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5. Debate on a Member's Legislative Proposal

October 25, 2017

21 speeches by…

  • Ann Jones
  • Simon Thomas
  • Mike Hedges
  • Huw Irranca-Davies
  • Elin Jones
  • David Melding
  • David Rees
  • Lee Waters
  • Michelle Brown
  • Jenny Rathbone
  • Lesley Griffiths
…and 1 more speakers

Ann Jones

Item 5 on our agenda is a debate a Member’s legislative proposal and I call on Simon Thomas to move the motion.

Simon Thomas

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. This legislative proposal, which I hope the Assembly will support today is for a Bill to amend the planning system so that there’s a presumption against planning permission for hydraulic fracturing or fracking. This is aimed to protect public health, the environment and the landscape of Wales. The situation at the moment, following a Plaid Cymru motion tabled in February 2015 is that the Welsh Government has in place a moratorium against planning for fracking. Many argue that this position is open to legal challenge, but that, in any case, will soon change, because under the Wales Act 2017, both the National Assembly and the Welsh Ministers will soon have powers in relation to petroleum. Importantly, petroleum is defined in section 1 of the Petroleum Act 1998 to include ‘natural gas existing in its natural condition in strata’, such as shale gas, which is extracted through fracking. The current, unsatisfactory position, however, is underlined by the fact that test drilling is still happening. A planning application to test drill for shale gas near Pontrhydyfen, near Port Talbot, was granted by Natural Resources Wales back in January 2016. We—. Sorry, Mike Hedges. I’ll give way.

Mike Hedges

Isn’t it more important, to start with, to ban the test drilling? Because people aren’t test drilling because they’re bored or looking for something to do; they’re test drilling because at some stage in the future, they think they’re going to be able to frack.

Simon Thomas

That’s an important point, and I know that allowing test drilling in Scotland, where they’ve come out against fracking, means there are now legal cases pending, and you shouldn’t give people encouragement, if you like, or spend money, that they would then have a legal recourse against you. It’s better to ban completely, and I accept that point. We, in Plaid Cymru, have made our stance against fracking absolutely clear, and consistently so. This, now, is a real opportunity for our National Assembly to send a clear message in advance of gaining the full powers next April. We don’t want fracking in Wales, we don’t need fracking in Wales, and we should not allow fracking in Wales. As well as being hugely unpopular, there are concerns that fracking could have a detrimental impact on human health and the environment. Under such circumstances, I would argue that the precautionary principle can and should be applied in full. We now better understand the impact of air pollution on public health—stated to be a public health crisis by Public Health Wales—and we must move away from burning and using fossil fuels in order to address that. Of the chemicals used in fracking, 75 per cent of them can affect the skin, eyes, other sensory organs, the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal system and the liver. More than half the chemicals show effects on the brain and nervous system. More than 25 per cent of the chemicals can cause cancer and mutations. No wonder that the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently reported that while breast cancer rates in the USA have been slowly falling for many years, they are on the rise again in several counties at which natural gas extraction takes place. I give way to the Member.

Huw Irranca-Davies

Can I commend the Member for actually bringing forward this debate on this legislative proposal? Would he note that in the US where, on a state-by-state basis, they looked at this technology, the ones that allowed it to develop into something of a bonanza actually had to reduce and diminish their environmental legislation to make it happen? They actually stripped away protections to make it happen, and that had an impact on public health too.

