Fracking U-turns, women and trust
Government accused of “spectacular U-turn” on fracking regulation
The government faced accusations this week of reneging on promises to protect the UK’s finest landscapes and wildlife sites from the effects of fracking.
On Tuesday, a committee of MPs had expected to debate regulations that would ban fracking wells drilled inside National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites.
But the Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom, told the committee the regulations dealt only with what happened below ground. She said the government was considering how to legislate separately on what happened on the surface.
Until it does, there is no ban on wells drilled and fracked from these protected areas, despite a government promise. And there is no ban on fracking in Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which had also been promised by ministers.
MPs lined up to criticise Mrs Leadsom. The Green’s Caroline Lucas, arrested in 2013 during an anti-fracking demonstration, said:
“The Government have made a spectacular U-turn and are undermining public trust even further by so doing.”
Labour’s Cat Smith, whose Lancaster and Fleetwood constituency includes part of Cuadrilla’s licence area, said:
“The regulations are nothing but a U-turn from this Government.”
The meeting of the obscurely named Second Delegated Legislation Committee gives an interesting insight into the government’s determination to promote UK shale gas.
To understand the full story, we need to go back to January this year and what looked like a crunch time for fracking in the UK.
In the space of a week, Cuadrilla asked for a delay to the decision on its planning applications to frack up to eight wells in Lancashire after council officers recommended refusal. The Scottish government announced a moratorium on fracking. And the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee called for a halt to fracking because of risks to climate and the environment.
In the middle of all this, the then coalition government was trying to push through its Infrastructure Bill. This included a change to the trespass law to allow oil and gas companies to drill lateral wells under private land without the owner’s permission.
Moratorium vote and concessions
On 26th January, an estimated 400-500 opponents of fracking gathered outside Westminster as MPs met for the third reading debate on the Infrastructure Bill. Six Conservatives, including two from the area where Cuadrilla wanted to frack, voted for an amendment calling for moratorium on the process.
The amendment was defeated by 52 votes to 308. But the government appeared ready to make concessions. It accepted 13 Labour conditions on fracking and the then energy Minister, Amber Rudd, told MPs:
“We have agreed an outright ban on fracking in national parks, sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty.”
An industry insider told me afterwards the shale gas companies were dismayed by the ban. It suggested, he said, that National Parks needed protection when the industry was trying to persuade people everywhere they had nothing to fear from fracking.
When the bill was passed in February, many of Labour’s conditions had disappeared or been weakened and the “outright ban” applied to unspecified “protected areas”.
The government said a set of regulations in the form of a statutory instrument (SI) would define what these areas were. SIs allow ministers to make rules or regulations, bring in provisions of legislation and, perhaps most importantly, make changes without Parliament having to pass a new Act.
In July, just before the start of the parliamentary recess, the government published its SI on fracking called the Draft Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations 2015. All reference to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) had disappeared.
Protected areas were defined as “land at a depth of less than 1,200m beneath a National Park, the Broads, an area of outstanding natural beauty or a World Heritage site”.
Campaigners against fracking interpreted this to mean that fracking could be carried out at depths greater than 1,200m under these areas but not from them. No-one suggested that it did not ban activities on the surface.
Lobbying began to prevent drilling at any depth under National Parks and the other protected areas. There was also a campaign to bring back the ban on fracking from and under SSSIs.
The RSPB’s Martin Harper urged the government to fulfil its promise.
“We simply don’t understand why SSSIs, some of the UK’s best and most sensitive wildlife sites and landscapes, aren’t being offered full protection from fracking, when National Parks, World Heritage Sites and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are being excluded from fracking completely.”
Which brings us to the Second Delegated Legislation Committee on Tuesday.
The membership had been announced a week before. The 19 names included just one MP (Harry Harpham, Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough) with a constituency where fracking was possible. All the other members were from areas with no current or planned oil and gas exploration licences.
The list had 10 Conservatives, including the Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom, and the assistant whip, Julian Smith, both of whom, as members of the government, would vote for the draft regulations.
On Monday afternoon, Mrs Leadsom had a briefing on the regulations. Coincidentally, leading members of the shale industry were in London that afternoon, including Cuadrilla’s Francis Egan, Ken Cronin of the trade organisation, UKOOG, and executives from Ineos.
