Why the UK Government response on fracking is wrong

Last updated 31/10/2017

If you’re reading this, you probably know what fracking is, and you probably already think it’s bad.

If you google ‘is fracking bad?’ you’ll probably come to the conclusion that yes, it is very bad. In fact, I’m confident if you just google ‘fracking’ you’ll come to the same conclusion.

This article assumes that the majority of evidence shows that fracking is bad, and the UK government should come to the conclusion that Scotland, France, Bulgaria and New York State (amongst others) that fracking is bad and should not happen in this Country. However, if you write to Number 10 or your local loyal Tory MP (not all of them tow the party fracking line but most do) they will issue a standard cut and paste response such as the one to this petition. (Side note, what they say about gas being the cleanest fossil fuel isn’t strictly true, as it produces more methane.) However, not all Government bodies and institutions agree that shale gas is a safe bet. The Environment Audit Committee raised concerns, and I will add more to this list as I conduct more research.

There is growing evidence that fracking can’t be managed safely and the UK Government needs to acknowledge that, and in this article I aim to collect it all in one place. Please keep checking back as I’ll try and update it when I find more information.

 

The failure of UK regulation

We are seeing failures in our regulation systems before the drilling has even begun! The Environment Agency has been tasked with monitoring our rivers and aquifers (e.g: our drinking water source!) to ensure it’s safe. But they are failing to keep on top of it with all the current contaminants (such as slurry leakage, waste from factories etc.) which you can read about here, here, here and here. Well, surely they are getting more staff to cope with this increased workload? Well, actually no, they’ve had their budget cut and experienced massive job losses. And to quote an incident directly related to fracking, in 2013 Claudrilla failed to apply for (and the Environment Agency failed to remind them) to obtain fracking wastewater permits, something that was only discovered by a Freedom of Information (FOI) request put in by Friends of the Earth.

The Government also has moved the goalposts by changing the definition of fracking legally, meaning up to 89% of proposed wells in the UK may not be covered by the ‘robust regulation.’

Agencies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are also responsible for monitoring safety on site of oil and gas companies, but as this report shows (backed up by FOI requests), the company Third Energy (who have won planning permission to drill a well in North Yorkshire) have had numerous safety issues raised and failed to act in a timely manner. Nothing seems to have come of it though; the company is still operating normally. This same evidence was presented at the planning application but does not seem to have been taken in to account. And this company will be injecting fluid filled with nasty chemicals through the earth, past the water table level… the mind boggles! Needless to say, I do not feel reassured by regulation.

Another good example of the current industries failure is this picture here taken on BBC North West tonight in December 2014.

gaffer tape

As you can see, the connector is not attached using all of the bolt holes, and they have used gaffer tape of all things! But this isn’t some propaganda war against fracking, a BBC Panorama investigation where they went in to expose this. This was actually taken from a news piece that was felt to be biased TOWARDS fracking, yet this can be seen in the background at 1:59 during the clip (you can watch it here.) If they are this lax with the basics (and when they are expecting their site to be filmed!), they will be cutting corners everywhere!

For further reading, there’s also a report done by a PHD student called Fracking – Minding The Gaps, which you can read here.

Update 2017: Now that drilling has actually begun at Preston New Road near Blackpool, we have solid evidence of the failure of regulation. In the space on 10 months Claudrilla have racked up THREE breaches of their permit from the Environment Agency, including silt leaking into a tributary. With the main fear of fracking being it contaminates drinking water, it is clear regulation is not protecting us. The Environment Agency have slapped them on the wrist, but despite allowing contaminant into the water supply, they are allowed to carry on fracking!

