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.
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.
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.
That is why, I believe, the public are unable to exert any direct influence on our political executive.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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Categories: guest post