The risks and benefits of fracking for the UK are to be examined by a “independent” task force, led by the former head of the Environment Agency, Lord Chris Smith, and funded by shale gas companies. Whatever the rights and wrongs of using Industry money to fund research into the work they want to carry out, and that the current Government has already declared ‘good’ it is important that we don’t ignore the previous research that appears to be lying on a shelf, starting to gather dust. In 2012 the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering published a report which included the recommendation that the government establish a specific set of regulations for fracking. To date this apparently reasonable and sensible proposal has not been taken up. Arguably until the Government agrees to act on this report, one must question what the purpose of further work is. However there is an ongoing academic project, called ReFINE and funded at arms-length by industry that is examining shale gas exploration. It found in March that a lack of publicly available data on the UK’s onshore oil and gas drilling means there are significant “unknowns” about the safety of future fracking wells. Again the availability of more public information surely is not a bad thing? However once again there has been no move towards this set of proposals by a Government that claims it is “going all out” for the rapid development of shale gas in the UK. Conservatives say it can increase energy security, help reduce carbon emissions if gas replaces coal and be a boon to poor parts of the UK. However a government report into the effect of fracking on house prices was heavily redacted before being released under freedom of information rules.
According to this report an initial £650,000 of funding for this new task force has been provided by fracking companies, including Cuadrilla, Centrica and Total. Chris Smith said the new task force would look at aspects not covered by earlier academic work, including impacts like noise on local communities and wider economic and climate issues. “We will look at whether [fracking] is economically sustainable and whether it locks in another generation of carbon emissions,” he said. Chris Smith comes to this proposed work with something of a track record. In 2013 when he was chair of the Environment Agency which is responsible for the environmental safety of fracking he was summoned by the then environment secretary Owen Paterson to resolve a dispute over the regulation with Cuadrilla boss Lord John Browne. Smith said: “Our firm view [at the EA] is that existing regulations are adequate to ensure that fracking operations happen safely.” He also said he “wouldn’t rule out” fracking in national parks.
It seems that Chris Smith is not Independent on the issue of fracking, the funders are clearly not Independent and of the other two members of the task force, as a Conservative Peer, Baroness Patience Wheatcroft may not be entirely neutral either. The third member is Professor Ernest Rutter, a geologist at the University of Manchester. In August 2013 he wrote for the Guardian Newspaper in a piece that set him against someone opposed to Fracking, Alex Philips of the Green Party. He wrote:
“There are good scientific reasons to believe there is sufficient shale gas in the UK to have a major impact on fuel supply. Experience in America has shown that extracting this gas can stimulate the economy, lead to falling energy prices, as well as the creation of new and secure jobs. However, any such development must have the consent of the British people, and, unfortunately, a campaign of misinformation, disinformation and sometimes even outright lies has left many people confused and uncertain. Fracking itself does not cause earthquakes, but fluid injection into pre-existing fault zones can cause localised slippage that can result in minor tremors, like a truck driving along the street. About 2.5m fracking operations have been carried out worldwide since its first use in the 1940s; hardly any have caused tremors, and many people in the UK have lived for decades with minor but persistent coalmining induced seismic activity. This is not a hazard.”
I personally am unsure about the safety of fracking when compared to the impact of other forms of fossil fuel extraction or production. However I don’t think the £650,000 raised for this report should be spent on new research until some of the previous recommendations have been implemented. I also don’t think our three taskforce members or funder can be possibly described as being Independent on the issue of fracking. Let us not be lied too or have our language so abused that we cannot tell left from wrong.