3rd Energy – not fit to frack: A damning article by The Times [paywall] (normally a paper that cheer-leads the Conservative Government’s polices) on 22nd October 2017 touches on the following failures of 3rd Energy (the company fracking at Kirby Misperton:)

  • Claire Head, 44, who has a young son and daughter, says her home was engulfed in fumes from the site last Tuesday (17th October 2017), although the company says these were harmless, caused by maintenance and had nothing to do with fracking. “I went to hospital with breathing problems and a sore throat,” she said. “My 11-year-old son had the day off school because he felt sick. My husband felt ill and I’m terrified.”
  • The Times interviewed Terry Atkinson, a former Operations Manager who signed a “compromise agreement” when he left in 2008 that may have involved a payment and prevents him discussing the company. When he was approached, Atkinson said: “I cannot speak about any of these issues.” Asked if he believed fracking was safe, he replied: “No, I do not.”
  • Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Environment Agency (EA) has had concerns during the site’s 20-year history as a conventional source of gas.Third Energy was criticised by inspectors after an “odour” in 2015 was not reported to the EA, in breach of the company’s permit, despite 74,000 cubic metres of gas being released while a leak was repaired. The company had reported the leak to the district council.

    The operation was instructed by the EA to “review the management procedure for notification and reporting” and the company says it has made changes.

    Another EA report shows that in 2003 an inspector found the company had been pumping glycol, a toxic antifreeze chemical, down a waste disposal well for about a year in breach of the site’s licence. The company says it was later awarded a licence to dispose of the chemical and the amounts involved were minimal.

    It was criticised in 1998 and 2003 for having no “recognised environmental management system” (EMS). It should have kept proper records of its environmental safeguards. Third Energy says it has EMS systems in place that are constantly updated.

    One document revealed the leak of 100 litres of acid that was then flushed into the local watercourse. The company said the incident was “controlled” and the situation “neutralised” and the EA had taken no enforcement action.

Friends of the Earth Freedom of Information request on 3rd Energy: As 3rd energy plan to start fracking at Kirby Misperton in days, a FOI request to the Environment Agency is reported to have stated that 3rd Energy have not met the groundwater monitoring requirements of their energy permit. I am writing to the Environment Agency directly to get the facts, as this news has come from anti-fracking sources so I need to rule out bias.

 

The environment

The government response also talks about shale gas being a short term thing, stating (from the petition response linked earlier) “Shale gas can create a bridge while we develop renewable energy, improve energy efficiency and build new nuclear.” However, the Government have been slashing solar subsidies and scrapping home insulation schemes. So they are not even trying to follow what they set out in their response!

The Governments own climate change advisers even say with current regulation, fracking is not compatible with climate change targets!

It’s also flawed to say we need a bridge to renewables, when renewables can meet our energy needs NOW. 16 countries currently meet 100% of their energy needs using renewables, and other countries are close or achieving streaks of days where they don’t need to burn any fossil fuels. And with the improvements in technology and reduction in cost for energy storage (e.g: the Tesla battery), renewable energy is getting even easier to use (e.g: store power from solar panels so it can be used at night.) And it’s achievable in the UK! Scotland, enjoying greater autonomy with it’s own Parliament, is now half way there. And it’s not all about solar and wind. Wales has the ‘electric mountain‘, a hydro ‘storage battery’ for when we all go stick the kettle on in the commercials. The government wants a bridge to when the nuclear Hinkley point C comes online, but they could produce the same amount of energy for £40bn less over the plants lifetime. Why build a bridge to an expensive nuclear power plant, when you could just invest in renewable energy projects and save on the price of shale gas extraction sites, processing, gas power stations and the most expensive object on Earth?

But lets play devils advocate and say for some strange reason we do need a bridge to renewables. The Government also claims that fracking is required, because we need to switch to gas as it’s ‘cleaner than coal.’ And while it does contain much less carbon dioxide than burning other fuels, it does contain lots of methane and ethane, which hangs around in the atmosphere for less time than carbon dioxide, but is 30x more potent than carbon. And a recent study has shown that in the Northern Hemisphere, levels of ethane and methane have dramatically increased, tied with the rise of fracking in America.

Carbon capture could play a part in this ‘bridge to renewables’, taking carbon dioxide from sources burned for energy such as coal and storing it in the ground. Except the Government scrapped that project.

Update October 2017: The Government are now backtracking and downplaying the importance of fracking (yet still forcing it on our communities.) Their own report says our gas supply is secure, and this before fracking has even started. So it’s not even needed!

