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Weekend Long Read: For all its faults, “fracking” is not the issue here…

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Paul Mobbs, of Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations and Research, reflects on a decade of inquiry into fracking for the first in an occasional series of long reads for the weekend.

Paul Mobbs

Paul Mobbs

Approaching my tenth year of research on unconventional oil and gas in Britain, it has become clear that the true struggle has little to do with regulations, or technology, or the pursuit of fossil fuels, and everything to do with the failure of our national political dialogue.

2008 was a strange year. I was still in ‘follow-up mode’ to my 2005 book, Energy Beyond Oil, working on the energy and economic dimensions of environmental policy. It focused in particular on the role of resource depletion in driving technology, energy prices, and the economic process generally – something which would be hotly debated following the economic crash in September.

I’ve been ruminating on this recently as those same resource trends, which I saw around 2002/2003, are taking-off again now.

To the detriment of the “anti-fracking” argument, it is possible that within the next 12 months, probably within the next two or three years, energy and metals prices will spike as a (finally) growing global economy crashes into the finite reality of their supply.

Fathoming the purpose of the ‘13th Round’

The announcement in early 2008 of the new exploration licenses from the 13th Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing Round appeared to be a bit of a side-show. Something cooked up by the then newly-formed Department of Energy and Climate Change in response to the high oil prices of 2005 to 2008.

From mid-2008 I occasionally queried what the rationale behind the 13th Round really was. The answer came in an email in the middle of 2009.

I knew the work of Theo Colborn from my work on incinerators. Since the early 1990s she had been a wonderful source of information about incinerator emissions and, in particular, the hormone-disrupting effects of incineration by-products. It was for that reason I was on her email list.

In 2009 she began circulating information about her new research priority – fracking. Following the ‘Halliburton Exemption’ of 2005, hydraulic fracturing was taking off across large areas of the US with little public health involvement. Her first efforts to quantify what these sites were releasing appeared to stun even her seasoned view of industrial emissions.

For me it was a realization. At last I understood the 13th Round; fracking was coming to Britain.

I changed the focus of my work immediately.

From 2010 I started doing public sessions on the issue, communicating the information I had assembled over 12 months. By 2012, in the wake of the Preese Hall earthquake, public interest began to take off in Lancashire, and then South Wales and Scotland. In 2013, with Balcombe and other protests pushing the issue into the national media, my initial ‘bet’ on fracking becoming “the issue” seemed to be proven right.

If I am not persuaded by the official evidence it is because the official evidence is not objectively persuasive

My ‘business model’ is quite simple.

I find an issue that will be ‘important’ in the next few years. Then I research the issue. Then I run lectures at universities and workshops with local campaign groups to inform them. Out of that process I distil the essence of what makes the issue tick, and how to communicate it, and then I can write a book or articles about it.

That process has singularly failed me when it comes to fracking.

I’ve been trying to write ‘the book’ on unconventional oil and gas in Britain since 2012. I haven’t.

The problem has been – for all the statements, media coverage and political posturing – that the evidential basis of national policy did not correlate to the research evidence on fracking (unless, that is, you live in Scotland or Wales).

We are repeatedly told that the Government makes policy based upon ‘evidence’. If you spend time following the morass of statistical releases, Parliamentary reports and ministerial statements across various issues, you might believe that there’s far too much ‘evidence’ out there.

One-such example would be a House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report on ‘Behaviour Change’ published in 2011 (at the height of David Cameron’s “nudge” initiative). In that report they state,

“There are two reasons… why policies are not always based on the best available evidence: ministers are unaware of relevant evidence, or they are aware of the evidence but choose not to reflect it in policy decisions.”

Willing ignorance by the highest people in the land? Surely not!

The thing is, when it comes to ‘fracking’ in Britain, there are so many examples to choose from.

Pay-per-view policy

Mackay and stone report

Take, for example, the Mackay-Stone report on the climate change impacts of shale gas extraction.

It was produced – without public consultation or review – in September 2013. I read it on the train on the way to speak at the Green Party’s conference in Brighton. What immediately struck me was that the ‘science’ didn’t seem, on the basis of what was published in the report, to add up.

