30th June 2014
Climate change minister Greg Barker has accused environmental groups of being “foolish” and “morally disingenuous” for opposing shale gas and fracking, but “doing little” about coal.
Giving the keynote speech at a meeting on shale gas at Westminster, Mr Barker said it was easier for campaign groups to go to Balcombe, where Cuadrilla drilled an exploratory oil well last year, and “protest in the summer sunshine”.
Mr Barker said for climate change reasons, coal was the enemy and the most important thing was to keep it in the ground.
He said he had a clear moral message to those who felt, like he did, that climate change was the biggest threat to humankind in the 21st century:
“It is time to come down off the barricades.”
He said: “We should not fear gas. Nor should we fear fracking. And we should certainly not trust knee-jerk or emotional reactions to what is simply a particular technology. Fracking is not some Frankenstein technology.”
“If used thoughtfully, responsibly, unfailingly to the environmental standards a new boom in global gas production need not be the enemy of effective action against climate change”, he said. “It could be an invaluable ally.”
Mr Barker said the UK had one of the strongest regulatory systems in the world. But he added: “You would never have guessed that from all the hoo-ha down at Balcombe in deepest Sussex during the warm summer last year where people made heroic efforts to get themselves arrested and made the terribly selfless sacrifice to stand up for their environmental principles in the balmy Sussex countryside.”
Mr Barker said: “It is important that anyone advocating a greater role for gas acknowledges the genuine concerns of the potential impact of shale gas extraction. These concerns are not something we should look to shy away from. Indeed if we are to maintain our reputation for responsible development we must address these concerns head-on and not duck away from any difficult questions.”
But minutes later he criticised environmental groups again: “It is not only foolish, I think it is morally disingenuous”, he said, “for many campaign groups who, in fact are campaigning organisations in search of a cause, to tie themselves so vociferously to the arguments against gas when they are doing so very little to deal with coal.”
He asked: “Where are the demonstrations against the big new European coal plants? Where are the petitions to stop the growth and rise of unabated coal in the rest of Europe? Where are the petitions and protesters against the rise and rise of coal in the developing world?
“Much, much easier to go to Balcombe and sit in the summer sunshine and protest while the parish council makes you sandwiches.”
Mr Barker’s was forced to rein back some of his comments later in the meeting when he was asked a question from Balcombe resident and anti-fracking campaigner Kathryn McWhirter, who was in the audience.
She said: “I was shocked by the tone of sarcasm in your voice, twice, when you talked about people campaigning in Balcombe.”
Developments by Cuadrilla in Balcombe were, she said, something that people felt was a danger to the village, other parts of the country and further afield.
“We have read peer-reviewed science. We are not emotional. I was horrified that in one breath you are sarcastic about us and in the second breath you are saying how you should acknowledge the genuine concerns of local residents.”
Kathryn McWhirter said Balcombe’s experience of regulation was that monitoring of Cuadrilla’s well was “practically non-existent.” She said the Health and Safety Executive never came to check the integrity of the well and it never had any of the meetings it was meant to have with the Environment Agency. She said the EA relied on an email from Cuadrilla at the end of each week that it was doing what it was supposed to do.
“I could go on for an hour unpicking everything you have said”, she added.
Mr Barker responded:
“I think it is important that we take sensible concerns from local communities at face-value, even if they are based on quite spurious, you know, internet-based allegations or assertions.”
“My sarcasm was aimed not a Balcombe but at the protesters that turned up in Balcombe”, he said.
“We were there”, Kathryn McWhirter replied.
“I was particularly thinking of people who went to Balcombe which isn’t a great sacrifice”, Mr Barker said. “How many of those people who protested at Balcombe are day-in and day-out protesters outside coal-fired power stations in the UK?”
- We will be asking environmental groups for their reaction to Mr Barker’s comments