Analysis of the Conclusions and Recommendations of Government Shale Gas (fracking) Inquiry

I am at a loss to explain how this committee of, in total, 13 MPs have managed to evaluate so much evidence and come to the conclusions and recommendations that they produced. I feel that these people should be named and shamed:Mr Tim Yeo MP (Conservative, South Suffolk) (Chair) Dan Byles MP (Conservative, North Warwickshire) Barry Gardiner MP (Labour, Brent North) Ian Lavery MP (Labour, Wansbeck) Dr Phillip Lee MP (Conservative, Bracknell) Albert Owen MP (Labour, Ynys Môn) Christopher Pincher MP (Conservative, Tamworth) John Robertson MP (Labour, Glasgow North West) Laura Sandys MP (Conservative, South Thanet) Sir Robert Smith MP (Liberal Democrat, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) Dr Alan Whitehead MP (Labour, Southampton Test) The following members were also members of the committee during the Parliament: Gemma Doyle MP (Labour/Co-operative, West Dunbartonshire) Tom Greatrex MP (Labour, Rutherglen and Hamilton West).(5 Tories; 7 Labour; 1 Lib Dem)The Conclusions are, quite frankly, pathetic given the amount of evidence – one page; four measly paragraphs. Using the paragraph reference numbers from the report:

166 – The very first sentence encapsulates the tone of the whole report: “The process of hydraulic fracturing has been described as old as Moses and certainly has been used in the petroleum industry for decades.” So, obviously, nothing really to worry about here folks, it is tried and tested technology! Wrong! Horizontal drilling and chemical fracturing were not around in Moses’ time! However, within the first paragraph it mentions: “Shale gas exploration is still in its infancy in the UK and the rest of Europe, which gives us the opportunity to learn from US experience and make regulations that are evidence based.” The term infancy implies they are still feeling their way and do not know what they are doing to some degree. And as for the the opportunity to learn from US experience!!! Just how many bad experiences, and how much evidence, does it take to generate the thought that maybe we should not be rushing in to this? It dismisses the groundwater threat thus: “While hydraulic fracturing itself poses no direct risk to underground water aquifers, there is a risk of contamination through a failure in the integrity of the well, but these risks are no different than those encountered when exploiting oil and gas from conventional reservoirs.” Absolute nonsense – conventional reservoirs are tapped by vertical wells and are not ‘fracked’. They obviously bought into the claims of Cuadrilla that the well casings are ‘over-engineered’. This represents staggering stupidity given how quickly Cuadrilla ceased drilling after a modest earth tremor undermined the integrity of the casings. Even a modest understanding of the logistics of a gas-proof lining of a borehole that is many hundreds of metres long and not straight would cause reasonable scepticism in most people. Add to that the myriad ‘mishaps’ documented in fracked boreholes, and what would most sane people conclude? The paragraph closes by acknowledging concerns over the large volume of water and chemical additives required for hydraulic fracturing each well. But obviously not much concern – despite the copious evidence at their disposal.

167 – This second paragraph opens with a valid plea that we “ensure that shale gas policy and regulation is not driven primarily by concerns about energy security” and goes on to focus on the issue of the water used and the waste water produced. It is good of them to recognise these potential issues, but these are not generally regarded as bigger issues than that of groundwater contamination – which we have seen has been ridiculously dismissed in the previous paragraph.

168 – This paragraph makes a pretty sound case for a moratorium to my eyes. It opens with: “The UK could have a large amount of shale gas offshore, and we encourage the Government to incentivise exploration of this potential resource.” Why? Would offshore be safer, perhaps? It certainly won’t be cheaper. The main body of the report says it favours this because the potential offshore dwarfs that onshore – but how much sense does this make given that the very same paragraph goes on to say: “If significant amounts of shale gas enter the natural gas market it will disincentivise investment in renewables and other lower carbon technologies. The UK Government needs to manage this risk in order to achieve its aim of generating more electricity from renewable sources.” I could not agree more – a solid case for not rushing into shale gas and coal bed methane irrespective of the damaging consequences of fracking!

169 – The final paragraph of the conclusions, again, makes more of a case against shale gas and CBM. It recognises that: “Although emissions from gas power plants are less than from coal, they are still higher than many lower carbon technologies. The main component of natural gas is methane, which is a greenhouse gas far more potent the carbon dioxide.” However, again in face of evidence to the contrary, they pooh pooh the threat from methane leaks with the ludicrously naive statement that such leaks can be “can be easily minimised through appropriate regulation and enforcement.”. The final few words also acknowledge that we do have to act to reduce carbon emissions by recognising that: “we need to pursue with increased urgency the development of carbon capture technology suitable for gas as well as coal.” The much simpler solution to this problem is to leave the shale gas and CBM exactly where it is now!