The report, which is the cornerstone of Government policy on climate change and shale gas, has no objective basis. The data used in the calculation of impacts are demonstrably incorrect. More importantly the study quoted in support of that position, the 2013 Allen paper, has been discredited by subsequent research; the faulty monitoring equipment had malfunctioned when they measured emissions from the sites under test. And yet official support for the report, and the policy it underpins, continues irrespective of the “evidence-based” criticism.

There is something deeper at work here than fracking, its scientific basis, or even the idea of ‘objectivity’ born of the Renaissance half a millennia ago.

What we are up against is an almost mystical belief of the infallibility and indefatigability of the ‘political economy’ itself. The adherence to economic theory over all other considerations is at the heart of not just the Government’s recent fiscal austerity, but of almost all national policy since the 1980s.

On a parallel point, why has economic theory not changed since the crash of 2008? It’s because economic theorists don’t believe that a problem exists. Sound familiar?

Why are our politicians trusted less than estate agents?

In the wake of the widening gap between official assumption and evidential reality, our state has developed a deeper crisis of objectivity. That in turn is creating a crisis of public legitimacy that politicians appear unable to address.

Now think of this from another angle. If ministers deliberately ignore objective research evidence, arguably to the detriment of the nation, is that legal?

Government ministers have a legal duty of care to the public that over-rides their political responsibilities. And yet holding any legal sanction against the highest echelons of our political executive seems to be impossible. Consequently if inept ministers are ever forced to “do time”, it’s usually in the House of Lords.

Paul Mobbs 2That is why, I believe, the public are unable to exert any direct influence on our political executive.

It was the pursuit of that question which led me to Downing Street in March 2015, with ‘The Frackogram’, to force this point into court.

I willingly went to court. Then the charge was dropped a few weeks before the trial. DrillOrDrop report

It remains an open question, waiting to be tested by those who dare.

Brexit changes everything, except political indifference

It doesn’t matter whether you are for or against Brexit. The objective reality of Brexit is that it allows certain things to happen which could not have taken place previously. That is precisely why, for their own deeply held reasons, the supporters of Brexit support it and why opponents oppose.

The key question here: If our Government does not need objective evidence to make policy, what is the practical implication of that after March 2019?

130811 David Cameron Telegraph

Article written by David Cameron in The Telegraph, 11 August 2013. Link

Despite the lofty promises made to Parliament and the public in 2013, when David Cameron told us to “get behind fracking”; or in the other cases since where promises were made and broken, sometimes within just a few weeks; the Government have slowly rolled-back on many of the promised community protections to limit the impacts of oil and gas development.

The limits to that ‘roll-back’ are currently the minimum standards of European environmental law.

There is no reason why, post-Brexit, our Government could not decide to issue its own, thoroughly British “Haliburton Exemption” to large swathes of current environmental and planning law. Not just for fracking, but for other ‘essential’ industries like farming or waste disposal too.

Would our Government do that if it suited them, irrespective of the evidence against it? If you want to answer that question then I suggest that you read the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2017 election.

Whether you are for Brexit or not, the only thing preventing a British ‘Halliburton Exemption’ today is European environmental law. In a little over a year’s time that might not be the case.

Our focus is the key to creating change

Protesters on Frack Free Pickering march and rallyPickering, North Yorkshire

Protesters on Frack Free Pickering march and rally Pickering, North Yorkshire. Photo: Frack Free Pickering

The unwelcome resolution to my failure to write ‘the book’ on fracking was that fracking was yet another case study on the failings of our political system. It was another manifestation, amongst many – from badger culls, to housing, to drugs policy – that results from the inability of our political class to deal with complex failure of their “business as usual” models in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary.

Forget Cuadrilla. Forget INEOS. Ask yourself this fundamental question: Do you trust your Government? If not, then what are you prepared to do about that?

