War of words breaks out over shale gas

26th January 2015

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Duncan Kerr

Battle lines have been drawn between opponents and supporters of shale gas development ahead of a key debate on the Infrastructure Bill in parliament this afternoon.

The bill includes provisions to enable the government to produce a strategy for “maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum”, which includes oil and gas.

However, several members of the cross-party environmental audit committee, including its chair Joan Walley, Alan Whitehead, Caroline Lucas, Zach Goldsmith and former environment secretary Caroline Spelman, have tabled an amendment to the bill to place a moratorium on fracking activity. They argue that burning recovered fossil fuels would put achieving the UK’s carbon budgets at risk.

The moratorium is a key recommendation from the committee’s report on the environmental risks of fracking, published this morning. This states that large-scale extraction of shale gas will not be achieved for at least 10 years, and will therefore coincide with much tighter carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act, which will significantly curtail the scope for fossil fuel energy.

“As a consequence, only a very small fraction of the possible shale gas deposits will be burnable,” the MPs conclude.

The MPs also called for a clause in the bill to change the trespass law to allow energy companies automatic right of access to land below homes and businesses to be withdrawn, arguing that it would “seriously undermine citizens’ rights”.

The government’s proposal is aimed at easing current requirements for companies to reach agreement with each landowner to access energy sources located underneath their property.

A rally in support of the moratorium is being held in Westminster this afternoon, organised by environmental campaign groups including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

Oil and gas industry body UKOOG published a detailed rebuttal of the committee’s report, saying it “fundamentally disagreed” with its call for a moratorium.

“Calling for a moratorium achieves only one thing – increasing the levels of gas coming from outside the UK at a substantially higher environmental cost and with significant economic consequences”, said Ken Cronin, chief executive at UKOOG.

The body’s statement points out that independent reviews by the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, Public Health England, Water UK, and the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management have all concluded that environmental and health risks from shale production are low if the industry is regulated effectively. The Committee on Climate Change said that UK shale gas production would reduce the country’s dependence on imports and help meet gas demand as part of a low-carbon transition.

The oil and gas industry and government have been working closely to overcome obstacles to shale gas development, according to a leaked letter to cabinet colleagues from chancellor George Osborne.

The letter, written in September last year, sets out plans to “respond to the ‘asks’ from Cuadrilla [a shale gas company] over which government has influence”. It also suggests providing extra technical support to Lancashire County Council to help determine planning applications, and, if permission is refused, it advises “Cuadrilla to respond to concerns and appeal asap”, while the Planning Inspectorate is told to “respond promptly to appeal or secretary of state recovery if appropriate”.

The letter also suggests providing extra resources to planners at Lancashire County Council, such as funding consultancy work and supporting secondments. The Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency should be given extra resource to enable them to “engage and communicate positively” to the planning process and as regulators, it states.

A cross-government and industry group should be established to assess the viability of finding a small number of sites in “less contentious locations” that have potential for production, the letter states.

Osborne wrote of the need for “rapid progress” on implementing the actions suggested. “I understand your officials have been heavily involved in the drafting of the recommendations, and in many cases are already driving them forwards. I would ask that you make it a personal priority to ensure that these are implemented within the agreed timescales below,” he wrote.

Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth, who obtained the letter, said: “Such government collusion with a highly unpopular industry will just make fracking an even more politically toxic issue.”

A decision on two planning applications by Cuadrilla for shale gas exploration in Lancashire is due on Thursday. Planning officers recommended last week that both be refused on the grounds of noise and traffic. The company has since asked the council’s planning committee to postpone the decision while a consultation is held on further noise and traffic mitigation measures.

Cuadrilla claims that planners at Lancashire had never advised that its aim for a 42dB night-time noise limit would not be acceptable, and that 42dB is the limit that Lancashire and other county councils have previously set for drilling at night.

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