Simon Thomas

I’m sure the Member is correct, and we are faced with this challenge of leaving the European Union and keeping our high environmental standards, and I think that’s a challenge of a country that has its Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 as a centrepiece of its legislation. In terms of protecting the environment, fracking will not help us either combat climate change or end our dependency on fossil fuels. Shale gas is terrible news for our climate. Fracking will create more climate-changing gases, it’s not compatible with our climate change targets, and shale gas will keep us hooked on fossil fuels and distract us from the real solutions of the future: energy efficiency and renewable energy. Allowing fracking in Wales, I also suggest, would make a nonsense of the Government’s own recently announced target of 70 per cent of our electricity to come from renewable resources. There’s also a risk that fracking could contaminate water. The UK’s Environment Agency found that flowback liquid from the Lancashire shale contained, and I quote, ‘notably high levels of sodium, chloride, bromide and iron, as well as higher values of lead’. The impact on our landscape would be enormous. For fracking to be fully developed, we could see 10,000 to 20,000 wells scattered around the countryside in clumps of six to seven on so-called drilling pads. I do note, with a deep irony, that those who are the strongest backers of fracking tend to be those who oppose windfarms in the strongest possible terms as well. It may also be the case that the UK’s geology would not support fracking. In August 2017, Professor John Underhill, Heriot-Watt University’s chief scientist, stated this: ‘The inherent complexity of the sedimentary basins has not been fully appreciated or articulated and, as a result, the opportunity has been overhyped.’ He warned against relying on shale gas to, quote, ‘ride to the rescue of the UK's gas needs only to discover that we’re 55 million years too late.’ Plaid Cymru wants to end our dependence on fossil fuels, and this does include a complete ban on fracking. We acknowledge that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity, and we need to decarbonise our energy sector. It remains our aspiration to produce as much electricity as is consumed in Wales from renewables by 2035. Fracking is diverting the attention of the energy sector and, possibly, public funding as well, from sustainable and renewable sources of energy. Instead of investing in fossil fuels, the UK Government should be investing in clean renewable technology. Swansea bay tidal lagoon has a huge potential for the Welsh economy and could create more jobs without the risks to public health and the wider environment. I hope today the Welsh Government will support this proposal as a commitment to use the powers when they come into force next April to ban fracking in Wales. Instead, we should look to amend the land-use planning legislation to fast-track community-owned and farmer-owned energy schemes, with a presumption in favour of development. We would then transform our energy policy to place the interests of Welsh communities at the heart of everything we do.

Elin Jones

In accordance with Standing Order 12.23(iii), I haven’t selected the amendment tabled to the motion. David Melding.

David Melding

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Can I say we’re happy to note the proposal without necessarily endorsing it? I do have a qualified position on this. Also, the current position, which is essentially a moratorium on applications until this area is devolved, is something we think is appropriate so that, in effect, the Welsh Government and this Assembly are allowed to develop an evidence-based approach. I do have some reservations about an approach that says, on every ground, it is comprehensively banned, because I think evidence usually requires a slightly more nuanced and subtle use than that, and I do think it’s very important that we develop our public policies in the light of evidence. There are some potential benefits—at least, those who propose the use of fracking talk about them: the use of gas instead of coal, if that stops us shifting to renewables as quickly as we want, I can see how it diverts attention, but it is kinder than coal, we know that; and the possible income and investment in former coalfield communities, I don’t think these things can just simply be put aside. However, there is a lot of public opposition, and it is a very—or it seems to be, anyway—a very disruptive intervention and it has a big impact on our landscape. So, I don’t think those factors can be put to one side very easily, and they’re certainly of concern to communities around Wales. But I come down to this need for an evidence-based approach, and we do need to make a fair assessment of this technology to see if is able to be exploited to some degree. I know there have been lots of arguments, from earthquakes to flaming taps, and if they’re there, and it’s robust that those are a real risk, then we must, obviously, pay attention to that and act on it. But I do think some of the range of stories you hear require us, anyway, to apply—

David Rees

I thank the Member for taking an intervention. I understand the evidence base you’re asking for, but there’s also a problem that there’s no evidence base to actually support—to analyse the impacts upon the environment. That’s what we need. We need to look at the impacts on the environment and, unfortunately, we have yet to get that, so we haven’t got it for, but we also haven’t got the problems shown either.

David Melding

I think we should advance in a way that is fair to all technologies, basically. So, I think that’s what we need to remember when we’re looking at developing energy sources, that we use the same criteria. I think one of the big issues that fracking would have to face is whether it can be reconciled at all with our wider strategic objectives, especially in the well-being of future generations Act. Now that, I do accept, is a very material point. I also accept that the application of this technology in Britain may have been exaggerated. I think, in general, it is more feasible in areas that are away from population and of a wider area. We are talking about fairly constrained sites, so those are big, big factors. So, I’m happy to note this and to look forward to a full and proper evidence-based approach from the Welsh Government and this Assembly. I suspect the people of Wales would expect—would require, anyway—great reassurance if this sort of technology is going to be used on any scale whatsoever.