I fully support the actions of communities to resist fracking developments. However, having reviewed the evidence of the last nine years, I believe that harrying fracking companies will not create the fast and significant changes in national policy we require – not just to end unconventional oil and gas, but to address the reasons for which they wanted it in the first place.

There’s a factor here that I believe our Cabinet ministers have failed to consider. As fracking companies push back against protest with injunctions and court orders, it will become less legally onerous to protest in the vicinity of Parliament that it will be at drilling sites.

To be blunt, I think our political executive is more than willing to let Jim Ratcliffe or Francis Egan be the focus of your rage.

Until we see the kind of sustained, disruptive daily protests within Whitehall that we see today outside drill sites, the political executive (as distinct from MPs and Parliament) will not feel the level of pressure required in order to focus their mind on this and other issues.

In conclusion

Addressing our common concerns on oil and gas development comes down to a very simple reality. It requires that we tackle the willing ignorance of our political executive far more than it does draining Cuadrilla’s or INEOS’ drilling budget through protest.

With Brexit, and in particular the ‘Henry VIII powers’ that will enable ministers to make new laws without the assent of Parliament, what ministers might do in the name of ‘Brexit’ could deprive people across Britain of the freedoms they have today. For the environment, it could usher in a new era of destruction not seen since the expansion of factory farming in the 1970s and 1980s.

What matters here is ‘evidence’, or rather, the willingness of the Government to choose ideology over objective evidence when writing regulation.

If politicians, with deliberate intent, refuse to consider the objective evidence on the impacts of fracking, then they are not going to change policy irrespective of the amount of evidence we give them. Fracking fits an ideological purpose; it needs no objective evidence to support it.

That will not change until widespread and disruptive protests begin to impact upon the political executive itself. Not just on the issue of fracking, but on the many other issues for which ample research evidence exists on the disconnected basis of national energy and environmental policy.

If you’d like to contribute a long read for the weekend, please get in touch here

30 replies »

  1. On the contrary. I respect people who admit they don’t know enough about fracking to say they wouldn’t know whether to be for or against. With people like you claiming a suggestion of 1000 wells is scaremongering when it would be far less than developers are already anticipating I rest my case.

  2. People may not know enough-that’s why many will wait for a proper cost/benefit analyses. You may not like it, but many make up their minds once they know the financials-remember all the nonsense about no PNR locals would take the “blood money”?

    You have no case PhilipP-the antis have been swinging backwards and forwards between “not economic in UK” ie. no wells, to “huge numbers of wells and total industrialisation.” Any sane person looking at that will ignore both.

    • Try a total costing Martin, including environmental impacts all the way to methane emissions, carbon footprint ant climate change. Try and think beyond the pretty penny you might get as a minor stocks and shares punter. Profiting enough to buy one’s next motor swing some votes but it’s hardly the big picture.

      • Was anyone aware that for every licence holder, at every well site, by 2025, at least one well has to be drilled down to 4,500 metres? There is no requirement to frack in that well.

        What does that tell you? it tells you that each and every site will by 2025 will have a well deep enough for a network of disposal locations for high level nuclear waste? Or indeed any other toxic material that the government sees fit to dispose of beneath our feet? That is the result of the Infrastructure Act.

        Now that is a sobering thought isn’t it?

        Here is Ian R Cranes video tribute today for your education and enlightenment.

        ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hlPQ8cF6g8&feature=em-lbcastemail )

        Enjoy!

  3. I have no investment in any fracking company in the UK, PhilipP. We have discussed that several times before, and you know the reality.

    But, that is why after 10 years the antis have made no progress. You do not even want to address the realities, and that is why on this matter there are a huge proportion of the population who remain unconvinced. They live in a world of reality.

    “Try a total costing”. That about sums it up. Anyone can tell at this moment in time it is impossible to do in respect of UK. The old speculation comfort blanket.

    • Reality check then Martin … how many shale gas wells will it take to supply a significant portion of the UK gas needs? If you simply say we can’t tell yet then please
      state how many you think the bigger operators (Cuadrilla/Ineos) are anticipating as optimal. Just facts please – and please stop saying the ‘antis’ aren’t interested in facts.

