The government has failed to comply with a ruling to release a secret report on challenges to a UK shale gas industry.
Last month, a judge ordered the disclosure of sections of the report by 5pm on 25 November 2019.
The following day, DrillOrDrop was told it was in the process of being prepared for release and would be provided shortly. So far, the material has not been released.
Access to the document, which dates back to 2016, has been pursued for nearly two years by Zach Boren, a reporter with the Greenpeace investigative website Unearthed.
He used freedom of information laws to request the document from the Cabinet Office. When the government refused to release it, he took his case to an information tribunal.
Judge Fiona Shanks ruled that the background and executive summary, along with other parts of the main report, should be released in the public interest. Specific plans and intentions by individual operators could be redacted.
Overcoming barriers to shale gas
The report examined the potential state of the UK fracking industry by 2020, possible barriers to it and how they could be overcome.
It was produced by the Prime Minister’s Implementation Unit (PMIU), which is based in the Cabinet Office and works on behalf of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary.
Part of the unit’s work is to review the progress of policy delivery and to identify solutions to any barriers to implementation.
According to the tribunal ruling, the document was distributed in April 2016 to Number 10, the Cabinet Office, Treasury and the then departments of energy and climate change and communities and local government.
Two months later, the PMIU made a presentation to a meeting of the “cross-Whitehall group on shale”, which comprised government departments, the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive. This included material from the report, much of it reproduced exactly.
Pursuing the shale gas report
The report came to light in November 2017 when Zach Boren made a freedom of information request about the number of unconventional gas wells projected to be drilled in the UK by 2030.
The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) referred in its response to a 2016 Cabinet Office report which estimated about 17 sites by 2020 and 30-35 sites by 2022. It also said there could be about 155 wells by around 2025.
This was considerably below the 4,000 horizontal wells estimated to be drilled by 2032 by Ernst & Young in a report in 2013.
In January 2018, Mr Boren made an FOI request for the PMIU report. In March 2018, the Cabinet Office confirmed the report existed but refused to release.
The response said the report did not need to be disclosed because it was covered by exemptions in the information regulations on internal communications, commercial confidence, and interests of suppliers of information.
“The British shale gas industry is still an emerging market. Release of information from 2016, even with the passage of time, could call into question the industry’s viability.”
In May 2018, an internal review by the Cabinet Office confirmed the decision to withhold the report.
Greenpeace and Mr Boren complained to the Information Commissioner. In November 2018, she required the Cabinet Office to disclose the background and executive summary, with some redactions.
The Cabinet Office appealed against this ruling, seeking to withhold further passages.
After a tribunal hearing, Her Honour Judge Fiona Shanks ruled that the report was meant to identify barriers and challenges to the progress of the fracking industry.
“It was in public interest for the public to have an insight into the problems as perceived by government”
Her ruling added:
“We noted an unfortunate tendency on the part of the Cabinet Office to be content for positive information about the fracking industry to be released but be anxious to withhold more negative information; we consider it was in the public interest for a full, rounded, picture to be disclosed.
“It is no secret that the government supported the development of the industry and the report was designed to address how the government could help it to develop; it was in our view in the public interest that the public should know how far officials were suggesting government might go in doing so.”
The government previously delayed releasing an unredacted version of a report on the rural impacts of fracking. That full report was finally published 11 months after the redacted version. It detailed negative effects of fracking, including a possible fall of 7% in house prices.
DrillOrDrop will report on the contents of the PMIU report when it is released. Link here