The pro-fracking former Labour MP, Natascha Engel, is the new commissioner for shale gas, the government announced this afternoon.
Ms Engel initially opposed fracking when Ineos announced plans to explore for shale gas in the village of Marsh Lane in her constituency in January 2017.
She later visiting shale gas sites in Pennsylvania and switched sides in the debate. Within months, she lost her seat in the general election to the Conservative, Lee Rowley, who opposed fracking in the constituency. It was the first time the area was held by the Conservatives since 1935.
After leaving parliament, Ms Engel was commissioned by Ineos to write a leaflet on shale gas (DrillOrDrop report) but, 10 months on, the document does not appear to have been made publicly available.
On Monday, Ms Engel was on the panel for a fringe meeting hosted by the industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), at the Conservative Party conference.
Today’s announcement was welcomed by the industry and met with disbelief by opponents of fracking in her former constituency.
“Link with communities”
The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said the commissioner would be a link between local communities, the shale gas industry and regulators. She would be a contact point for residents, listening to concerns and helping to improve communications, it said.
Ms Engel said:
“If extracted safely, shale gas has the potential to be a new, domestic source of energy for the UK. But there is a need for clear, impartial information to be provided to all parties and, in particular, those local communities most affected by shale gas development.
“As the commissioner for shale gas, I look forward to working closely with communities, regulators and industry to ensure facts are easily accessible as the process of shale exploration continues to develop.”
The energy minister, Claire Perry, said:
“It’s important we get the facts straight on shale gas and that communities can access the best scientific information when engaging with the developers and regulators.
“This new role will provide a single point of contact for local residents to get the information they need and have their questions answered.”
The commissioner will work with shale gas regulators but does not have a regulatory role or powers of enforcement.
People opposing Ineos plans at Marsh Lane expressed astonishment about Ms Engel’s appointment this evening.
David Kesteven, of Eckington Against Fracking, said:
“I cannot believe this. There is a lot of mirth in the area this evening.
“The shale gas commissioner should be an important position.
“I would have thought they could have found someone with technical knowledge or scientific background, rather than a failed politician.
“But Natascha Engel doesn’t have the technical knowledge of fracking. She has destroyed the Labour Party locally. She has betrayed her constituents by going against Labour policy on shale gas.
“It seems as if they have got Natascha Engel because they could not get anyone else. It beggars belief that they could have chosen her.”
Also today, the government announced the formation of a Shale Environmental Regulator Group. This brings together the Oil and Gas Authority, Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency in what is described as “a virtual body”.
“The Shale Environmental Regulator Group will act as one, coherent, single face for local authorities and industry, helping to resolve regulatory issues on sites and sharing best practice with local authorities considering shale gas applications.”
Ken Cronin, of UKOOG, said:
“Research has shown that local communities find it difficult to traverse the very strict regulatory structure we have in this country, which involves five separate bodies.
“The announcement today addresses the concerns they have raised and will provide them with important independent access to information about our industry. We look forward to working with both the regulatory body and the Commissioner.”
This post will be updated with further reaction.