As the UK’s fledgling shale industry lurches from crisis after crisis concerning public acceptability and causing repeated small earthquakes, the UK Government last month appointed what it termed an independent “Shale Gas Commissioner” whose job it is to listen to the concerns of local residents. But it seems she is doing anything but.
The Commissioner is the former member of Parliament, Natascha Engel, who is pro-fracking. According to the official notice of her appointment, published by the Government, “The commissioner will be a contact point for residents, to listen to their concerns, refer them to relevant and factual research and help improve communication with regulators and industry.”
At the time of her appointment, the Energy and so-called “Clean Growth” 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.”
According to campaign group, TalkFracking “Engel has begun visiting communities that have had fracking imposed upon them, as part of her job description to help ‘demystify the regulations’ surrounding shale gas.” Onbe local who heard her talk stated that Natascha Engel was “like an evangelical shale gas enthusiast, with a preaching sense of an industry that is desperate to make footholds in communities.”
Over the last few days, a letter has also surfaced sent by Engel to British newspapers. The letter complains about the coverage about earthquakes and states that “where is the science in this debate? Without putting these earthquakes into a proper context and making people fearful about something that can’t even be felt, we can’t ever look at the wider picture and ask ourselves why extracting gas from beneath our feet is so important”.
She added that the “real story” beyond the small tremors, was that there was “loads of gas down there” and that people who were anti-fracking were akin to people who walked in front of automobiles in the mid-1800s waving a red flag.
Finally, Engel pointed people to the Science Media Centre, where there is a database of “independent experts” and scientists ready to talk to the media.
There are numerous flaws in what Engel is telling the press. Firstly, if she is concerned about the science, why hasn’t she read any of the scientific papers outlining air and water pollution from fracking or more importantly why is she not abreast of the latest climate science that says we cannot safely drill for any more oil and gas and have a liveable future.
For example, two years ago one scientific study found that there were at least 685 academic papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals that are relevant to assessing the impacts of unconventional gas, like shale. Of these 84% contained findings that “indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes; 69% of water quality studies contain findings that indicate potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination; and 87% of air quality studies contain findings that indicate elevated air pollutant emissions and/or atmospheric concentrations”.
Engel seems to have read not one of these important studies.
Furthermore, we need to look at the Science Media Centre, which I and many others have pointed out has a history of putting out pro-corporate positions on numerous issues, including genetically modified foods, for example.
In 2013, Connie St. Louis, the then director of the Science Journalism MA program at City University London wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, that:
“It has cast biased press briefings such as one on GMOs, funded by Monsanto and invited unwitting and time-starved journalists. The results have been catastrophic. The quality of science reporting and the integrity of information available to the public have both suffered, distorting the ability of the public to make decisions about risk.”
She continued: “The result is a diet of unbalanced cheerleading and the production of science information as entertainment. Perhaps the greatest tragedy, or item of public interest, has been the complicity of successive scientifically illiterate UK governments, which have donated nearly half a million pounds of public funds to this dishonest endeavour”.
It is worth looking at the SMC’s current funding, especially from industry and Government. From 2016-2017, it received £145,000 from industry and trade bodies.
One of the current largest funders is the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is the pro-fracking Government Department responsible for Engel’s position. So the very department which promotes fracking and is ultimately accountable for Engel’s actions is funding the so-called independent science organisation recommended by the Government’s so-called independent Shale Gas commissioner.
Something sound not quite right?
On October 24, the SMC posted a reaction by scientists about the ongoing earthquakes – some 38 to date – caused by shale company, Caudrilla’s operations in Lancashire. The majority of the scientists quoted were dismissive of the concerns of local residents.
“It is important to keep in mind the natural background, and not to get excited by such tiny events. The protest movement is, of course, determined to get excited about such things, whether it makes sense or not,” said one.
Four years ago the same scientist wrote: “Burning gas is environmentally cleaner than burning coal and will actually lead to a decrease in CO2 emissions – as has been shown in the US.”
Due to methane emissions, it is unclear whether gas is cleaner than coal.
Moreover, back in June this year, Oil Change International and other groups released a report that argued: “The concept of fossil gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ to a stable climate is a myth. Emissions from existing gas fields, alongside existing oil and coal development, already exceed carbon budgets aligned with the Paris Agreement.”
Just last month, the IPCC warned that to limit warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities.
And that means giving up gas as soon as possible, not developing a whole new series of wells, and not telling the media that gas is great.
Meanwhile, there are increasing rumours that Cuadrilla has stopped operations in Lancashire due to the earthquakes. It will be interesting to see how Engel tries to spin that one..