Lee Waters

For me, this isn’t about flaming taps or earthquakes. These are clearly issues that would need to be sorted out if fracking was ever to be permitted, but I think there’s a much broader point that this debate is about that cuts through, I think, some of the tortured arguments that David Melding just made. Our whole way of life, since the second industrial revolution, has been built upon access to energy derived from fossil fuels, and we’ve built a materially prosperous society on that. However, as a matter of logic, if it is based on finite natural resource, then surely there’s going to come a time when that reaches its limit. Now I’m not anti-technology—far from it. I’m very open to the idea that innovation can help us find ways of improving our way of life that are consistent with respecting the planet’s boundaries, but I do worry that most of us are in denial about the impact that human behaviour has had on our environment and impacted its ability to sustain us in the way of life we’ve come to assume is our right. My problem with fracking is that, instead of taking the hint that we’re reaching the limits of our reliance on fossil fuels, we’re trying to blast the last bit of gas out of the earth to sustain an industrial lifestyle, instead of confronting the fact that we need to find new ways of doing things. Now, the gas produced through fracking may emit only half as much carbon dioxide as coal, but this doesn’t take into account the leakage of methane and other greenhouse gases during the process. When these are added in, studies show, the shale gas can create even more pollution than coal, and I don’t see how releasing highly damaging gases into the air that contribute significantly to greenhouse gases and rising temperatures is consistent with our stated policy of cutting emissions year on year. I heard David Melding call for nuance and policy that is based on evidence. Well, the evidence on climate change is fundamentally clear and there’s no room for nuance around it. This is a threat to our and our future generations’ lifestyles, and we must tackle it with a clarity that does not allow for nuance. So, I don’t see how we can countenance sanctioning fracking in Wales, and for that reason I support the Bill. I would say, Llywydd, we need to stop trying to find a way around this to please corporate interests. We need to focus on developing our economy in a way that respects the needs and well-being of future generations. Our focus should be on reducing the amount of energy we need through innovation and building up our renewables capacity so that it not only meets our energy needs, but can provide us with green energy that we can sell and export. Let’s end Wales’s association with dirty energy and make us leaders in clean energy.

Michelle Brown

Let me first say that, as things currently stand, I would be very concerned to see any fracking in Wales. It’s not been proven to be safe, but neither has it been proven that it cannot be made safe. I also agree with much of what Simon Thomas and Lee Waters have said about the dangers of fracking, which is why the concept of fracking in Wales really, really, really does worry me. Before permitting energy sources such as fracking that could affect the ecological or geographic environment, we need to be informed and certain of its consequences on our environment and people living in the vicinity of it. The proponents of fracking say that fracking allows drilling firms to access difficult-to-reach resources of oil and gas. I’m sure that’s true. In the US, it has significantly boosted domestic oil production and driven down gas prices. It’s estimated to have offered gas security to the US and Canada for about 100 years, and has presented an opportunity to generate electricity at half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal. The industry suggests that fracking of shale gas could contribute significantly to the UK’s future energy needs, and the taskforce on shale gas, an industry-funded body, has said that the UK needs to start fracking to establish the possible economic impact of shale gas, saying it could create thousands of jobs. However, those against fracking point to some largely unanswered environmental concerns. Fracking uses huge amounts of water, which must be transported to the fracking site at significant environmental cost. Environmentalists say that potential carcinogenic chemicals used may escape and contaminate ground water around the fracking site. The industry itself suggests that pollution incidents are the result of bad practice rather than an inherently risky technique. But, while it might be that good practice may prevent pollution, we must be mindful that, when profit and loss come into play, the temptation for corner-cutting may be an overriding one. There are also worries that the fracking process can cause small earth tremors, as happened near Blackpool in 2011. Objectors also point out that fracking is simply distracting energy firms and Governments from investing in renewable sources of energy and encouraging continued reliance on fossil fuels, which has already been mentioned this afternoon. But, although that may be the case, I believe that any restrictions or controls on fracking should be based solely on the safety and sustainability of the process, rather than a means to encourage exploration of alternative energy sources. We should of course be exploring renewables, and are doing so. But it would be sensible and prudent to have a healthy mix of energy sources, and it may well be that fracking could be a safe and acceptable part of that mix. So, turning to the motion, I think there may come a time when it might be appropriate to introduce a presumption against fracking. However, this proposal pre-empts a finding that fracking cannot be safe. We all know that sourcing energy comes at some cost to the environment, whether it be fossil fuels or the development or installation of renewables. So, we can’t expect fracking or any other energy source to be problem-free. But we do owe it to the people of Wales to find out to the highest degree possible what the implications of fracking are, and whether fracking can or cannot be safe. I believe that we need to properly and carefully gather and examine the evidence, perhaps via the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, which could come back to this place to present objective findings and an educated and evidence-based recommendation as to whether we should presume in favour or against approvals for fracking. It may well be that we will find that we should presume against approval, and I have no problem supporting that stance should the evidence point that way. But, until we have that proper study, we are simply relying on dribs and drabs of information from either the pro or anti lobby, whose members may have vested interests. So, in summary, I am not saying that we should not presume against. I’m saying it’s perfectly possible that we should presume against. We just don’t have enough information from reliable and objective sources to make that judgment right now. Once we’ve decided if there should be a presumption either way, it remains UKIP policy that any final decision should be made by the people who live in the local area via a referendum. While some may attempt to undermine this policy by moaning about the cost of a local referendum, on such important issues we should be giving local people a stronger voice in their area. The costs of such a vote could become part of the application costs for the multinationals that would be looking for a decent frack. Thank you.

