-month period.
“With eight out of 10 homes still reliant on gas for heating, and with declining North Sea gas reserves, shale may have a role to play in displacing imported gas. The type of relentless hype from many Tories not only overplays the likely impact of shale, but also leaves many feeling their concerns have not been properly addressed.”
Last month the British government took steps to speed up energy exploration, including fracking for shale gas, with a new licensing round for companies exploring for onshore oil and gas.
Matthew Hancock, the business and energy minister, said speeding up shale would mean more jobs and opportunities for people and help ensure long-term economic and energy security for the country.
Decc said a series of measures had been put in place to ensure shale could be drilled safely and cover all the issues raised by Labour. “The disclosure of chemical composition of frack fluids is required for an environmental permit [and this] is available for review in the public domain,” it said.
Meanwhile, environmental regulators have agreed with the industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), that “appropriate” baseline monitoring of methane levels in groundwater will be conducted at every shale fracking site, while UKOOG has also committed to conducting an environmental impact assessment when any fracking is proposed, according to Decc.
But Labour said commitments from the industry were not strong enough to reassure the public. “If the government agrees these measures are a good idea they should sign them into law, simple as that,” said a Labour spokesman.
National Grid, which looks after the pipes and pylons in England and Wales, believes a third of Britain’s gas could come from its own shale by the early 2030s if appropriate government policies are put in place.
But fears about the potentially dangerous impact of fracking, where chemicals are pumped into the ground to help extract the natural gas, have prompted bans on the practice in France and elsewhere.
Interest continues to grow in other countries such as China, Russia and Mexico, after the huge finds in America that have led to sharp falls in the price of natural gas and triggered a wave of industrial investment.
British shale exploration is being pioneered by small firms such as Cuadrilla Resources and IGas, but larger companies are also beginning to show interest.
Ineos, the chemical company at the centre of last year’s standoff with unions at its Grangemouth plant, is the latest to buy the rights to explore shale in a 329 sq km (127 sq mile) area around the Firth of Forth. British Gas owner Centrica, and the French companies Total and GDF have also recently taken stakes in the UK’s fledgling industry.