Supporters of the fracking in the UK should be celebrating this weekend after three wins in as many days.
On Tuesday, the industry-funded Task Force on Shale Gas recommended fracking should get underway to establish how much gas there is in the UK.
The following day, MPs voted to allow fracking under National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
And yesterday, the Oil and Gas Authority released the details of 93 new licences for onshore oil and gas drill, about two-thirds of which are for shale exploration.
In a year which has seen no fracking, as well as a number of high-profile setbacks and evidence of growing public opposition, this was an unprecedented week. You’d be forgiven for thinking the timing was planned.
The industry talked about the “start of a shale gas revolution” and a “critical time for Britain’s energy”.
The Swiss-based petrochemical firm, INEOS, which was awarded 21 licences and now has rights to explore for hydrocarbons across one million acres, said fracking would “transform UK manufacturing”.
The energy minister, Andrea Leadsom, said:
“Now is the time to press ahead and get exploration underway so that we can determine how much shale gas there is and how much we can use.”
But before it looks as if the fracking industry had everything its own way this week it’s worth looking at a few important “buts” behind this week’s triumphant headlines.
Government decision on CCS “absurd”
In an interview on the Task Force on Shale Gas report, its chair, Lord Chris Smith, criticised the government’s decision to cancel funding for a £1 billion competition to develop technology for carbon capture and storage (CCS). He said: “We need gas for the short term, of course, but it’s not a long term option particularly not if you don’t have CCS.”
“In the medium term, particularly with the commitments made in Paris, we’re getting into dangerous territory if you abandon CCS.”
“It’s absurd what the Government has decided, because it really sets us back.”
“A serious development of CCS is in our opinion essential for the medium term viability of any significant shale gas industry.”
The day before, a leading academic, regarded as a cheer-leader for fracking, said the technique was no longer viable without CCS. Professor Paul Younger, who holds the Rankine Chair of Engineering at Glasgow University, told The Ferret investigative news website:
“I have always said that unconventional gas should only be considered an option provided we are making serious moves towards full-scale CCS.”
“Given the announcement [of the cancellation] my position is that the ethical platform for any perpetuation of fossil fuel use in the UK (or by others on our behalf) has been fatally undermined.”
The House of Commons Energy Select Committee accused the government of sending incongruous and conflicting messages on fossil fuels, CCS and climate change.
One member, Julian Sturdy, asked the energy secretary how long gas would be used as a bridge fuel to a low carbon future.
Mrs Rudd’s answer was unconvincing:
“I think we will have to wait and see….How long it will be for we can’t entirely tell at the moment.”
The vote to allow fracking under National Parks and other protected areas was tighter than the government might have liked. Four Conservative MPs, including the London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith, voted against, bringing the majority down to 37. If the 39 Labour and 5 SNP MPs who abstained had voted against then the government could have been defeated.
And the hope that the vote, on what was an obscure piece of secondary legislation, might pass unnoticed in the last week before Christmas was misplaced.
It lead the evening news bulletins and provoked fury among opponents of fracking.
The RSPB said the decision exposed nature to “needless risk”. The Campaign for National Parks described the vote as “devastating news” and The National Trust said it did nothing to allay concerns about the impact of fracking.
The Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, said the vote without a debate as “outrageous” and allowing fracking under National Parks was “tantamount to vandalism”
Labour called for a moratorium until, as it said, “we could be sure fracking safe and won’t present intolerable risks” to the environment.
There’s little prospect of a ban. But Labour’s statement marked a dramatic change in policy from January this year when most of its MPs abstained in a vote on a ban on fracking.
“Spreading fracking only increases opposition”
Which brings us to yesterday and the news that at least 112 new wells will be drilled in the new licence areas. Of these at least 82 will be into shale, which needs to be fracked to release gas or oil.
Friends of the Earth said: “Spreading the fracking threat to new areas will only increase opposition to it”.
“Despite having had licenses for years the industry still hasn’t been able to persuade anyone to give fracking the go ahead.”
Anti-fracking campaigners in Yorkshire, who now face the prospect of fracking proposals from INEOS and Cuadrilla, as well as Third Energy, described their region as a “northern sacrifice zone”.
Across the Pennines in Lancashire, the county council decided it was “inappropriate” for the local government secretary, Greg Clark, to make the final decision on Cuadrilla’s fracking appeals. It said his involvement amounted to pre-determination because he was a member of the cabinet which had a policy to promote fracking. The council passed a motion instructing its chief executive to write to Mr Clark and the Prime Minister informing them of Lancashire’s opinion.
The fracking controversy continues.