The UK Government and its advisers “marginalised, downplayed or ignored” public health concerns about shale gas exploration and fracking in England, new research has concluded.
A study by the University of Stirling found that science was frequently ignored and the shale gas industry was very effective in influencing decision-making.
This had been to the detriment of public health, with vulnerable and disadvantaged communities at the greatest risk, it said.
The research, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, said:
“The industry in England has largely operated in a policy field where the core assumptions of planners and decision makers have quite clearly been in favour of shale development at scale.”
“decision-making on developments marginalised, downplayed or ignored the science and public health concerns about shale exploration.”
The authors conceded there had been a policy reversal on fracking in November 2019, when the government introduced a moratorium in England.
But they said:
“major air pollution and associated climate change threats [from fracking] remain ‘denied’ and either wholly or partially unaddressed and so ethical and environmental justice dimensions of air pollution have been ignored and marginalised.”
England continued to lag behind the science and international initiatives on climate change and air pollution, they said.
Their study concluded that the Scottish Government had built a more ethical and environmentally-just decision-making process into its energy policy linked to shale gas.
“Science frequently ignored”
The study was described as the first of its kind to examine the environmental and public health aspects of decision-making processes in the shale gas industry in England.
One of the authors, Professor Andrew Watterson, of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, said:
“We found that science was frequently ignored and industry was able to influence decision-making within a political, legal and planning framework in England, to the detriment of public health.
“Our study looked at how environmental justice and ethics are considered in decisions around shale gas development, which has been shown to adversely affect air quality and contribute to climate change.
“The findings reveal that decision-making by the UK Government and several of its advisory groups marginalised or ignored the ethical and environmental justice consequences and, hence, the public health ramifications of permitting the shale gas industry.”
The co-author, Dr William Dinan, a specialist in political communication and the mediation of environmental and public health issues, said:
“Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change is the biggest issue facing the world and requires urgent action.
“Government, legal and planning decisions around climate change and air pollution is of the greatest importance to society. Local communities, governments, policymakers, civil servants, non-governmental organisations, and the sustainable energy industries may all benefit from the results of our research.
“Any new policies should ensure that there are ethical approaches to proposed shale exploration and environmental justice concerns must be incorporated into planning and decision making.”
“Total picture of impacts never fully considered”
The study analysed science on air pollution and shale gas linked to a range of adverse public health indicators. It also looked at planning and key concepts of ethical decision-making and environmental justice.
It found that decision-makers on shale gas were not sufficiently focused on the threats of climate change. Because they dealt with relatively small projects, they underplayed the threats to global public health from the sector as a whole.
The fragmentation of projects and decision-making on shale gas was a significant problem, the study concluded.
“It ensures the total picture of all shale oil and gas impacts is never fully considered and hence national and global burdens of air pollution that will affect small communities are not properly considered.”
Planners have failed to consider the threat of fine particle pollution, the study added. The links between deprivation and the impacts of public health from air pollution had also been neglected in England.