Jenny Rathbone

I support Simon Thomas’s Bill for all the reasons that have already been outlined on environmental grounds, and we need to be moving away from fossil fuels and on to renewables. There’s one aspect I’d like to interrogate Simon Thomas on, which is how we fulfil our global responsibilities in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. Because we have to bear in mind that Centrica, which is the largest energy supplier in the UK, has already invested £40 million in a 25 per cent stake in the Bowland exploration licence. So, how would you frame your legislation to ensure that people were aware that, although they thought we were in a frack-free country, if we simply import it from another energy supplier who is fracking over the border or somewhere else, we are simply burning up the carbon that we should be endeavouring to save? Therefore, I think that this is a particularly important point. I’m concerned that Centrica says one thing and does another. Because it claims to be a world leader in new technologies and cleaning up the world, but, actually, it is one of the largest donors to something called the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which sounds very cuddly but is a climate-denying fossil fuel lobby. So, therefore, I wondered if you would be able to address that in your response.

David Rees

Can I thank Simon Thomas for bringing this forward today? Because I think it’s an important proposal that he is putting down, and I took part in the debate in February 2015 in relation to fracking. Michelle Brown has highlighted, and I agree with her, that there is a mix of energy generation that is required. We all accept that. But it’s also important that, when we do that, we balance that with the safety of the environment. Therefore, we must look at those considerations, and I err on the side of the lack of evidence for safe fracking at this point, and that’s particularly important, because that is what we’re talking about, hydraulic fracturing—as we all know it, fracking—and the implications of that. Across the globe, environmental groups have mounted significant protests against fracking, citing the fact that the detrimental environmental impact that shale gas extraction may have could prove to be substantial. And that’s it: we don’t know, and I’d rather err on the side of safety. There is no doubt that public concern is significant around fracking and the related industrial processes. As Simon Thomas highlighted, there is one application possibly waiting to come in, within—. Actually, it’s not Pontrhydyfen; it’s in Cwmafan, technically, because it’s in my own ward—but it is a concern. And boreholes have been approved, because there’s no control on boreholes. So, we should look at—. If you are going to look at it, expand, look beyond just fracking itself; look at the boreholes and the processes beforehand that can lead to the concerns of communities, not to understand the whole process. Cut it straight away and we are better off. Dirprwy Lywydd—Llywydd, sorry—there are many gaps in the scientific literature regarding these impacts and, as a result, public debate often relies on information and anecdotal sources. We need to get the evidence. David Melding was quite right: evidence is important. But we need to have the evidence of safety or not safety, and that’s not there. And the analysis of geological structures—as Simon Thomas said, our strata are different here in Wales compared to—the Vale of Glamorgan, perhaps, compared to Blackpool. We need to have that investigation. Scientists from Global Responsibility and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health have published reports that reviewed current evidence, all issuing the fact that there are concerns. The many environmental risks have already been mentioned—I won’t mention them all. But we also talk about health and safety aspects. We forget sometimes that there are workers on these sites, and Cornell University in the US actually conducted research that found that exposure to gas drilling operations was strongly implicated in serious health effects on humans and animals. And the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released a hazard alert on data collected that workers may be exposed to dust with high levels of respirable crystalline silica—silicon dioxide—during fracking. So, there are serious health implications for workers. These can go on to people around the communities because, unlike America, we have tight spaces. And, unlike America, we have the opportunity perhaps now to do things. It was mentioned by Huw Irranca-Davies that places in America are changing American laws. But New York State has banned fracking. Maryland has banned fracking. There are countries and regions that have banned fracking, and while we may not be the leader this time, I think we should definitely follow.

