Single regulator would command public confidence, says fracking task force, but residents want a ban

The industry-funded shale gas task force has called for a single regulator for the onshore oil and gas industry to win over public confidence. But residents consulted by the task force said they just want a ban.

In its first report, the task force, headed by Lord Smith, concluded: “In discussions with local communities we have been struck by the frustration many have felt with the current system, its complexity and the absence of real confidence in the regulatory framework.

“A single regulator with overall responsibility is more likely to provide the clear and transparent framework necessary to build public confidence on this issues.”

The report, published today, also criticises public consultation on drilling proposals. It said this allowed the industry to meet its obligations but failed to address adequately the concerns of local communities.

Single regulator

The report recommends a new regulator for all onshore underground energy. It would assume the current responsibilities of the Environment Agency, Health and Safety Executive and the regulatory activities of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

The current separation between these organisations was “unwieldy and difficult for the public to navigate”, the report said.

”It is our belief that not only will this new regulator be able to command more public confidence, its specific remit will allow it to develop expertise and skills required to ensure that it is able to execute its duties effectively.”

The report recommends that the new body would be jointly accountable to DECC and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It should have the public and environmental interest at its heart. Responsibility for planning permissions would stay with local authorities, the report recommends.

“We don’t want a single regulator”

Kathryn McWhirter, who lives in Balcombe in West Sussex, where Cuadrilla, drilled an exploratory well in 2013, was among residents consulted by the task force for the report.

She said: “We do not want a single regulator. We are calling for a ban. It [shale development] is inappropriate in our community and a dereliction of our climate change obligations”.

A single regulator would “make things easier for the industry”, she said. “It would be a single point of contact”.

Charles Metcalfe, another Balcombe resident, said: “You would never get an independent regulator. They would be appointed from the great and the good, who would do as they are told.” He said Lord Smith had to be seen to be finding a way that would allow shale gas to happen safely.

Traffic or health concerns?

Mr Metcalfe criticised the report for way it suggested traffic was the biggest concern of communities facing shale development.

The report said: “lorry movements and the trucking in and out of drilling equipment, sand, pipes and other plan materials, are by far the greatest cause of concern in relation to the immediate environmental impact of a well site”.

It also said: “The Task Force encountered repeated scepticism that the amount of traffic estimated by operators would be the actual amount of traffic.”

But Mr Metcalfe said: “

We are much more worried about water pollution and the danger to animal and human health of emissions. You cannot make a statement about concerns and leave out health impacts”.

Ms McWhirter said residents opposed to shale development had been forced to raise what she described as Nimby issues because they were the only points that could be considered by planning authorities.

The report acknowledges that residents were frustrated by the planning system which invited them to comment on individual applications but did not want their opinions on wider or longer-term intentions of operators for particular areas.

“It is obvious to us that there is substantial public distrust within communities directly affected by shale gas proposals”, the report says. “The level of distrust differs from community to community and not all communities are unanimous in their view.”

Public consultation

The report concludes that public consultation had not been “wholly effective” and the methods were not seen by communities as serving the interests of the public.

“The current system effectively allows operators to meet all of their statutory requirements – and more – without adequately addressing the concerns of local communities.”

Operators told the Task Force they had made genuine efforts to involve local communities. But community groups opposed to development in their areas believed operators were not really interested in what they have to say.

Cuadrilla spoke of its “deep engagement” with communities in Lancashire. This had, the report said, allowed the company to understand issues that were important to local people. It had made a number of changes to its design and proposed operation as a result.

But residents told the task force they believed operators used public consultation method tactically to meet their statutory requirements but in practice limiting the ability of local people to become effectively involved in decision-making.

Tick-box exercise

The report found: “The people who are concerned about the development of a shale gas industry believe that operators are disingenuous and that consultations are largely a tick-box exercise for a decision that had already been made.”

It said when people took part in a consultation process they wanted to believe that they were being given a chance to influence a final decision.

“Often it appears they are being asked to given a reason why ‘not’ to go ahead with a decision that has already been made, or that they are being given a chance to record objections, but without any collective or individual power to influence the outcome in reality.”

The report recommends community engagement, going further than consultation. This should begin before a formal proposal is submitted to either to the licensing or planning authority. The operator should submit a community engagement plan alongside its initial application for a licence to drill.

Other recommendations

  • Environmental risk assessments should be required for all applications and made available to all communities. Risk assessments should look at social, as well as environmental risks, and cumulative, as well as immediate impacts
  • Monitoring should not rely solely on self-monitoring and self—reporting by the operator but must include regular, and sometimes random, visits and inspections by the regulator. Community representatives should be involved, alongside the regulator, in carrying out the monitoring where they wish to be involved
  • Results of monitoring should be readily and regularly available to the local community, together with the regulator’s analysis.
  • Operators should take account of impact of access to a site on the surrounding towns and villages when considering siting of a possible well to ensure disruption was minimised. Full and accurate information should be made available to the community about all potential lorry movements throughout the life of the well.

Task Force on Shale Gas, First Interim Report, Planning, Regulation and Local Engagement

The Task Force on Shale Gas launched in September 2014, paid for by the shale industry. Its next report, looking at environmental impacts, issue due in June, followed by one on climate change in September and a fourth on economics. The final report will be published in April 2016.

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