 

Erosion of democracy

One of the most horrifying things about the ‘dash for gas’ is the Government is using lots of underhanded tricks and tactics to force fracking on communities, bypassing our elected MPs, local planning committees and the will of the people who put them in to office. Here are some examples below:

  • In 2014, a Government report on the impact of shale wells on communities was published with many parts redacted 
  • The National Parks U-turn. This is something I followed quite closely at the time. In January 2015 (under the collation Government), Labour backed a notion to ban drilling under National Parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) and in areas of drinking water at certain depths. The notion carried and this was passed. I watched it on the news and celebrated. However, the Conservatives got a majority Government in May 2015 (one which is now being associated with election fraud), and began to U-turn this bill. It went to a small committee where only a few MPs were invited to speak (although those that knew it was happening could go and listen), and a vote would only be triggered if enough people yelled “Nay” (in our democracy in the 21st Century) when the bill was mentioned in a rubber stamping session in the Commons. However, a vote was triggered to scrap what had been implemented in January and won, and so by December, the U-turn was complete. They really snuck this one through, and just by coincidence I found out about what was happening (by an email from an activist site) and was able to tell my MP about it.
  • Fast tracking applications/ calling in appeals. In August 2015, it was announced that the Communities Secretary would be calling in shale applications that were in need of fast-tracking, or if they had gone to a planning appeal. This was passed during summer recess, so MP’s would be unable to react to it. Articles here and here. To add insult to injury, Creg Clark (who you would hope would be impartial, given he is managing the planning appeals) then was caught co-signing a leaked letter pushing to get the shale industry going- just two days before the Lancashire shale appeal started!
  • The Government announced an investment of £5.6m on a college in Blackpool to teach fracking techniques while the application for the Blackpool wells was still in appeal
  • Claudrilla have started drilling monitoring bore holes while the Blackpool application was still in the appeal. Perhaps they’ve had a heads up from central Government they will win the appeal? Why else would they risk wasting money on this?
  • The planning application for the KM8 well in North Yorkshire was approved by a Tory dominated committee despite 4,375 objections. The committee talked about the national planning framework, which states they need to consult the shale gas report on climate change- a report not available at the time which minsters have been accused of sitting on! And they are still sitting on it!
  • When the report was finally released in July 2016, it said UK regulations are inadequate to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, the Government said they have since improved the regulations since then, but fail to provide any evidence to back this up
  • In 2015, over 10% of the Chancellors external meetings were with oil and gas companies, whereas just 2 (not 2%, but 2) meetings were with renewable energy companies
  • Licensing blocks were issued in Eastern England, although there is a large gap where the Prime Ministers constituency is! Fracking is good enough for us but not good enough for them!
  • March 2016, in an attempt to win over the public on fracking Andrea Leadsom lies and says that fracking does not contain chemicals that are carcinogenic or causes earthquakes, despite the now widely available scientific research that proves otherwise
  • Fracking companies are being allowed to run with parent and child company structures where the child company (for example 3rd Energy) owes a great deal of debt to a parent company (usually in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying tax.) In February 2017, 3rd Energy are £48 million in debt, and also they are 3 months late returning their accounts (so they are likely more in debt then that!) Because of this, the child companies are not making any profit, so do not have to pay any tax on their profits or contribute to the shale wealth fund (a fund set up to compensate communities to the disruption caused by fracking.)
  • The Government refuses to make fracking companies pay a bond to be used to clean up the land should the company go bust. Given the deliberate running of a child company in debt as described above, the fracking companies can simply declare the child company bankrupt and then the taxpayer is stuck with the cleanup bill, whilst any revenue from fracking has been siphoned off safely to the Cayman islands https://amp.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/11/taxpayers-fracking-pollution-companies
  • October 2017 – Water contamination is found in Bolsover. The MP for the region, Dennis Skinner, asks the PM to intervene and stop fracking there while an investigation is carried out. She ignores his request and basically implies fracking is more important than clean water for Bolsover
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