Elin Jones

I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths.

Lesley Griffiths

Diolch, Llywydd. I’d like to begin by thanking Simon Thomas for bringing forward this proposal. And I note the terms of the motion and acknowledge the concerns several Members have raised in the Chamber today around fracking. At the end of last year, I made a statement on our developing policy on energy. I set out three priorities: to use energy more efficiently, reduce our reliance on energy generated from fossil fuels, and drive the energy transition to deliver maximum benefits for Wales. Last month, I announced stretching targets for renewable energy, which include Wales generating 70 per cent of its electricity consumption from renewable energy by 2030. This will help us to decarbonise our energy system. Moving towards clean energy requires action to move away from continued fossil fuel extraction, as well as further work to encourage and incentivise the generation of renewable energy. And, of course, it was a key Welsh Labour manifesto commitment to continue our robust and unequivocal opposition to fracking. So, I believe Welsh Government has fully demonstrated we support the sentiments behind the motion. It is an opportune time to take action to prevent Wales being locked in to further fossil fuel extraction through onshore unconventional oil and gas, such as shale or coalbed methane. We already have a precautionary planning framework through two notifications directions that have been issued in respect of unconventional oil and gas extraction. However, I recognise there is a need to do more. I’ve already commenced a review of ‘Planning Policy Wales’ to ensure it best fits with the intentions of our well-being goals and supports progress in terms of our decarbonisation agenda. As part of this revision of national planning policy, I will strengthen planning policy in relation to the extraction of onshore unconventional oil and gas, and will be consulting on changes early next year. I have written to chief planning officers informing them I intend to consult on such changes. I am confident the changes I propose to consult upon through my overall revision of ‘Planning Policy Wales’ will achieve the objectives of the motion without the immediate need for changes to the law. However, I do not rule out the possibility of introducing legislation at some future date if it proves necessary.

Simon Thomas

Thank you very much. I was about to intervene on the Minister there when she concluded her comments, so I will make the comments that I’d intended to make there now. I’m grateful that she has just confirmed that she will retain the current moratorium, but also that she recognises that when the further powers do come to us here in the Assembly, it would be possible for the Government, if necessary, to take statutory legal steps in order to ensure that the current situation remains. I don’t think she has dealt with some of the concerns that others have in terms of the testing or in terms of the drilling, and I think that’s perhaps where the Government may need to look in the future. If I could just respond to the debate more broadly by saying that I’m grateful to every Member who participated in the debate. I sense that a majority here are in favour of a ban on fracking in Wales, and a full ban for the reasons that have been outlined very clearly by people such as David Rees, Lee Waters and Jenny Rathbone too. Now, I recognise the dilemma that David Melding finds himself in, because the Conservative Party in Wales in 2016 wanted to retain the moratorium on fracking, but a year later in the general election this year the UK Conservative Party said: ‘We will develop the shale industry in Britain.’ I think David Melding has performed a miracle in making the argument that he did make, but I would tell him and others here that the feeling among the population against fracking is so strong that this is an opportunity—and I say that positively. It’s an opportunity for us to restate how we can develop alternative technologies and renewable technologies instead of fracking in Wales. And in that sense, I stand with Lee Waters. We are not against new technology; in fact, I want to see the development of new technologies in Wales—for example, offshore where £100 million of European funding and Welsh Government funding is now invested around the coastlines of Wales to develop marine energy. This is where we want to see industry work and investment done in Wales, not underground with fracking in geology that is, if I may say, increasingly clearly, inappropriate for the kinds of developments that have taken place in the US or Canada. Our geology and our communities aren’t appropriate for those kinds of developments in terms of underground gas. And the final point that I want to raise is a point raised by Jenny Rathbone. Yes, we can’t disconnect entirely from fracking, and I will answer the question by asking another question, if I may. There is gas coming into Milford Haven today. There’ll be a huge a tanker outside the port. That’s LPG but where LPG goes depends on the price of fracked gas in the United States, and although we’re not importing that directly, the price of the gas and where it goes and whether it goes from the western isles to us, or from Qatar or to South Korea all depends on the international price of gas, and we can’t disengage from that. But I would conclude by endorsing the words of David Rees. Although we wouldn’t be the first to ban fracking, given the history that we have of underground gas and underground energy, we could take hold of that history and make a stance and make it clear that Wales is not a nation where fracking should be allowed.

Elin Jones

The proposal is to note the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I will defer voting under this item until voting time.