Energy bosses questioned by Lords Economic Affairs Committee

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Cuadrilla carried out exploratory drilling at Balcombe during the summer

The four bosses of companies hoping to develop shale gas and oil drilling in the UK have given evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee.

Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla, IGas Energy CEO Andrew Austin, Tom Crotty, director of INEO, and INEOS gas procurement manager Andrew Mackenzie were questioned on the scope for commercial shale gas extraction by peers on Tuesday.

They were also asked which areas were most likely to produce shale gas, and when production might start.

Andrew Austin was up first. He said they knew there was an awful lot of gas out there but what they needed to know was whether they could technically recover it and if it could be economical.

Image caption Mr Egan said if they did not explore, everyone would have to pay higher prices for imported oil and gas

Then it was the turn of Francis Egan of Cuadrilla.

Quietly spoken and calm, you could sense his frustration that, as he put it, the difference between exploration and exploitation was not well understood.

He repeatedly said they had not drilled shale at the Balcombe site in West Sussex and no hydraulic fracturing - fracking - had taken place either.

Asked if he "could put his hand on his heart and say fracking is completely safe?", he said yes without any hesitation.

He also said he could categorically say there was no correlation between fracking and cancers, which was one of the scare stories he'd heard.

'Another Aberdeen'

The point all four made was that the level of scrutiny on shale gas exploration was much higher than for tradition oil and gas and they thought the government needed to help sell the benefits - such as the potential to create anywhere between 25,000 and 100,000 jobs.

They said there was the potential to create "another Aberdeen" - potentially in the North West of the country.

After the hearing I spoke to the committee chair, Lord McGregor.

He was at pains to point out they were not even half way through the inquiry process but said he thought the bosses had made a good case.

Lord McGregor also cited the example of the US, where fracking has helped transform the economy and lower utility bills; the energy bosses gave no such assurances on utility bills.

Image copyright PA
Image caption There were weeks of protests in Balcombe during the summer

Mr Egan said he'd worked in oil and gas all his life and had "never seen an accurate oil price forecast" because the price was controlled by supply and demand.

He also said if they didn't explore shale gas and oil opportunities everyone would have to pay higher prices for imported fuel eventually.

The bosses estimate the UK's oil and gas is due to run out by about 2030, with Britain then being forced to import supplies from Russia or China at potentially much higher costs and with greater security risks.

Deep divisions

While the bosses calmly gave evidence to the committee, the No Fracking in Balcombe Society was among a group of campaigners delivering an open letter to the prime minister.

They want the government to compensate communities for any fall in house prices or tourism resulting from fracking, and any environmental fallout that affects industries such as farming.

The contrast between the way the two groups delivered their arguments brings into sharp focus the deep divisions on both sides of this debate - the need to keep the lights on weighed against the need to protect the environment.

Despite the weeks of protests in Balcombe this summer, the energy bosses seemed optimistic the public mood would turn in their favour.

Mr Egan said his firm could start drilling tomorrow if it had planning permission.

This debate still has some way to go. Next up in front of the committee will be representatives of the Environment Agency and government ministers.

And with energy prices under the spotlight like never before the government will be keen to explore all alternative forms of energy supplies.

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