When the committee met the next day, another guaranteed vote had been added to the Conservative list. Paul Maynard, a parliamentary aide to the Energy Secretary Amber Rudd replaced a backbench Conservative. Mr Maynard represents Blackpool North and Cleveleys, which is part of Cuadrilla Bowland’s exploration licence area in Lancashire.
The committee had 91 minutes to decide whether to approve the regulations. Mrs Leadsom took up 27 minutes with her opening and closing statements. She told the committee:
“The draft regulations serve to strengthen further the protections already in place for protected areas”.
But she added:
“In defining protected areas there is a need to strike the right balance, affording them additional protection without stifling the nascent shale industry.”
On SSSIs, she said:
“The Environment Agency may determine the depth [of drilling], so additional protections were not deemed necessary, because they would transcend the balance between enabling the industry to succeed and protecting our most valuable areas.”
MPs who were not members of the committee were allowed to speak, but not vote, on the regulations. One of them, the Conservative’s Nick Herbert, who represents areas of the South Downs National Park around Arundel in West Sussex, asked for an assurance on surface drilling:
“Will my hon. Friend make it absolutely clear that it remains the Government’s intention not to allow drilling at the surface in protected areas, including national parks, and that a policy instrument will be put forward to enable that?”
Mrs Leadsom replied:
“Yes, I can give my right hon. Friend that reassurance. The Government’s intention is to announce soon the areas in which it will not be possible for drilling to take place at the surface, and that will include all of our most valuable areas.”
But that didn’t convince some members of the committee. Eight voted against the regulations, giving the government a majority of just two.
One of the SNP members, Tommy Sheppard, said:
“I do not think that it builds public trust to say in January that there will not be fracking under any circumstances in national parks or sites of special scientific interest, then to say in October that, actually, there might be regulations which will allow it to happen under certain circumstances.”
And Labour’s Alan Whitehead said the regulations drove “a coach and horses through the protections that Members thought were in the [Infrastructure] Act when it became law”.
He said the “apparent strength of the bans … may have caused some doubting members to vote for the legislation in the first place.”
“One can, at the very least, say that this provision is a serious diversion of the intention of the Act—of what the Act said and, indeed, what those who proposed it said about it at the time.”
Shout Yes or No
This isn’t the end of the story because parliamentary eccentricities will continue. The regulations next go before a full House of Commons. If enough MPs shout “No” (the number is not specified) the regulations will be voted on but there will be no more debate. At the time of writing there is no date for when this will happen.
There has also been no announcement on surface regulation, despite Mrs Leadsom’s promise of a specific policy as soon as possible.
Other headlines this week
• Women and fracking The new chair of the industry organisation, UK Onshore Oil and Gas, Professor Averil Macdonald, told The Times many women opposed fracking because they didn’t understand it, prompting allegations of sexism. Professor Macdonald said women did not take things on trust. The Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom, later told me she thought there was no difference between men and women. She said: “There isn’t a boys’ technology and a girls’ technology. It doesn’t work like that at all. There are people and people need to be persuaded that something is safe. People as individuals have preferences.” More details
• Is climate change real? Mrs Leadsom also told me: “When I first came to this job one of my two questions was: ‘Is climate change real?’ and the other was ‘Is hydraulic fracturing safe?’ And on both of those questions I now am completely persuaded.” More details
• Planning appeal A planning inspector dismissed an appeal by Alkane Energy against the refusal of planning permission for an exploratory well at Calow, near Chesterfield, in Derbyshire. More details
• New shale gas bid IGas has submitted a planning application to explore for shale gas in Nottinghamshire
• Council votes on fracking Forest of Dean and Torfaen Council have passed resolutions opposing fracking but Gloucestershire County Council has put a decision on hold.
• Arrest An anti-fracking campaigner was arrested for allegedly assaulting a bailiff at a protest camp at Upton in Cheshire.
• Restoration Rathlin Energy has begun work to restore its site at Crawberry Hill in East Yorkshire.
www.DrillOrDrop.com for daily updates on fracking, the onshore oil and gas industry and reactions to it
Coming up next week
• Meeting in Brussels on Best Available Techniques Reference Document (BREF) on hydrocarbon exploration and production
• Egdon Resources is due to publish its results
• Ineos holds community meetings on its shale gas plans for central Scotland