The fracking company, Cuadrilla, helped the former shale gas commissioner, Natascha Engel, prepare for a radio interview, according to emails she deleted.
The emails, retrieved by the government, also show that Ms Engel congratulated Cuadrilla on a media day to launch fracking at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire.
In the space of three months, the emails show she arranged several meetings with Cuadrilla senior staff, including one at Starbucks in Preston. She also shared with the chief executive a letter she sent to media editors criticising negative reporting of Cuadrilla’s fracking operation.
Ms Engel was appointed as a “point of contact with residents” to “listen to their concerns, refer them to relevant and factual research and help improve communication with regulation and industry”.
But the emails confirm the close relationship she had with the fracking industry, previously revealed by DrillOrDrop in an analysis of her diary.
Ms Engel had previously admitted deleting her correspondence. She told Greenpeace:
“I tend to deal with everything on the day and delete what has been done to avoid any huge build-ups or risk of duplication.
“The same is true of the few notes I take in meetings which I review in the evenings, action and throw away.”
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) retrieved and released 15 email threads following an investigation by the Information Commissioner.
The emails were handed to Greenpeace’s investigative news website, Unearthed, which had sought their disclosure in a Freedom of Information request.
They cover the start of Ms Engel’s appointment from October 2018 to early January 2019. She resigned in April 2019 in frustration at regulations on fracking-induced earth tremors.
Advice on radio interview
Cuadrilla’s communications manager contacted Ms Engel at 9.08pm on a Sunday evening in January 2019, the emails reveal.
The shale gas commissioner was due to do a local radio interview the following morning about a presumption against fracking agreed by 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester.
The communications manager began the email:
“Conscious you’re on BBC Radio Lancashire tomorrow so I wanted to share this”.
The executive picked out the sections on the new policy from a 1,000+ page document and added:
“Hope this is helpful if you are asked in the morning. Initial press rumblings suggest there are some very big issues in the document for local people and the loud anti fracking fanfare which launched it is merely a PR smokescreen.
“Shout if I can help further.”
Ms Engel replied that evening:
“That is so helpful – thank you! I’ve just been trying to find the references and really struggled.”
The following day, at 7.21am, the communications manager emailed:
“Just listened into Radio Lancashire [REMAINDER OF SENTENCE REDACTED].
“If you’re asked – for info we have said many times we’ve demobbed equipment we don’t own and don’t need and have moved into flow testing as planned.”
Ms Engel replied:
An hour later, the communications manager said:
“Well done – great job in difficult circumstances”.
Ms Engel replied:
“Thanks. Not great but it never is!”
Later that day, the pair arranged to have coffee before Ms Engel had a meeting with Cuadrilla’s technical director, Mark Lappin, and was due to attend the Preston New Road community liaison group.
Congratulations on fracking launch
The emails also show that Ms Engel congratulated Cuadrilla’s communications staff on a media event to launch the UK’s first high volume frack of a horizontal shale gas well.
Writing on Sunday 7 October 2018, she said:
“Well done on Friday. I thought your publicity day went really well!”
On the same day, Cuadrilla emailed Ms Engel about the news of her appointment. The communications manager said:
“Hope you are well – thought your announcement played out fine on Friday.”
The appointment had been greeted with astonishment by some opponents of fracking. They were suspicious of Ms Engel because the year before she had been commissionedby the fracking company, Ineos Shale, to write a leaflet on shale gas.
Criticism of media
Fracking at Preston New Road began on 17 October 2018, a fortnight after news of Ms Engel’s appointment was announced.
Within days, the British Geological Survey was recording seismic activity linked to the operation. Some of the more powerful tremors were in late October and were widely reported by local and national media.
In mid-November 2018, Ms Engel wrote to editors saying she was “alarmed at the effect” that some of the coverage was having on people.
She called for reporting to be “more rational and science-based” to inform and educate rather than make people afraid.
The retrieved emails revealed that on 14 November 2018, Ms Engel emailed a copy of her letter to Francis Egan, the chief executive of Cuadrilla.
There were no main fracks at Preston New Road in November or early December.
Ms Engel met Cuadrilla’s commercial and projects director, Laura Hughes, for a breakfast meeting in a Preston branch of Starbucks on 26 November 2018.
The meeting was arranged by the company’s communications manager. Ms Engel emailed afterwards:
“Thank you very much for arranging the meeting with Laura. It all went very smoothly and it was great to meet her.”
“It was a pleasure to help and I do extend apologies that it was only a Starbucks but it was the only place I knew would definitely be open before 9am
“If I can be of further assistance in the future, please let me know”.
The emails also showed that Ms Engel was arranging meetings with Ineos executives in November 2018. A date appears to have been agreed for 7 December 2018. A year before her appointment as shale gas commissioner, Ms Engel had been commissioned by Ineos to write documents on fracking.
On 17 December 2018, after fracking resumed at Preston New Road, Ms Engel met Mr Egan and Matt Lambert, Cuadrilla’s director of government and public affairs, the emails reveal.
Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, told Unearthed:
“The emails and meeting notes should never have been deleted, and it should not have taken the intervention of the ICO to prise them out of the clutches of BEIS.
“Now that the emails have seen the light of day, it is easy to see why the Government might not have wanted them to. They reveal a hand in glove relationship between the fracking commissioner and the fracking industry, even to the point of briefing the commissioner before interviews.”
“Very serious failures”
The Information Commissioner’s Office said there had been no criminal act in the deletion of emails. But said there were “very serious and egregious record keeping and management failures on the part of the office of Commissioner for Shale Gas.”
It said there had been a “failure to conform to the Section 46 code of practice in that the former Shale Gas Commissioner did not have in place an appropriate records management policy.”
- The government has not replaced Ms Engel as shale gas commissioner. In July 2019, PR Week reported that she had joined the campaigns and policy consultancy Public First as a partner.
Updated 16/6/2020 to include quotes confirmed by the Information Commissioner’s Office