Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Shale Gas Conference - NEC, Birmingham

I attended day one of the Shale Gas conference at the NEC in Birmingham yesterday.  The conference brought together industry representatives and consultants, government, local government, political parties Greenpeace,regulators and other interested parties to discuss this potentially controversial topic.

I had been asked by the conference organisers to chair two round table discussions about the issues surrounding shale gas exploration in Cheshire.  Other CWaC Cllr colleagues also attended as delegates.

I was particularly pleased to see the near unanimous consensus amongst all those participating in the conference that:
  • shale gas exploitation should not take place unless it can be done safely - in other words without harm to human health, wildlife or the environment; 
  • irrespective of the legal permitting regimes and the wider law the public as a whole need to be convinced that shale gas can be explored and exploited safely before it can, if ever move forward; and
  • industry as a whole must do a great deal more to be good neighbours with their communities.
There was a cross political party consensus too that if shale gas could be explored and exploited safely then, the many benefits for the UK could include greater energy independence and security as well as more certainty in energy pricing going forward.  Dan Byles MP (Con) and  Tom Greatrex (Lab) were effectively saying the same things in their respective contributions.

One of the themes discussed was the need for UK industry to have access to reliable cheaper energy.  This is needed if the UK petrochemical industry is to be able to compete with the US on a more level playing field.  Without exaggeration the cheap energy prices that the US petrochemical industry now has through its shale gas exploitation is already threatening the very existence of UK manufacturers and UK jobs on which we all depend.

My round table discussions about Cheshire brought together representatives of most of the major industry players in 'our back yard.'  In addition we were joined by the HSE and the Environment Agency, and the Government departments of BIZ and DECC.

I outlined the public and political landscape in Cheshire as a whole and CWaC in particular.  At CWaC we have established a cross party working group to explore the issues on shale gas exploration.  We have asked everyone with a point of view who wants to help shape policy within CWaC to come forward and debate the issues.  I am delighted that everyone who came to the Cheshire discussion has agreed to participate and present evidence in the local policy debate we are to have at CWaC.  That means the industry leaders will come, Government Departments, Regulators, Greenpeace, existing representatives of the petro-chemical industry will come to join the locals some of whom are for, and some of whom are against shale gas exploration. 

I outlined the intrinsic distrust many people feel with everyone associated with shale gas exploration - this includes distrust of our regulators.  I pointed out the need to ensure that, if local communities are ever to understand or accept shale gas exploration, that they have access to independent non-biased expertise to help them understand the issues and risks at hand.  We've already seen the benefits of this approach locally over air monitoring.  

I even went so far as to suggest as an idea that the granting or otherwise of planning permission for a shale gas development could be determined by the local community itself as a means to ensure widespread community support as a pre-condition.  Such an approach would compel anyone promoting a scheme to put the effort in to ensure that the surrounding local community was properly informed and was in a position with the help of experts, regulators, industry and those opposing any scheme to balance up all the issues.  The public are quick to 'suss out' charlatans - so this would ensure that any community engagement was meaningful.

Another way of dealing with this would be for those promoting a local scheme to assist the local community prepare its neighbourhood plan.  Don't forget a neighbourhood plan can only come into force after a local referendum.  Again this would focus the minds of the promoter into ensuring that the local community buy into what is proposed.

Lets face it the prize for the UK in being able to exploit our own seemingly abundant shale gas resources means all of us must properly explore the arguments both for and against.  But the pre-condition, or as one delegate put it to me yesterday, the 'table stake' is safety.  That is non-negotiable.

So before anyone thinks I'm in some way a cheer leader for the shale gas exploration - I'm not.  I try to act as a champion of my local community and put their interests first.  Accidents of geography, geology and the many thousands of local jobs that depend on the petrochemical industry in our corner of Cheshire mean we must explore the issues and come to proper balanced view.  Lets have that reasoned debate with each other - ideally in a respectful non-intimidatory way.

So my current starting point is: (as my knowledge and appreciation of the issues changes so may my view) 

'If there is to be exploration and exploitation of shale gas is has to be done and demonstrably be done safely - and without real risk or demonstrable harm to human health, wildlife and the natural environment.  If it is to be done it must be done in a well-managed, monitored way.  It must be policed, conditioned and regulated to ensure that there is a very high level of protection.  This must be done in an open and transparent way.  

All material information must be shared with the local community both with regard to what is planned and with regard to what is happening.  Independent expert advice must be provided to the local community to help it understand the issues before permission is granted and during all phases of the development.  

There must be proper contingency planning to mitigate against forseeable risks and straight forward compensation arrangements if damage arises.  There must also be the opportunity for the potential host- community to debate and consider all the issues before any scheme is granted permission.  There should be community agreement and acquiescence with what is proposed and significant sharing of the benefits of such a scheme with the local community hosting it.' 

If this can't be done or you are not willing to do it - then don't do it and certainly not in our corner of Cheshire.