The onshore oil and gas industry appears to be shying away from public debate, despite making promises to engage with local communities.
Member companies of the UK Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG) have signed up to a Community Engagement Charter, which pledges “openness and transparency in everything we do” . It also recognises the need for “a social licence to operate”, a phrase first used by Andrew Austin, the chief executive of IGas, in evidence to the House of Lords economic affairs committee. He said: “Anywhere we choose to drill or would look to drill would have to be with the acquiescence of the local community and in working with it. Frankly, if you do not have the social licence to operate with the acquiescence of the people you are with … that is going to be the constraint.”
Yet despite this, residents in areas that could be directly affected by unconventional oil and gas production are struggling to persuade the industry to debate with them or even answer their questions.
In West Sussex, Friends of the Earth reported today (6/2/14) that Celtique Energie, the company applying to test for hydrocarbons at Fernhurst and Wisborough Green, refused to attend a meeting in Chichester next week.
(The Environment Agency and the local MP, Andrew Tyrie also said they were unable to take part.) The industry point of view has been left to two independent industry consultants. Brenda Pollack, South East Campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Fracking companies seem very wary of being on public platforms …. The Prime Minister has called those opposing fracking “irrational” but we are open to discussion and debate on fracking and the evidence that supports our huge concern.”
There have been similar problems for residents in Balcombe, where Cuadrilla Resources is currently applying for planning permission to test its exploration well. In a letter to residents last month, the company promised “We will continue to keep the residents of Balcombe and Balcombe Parish Council updated throughout the process.” But the Frack Free Balcombe Residents’ Association, in written evidence to the House of Lords, described the company’s community engagement efforts so far as “lamentable”. The group said: “There was indeed no communication for the first 18 months until we invited them [Cuadrilla] to a public meeting. When trying to raise issues with them we are directed to a public relations company, and it can take two weeks to receive what is usually an inadequate reply.”
Tina Rothery, of Residents’ Action on Fylde Fracking, said Cuadrilla in Lancashire also directs residents to a PR agency. Giving oral evidence to the House of Lords, she said: “They give us PR people to speak to instead of engineers. When we ask questions, they do not have the answers. They tell us they will come back to us by email; it does not happen.”
The Centre for Investigative Journalism also wanted an industry representative to take part in a panel discussion about hydraulic fracturing, after a showing of Gasland 2 at its documentary film festival this Saturday. The organisation invited Cuadrilla, IGas, Celtique Energy and UKOOG and all turned it down. Only Nick Grealy, of No Hot Air, agreed to take part.
The Community Engagement Charter requires members to make 10 commitments. These include promises to:
- Engage with local communities, residents and other stakeholders at exploration, appraisal and production stages
- Ensure there is a continued point of contact for local communities and that they provide sufficient opportunity for comment and feedback on initial plans
- Have a strategy or plan for engagement which is developed early
- Explain openly and honestly drilling, hydraulic fracturing and operational practices
Under the charter, operators will report annually to UKOOG on their public engagement performance and UKOOG has promised to publish an annual industry report. The charter says: “Failure to comply will result in a loss of use of the UKOOG logo and ultimately of membership.”