  4. There are no facts about something which hasn’t even been tested yet, PhilipP! It really is not rocket science.

    Equally, what will UK gas needs be in the future? Is that with our industrial GDP at 10% of total, or nearer other countries at say, 25%? What will be the output of gas from the N.Sea? Are current gas imports secure going forward? What would a UK shale site produce? How much would we want to export?

    The antis are not interested in facts. The give away is the desperation to stop test fracking from taking place in the UK. If you were interested in facts, and convinced of your own speculation, then you could cut out all the effort that has been wasted and just let the ” UK facts” speak for themselves. You can’t help the speculation. If it is not about the companies concerned then you have to speculate that all those who don’t agree with you are investors turned by the chance to get rich quick (lol), or others, who don’t know as much as you do. Then, when you (antis in general) start posting about these items it soon becomes clear there is little research and little knowledge, even in respect of information that Ruth has placed upon this very platform.

    One little “fact” for you. DRC about to place a whacking great windfall tax upon Cobalt. Looks as if Mr. Musk should sell a few more flame throwers to make up. And one for you to research-how much have drilling costs reduced since 2014? The answer to that one may give a further answer to why trying to disrupt testing in the UK is a waste of time and effort.

    • Come on Martin , you can do it. Please don’t run away from this simple challenge. Your usual evasions were expected but there are enough sums and calculations around to say how many thousand shale gas wells would be needed to make the UK even marginally self reliant on natural gas. Yes, it’s not rocket science.

  5. I will leave the speculation and fabrication to others PhilipP. There are some who seem to live their lives based upon it. The only “sums and calculations around” are total speculation and/or fabrication. If you want to find out how many unicorns could be sustained on a hectare of paddock. it’s not rocket science, it’s certainly something else.

    • I like the ‘Long Read idea’ and Paul Mobbs makes some very good points.

      Taking direct aim at government though, trying to call it to account for its failure to (honestly and openly) use evidence-based research, really seems such a long shot. Governments in power will clearly use whatever maintains and extends that power in whatever way they can, and using whatever means they can get away with (witness the DUP deal to shore up the current ‘majority’). While maintaining a gloss of ‘reason and public responsibility’ it is really just down to a numbers game when getting votes passed. Immoral? maybe, sometimes, but amoral is a better description. It’s not about humanity or caring for the planet at that stage, it’s just about winning the numbers game. The hope for any real public accountability as I see it comes via Parliament and the House of Lords, another long shot I know but when it comes to infrastructure and things like energy you’re inevitably left playing the ‘long game’.

    • Martin I thought you were better informed. Government relies on projections for decisions and the O&G industry provides them – based on volumes of gas, recoverability, well density and so on. You seem to be accusing them (O&G and Government) of believing in unicorns now. I might have cornered you but I know if I give the real numbers proposed you will just call it scaremongering. But that’s just the game you’re playing.

  6. Oh, yes, I am really cornered now PhilipP!
    Strange though that Cuadrilla, in their most recent bit of info (and they are closer to getting real data than anyone else), couldn’t provide the speculation you thirst for. Hardly surprising, they haven’t even completed the first horizontal drilling.
    What do not understand about “test”?
    I think you have become contaminated with Giggle fever, continuously trying to extrapolate and mould data from other countries and other reservoirs. Why not wait until it happens in UK? Won’t be long now.

    • So all your talk of cost benefits and GBK and EKT’s gungho excitement is based on no extrapolation or prediction whatsoever – and is therefore all humbug? I see.

  7. All I have stated PhilipP about cost benefits is that we are yet to see them established and that is what interests me, and what the antis are desperate to avoid. I have stated numerous times that is my interest but you have confused yourself because it is so much easier to try and claim I have a direct financial interest. So, really, you don’t see. “Extrapolation/prediction” based upon what??

    When you are drowning not a good idea to splash around wildly.

    • And when you haven’t got a clue it’s not a good idea to pretend to be an expert, nor denounce others for uncovering the reality – the anticipated reality that is that shapes policy and investor expectations.

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