It is hard to imagine how, from the mass of evidence annexed at the back of the report (twice as long as the report itself), let alone the overwhelming evidence being accumulated elsewhere, such short conclusions could end up being so flawed.

The Summary statement at the beginning of the report contains the same warped thinking: “The environmental and climate risks posed by shale gas need to be balanced with its potential contribution to energy security. On balance, we feel that there should not be a moratorium on the use of hydraulic fracturing in the exploitation of the UKs hydrocarbon resources, including unconventional resources such as shale gas.”

  • They have themselves concluded that energy security should not be a prime driver.
  • The exacerbation of climate change is acknowledged as real.
  • Environmental risks are completely misjudged

And despite the precedents, or perhaps because of them, for moratoria in France, Germany, South Africa, New York State, Arkansas, and growing public pressure in many other regions – especially in Australia, Canada and here in the UK, these 13 elected representatives still come out against the modest imposition that is a moratorium. We have have not demanded an outright ban; just some breathing space to allow the full ramifications to be properly established. Should this eventually lead to permitting fracking, we would also have time for proper regulation am monitoring to be put in place – as we have pretty much established that the current regulatory and planing framework is inadequate for such developments.

But no; instead of prudence we have been presented with recklessness and a naivety that beggars belief. This report is likely to be seen, quite appropriately as fuel to the flames of opposition. Bring it on.

As for their 26 recommendations:

  1. Evidence must continue to be collected and assessed” – just what additional evidence they could possibly need to change their opinion on a moratorium is hard to imagine. Perhaps they should speak to the many governments that have come to conclusion that a moratorium is appropriate to see what they have missed.
  2. Not a recommendation – just an acknowledgement that Shale Gas is unlikely to be a game changer – so why take risks with at all?
  3. ‘Keep an eye on Poland’ – not for environmental issues but in case it steals a competitive advantage over us – heaven forbid!
  4. ‘Establish fund to properly plug abandoned wells as we cannot afford the risk of contamination if not done properly’ – but surely this is an admission of the possible dire consequences of leaks, and even more worrying, suggests that there could be a no insistence that proper plugging be a condition of operation!
  5. Tax breaks to encourage investment in offshore shale gas exploitation! How about a bit more encouragement for renewable exploitation of places like the Severn Estuary? This recommendation is, by the committee’s own admission, going to act as a a disincentive to renewable energy developments.
  6. Mixed blessing here. The bad news – massive pipeline infrastructure needed. The good news – a plea for proper planning to minimise duplication and minimise environmental impact. Shame they cannot bring themselves to make the same recommendation regarding the drilling operations.
  7. Not a recommendation – just an observation that it could result in modest drop in gas prices.
  8. Not a recommendation – simply restates that energy security considerations should not be the main driver of policy on the exploitation of shale gas – but does not say what should be the main driver of shale gas policy. Clearly not environmental, health, water supply issues, climate change implications or anything discernible at all.
  9. In recognising that it will discourage renewables investment, it says: “The UK needs to manage this risk in order to achieve its aim of generating more electricity from renewable and other low carbon sources this could be done through ……. prevent[ing] gas power stations operating as base load providers after a certain date unless fitted with carbon capture and storage.” Fine – so long as this ‘certain date’ is sooner rather than later – like 2015.
  10. Bland nothingness
  11. “We recommend that UK legislation and regulation should take specific account of the challenges unique to shale gas exploration and production; specifically, the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling at multiple wells that requires large volumes of water and chemicals, and leads to the production of large volumes of waste water that must be managed and disposed of.” Hallelujah! Is this a plea for the reform of planning and regulatory structures that I have been calling for since Day 1 ?
  12. A recognition of that the Europe is a different ball game to the US – but again with misplaced emphasis; this time on ensuring the good old Tory value of proper market competition across Europe.
  13. “We recommend that the Government explores the possibilities of common environmental standards within the EU for shale gas exploration and production.” Excellent idea, as France and Germany may hold sway, as they so often do, and lead us to a EU moratorium.
  14. Recognition of the need to ‘beef up’ the Environment Agency to ensure it can cope with the activities of the Shale Gas industry. Affirms what I have said about the inadequacy of the EA in dealing aspects of the fracking threat.
  15. “We recommend that the Health and Safety Executive test the integrity of wells before allowing the licensing of drilling activity.” This does not happen already? And how about at regular intervals and after any seismic activity?
  16. “We recommend that the Environment Agency should insist that all companies involved in hydraulic fracturing should declare the type, concentration and volume of all chemicals they are using.” So at least we will know the size and nature of the horse that has bolted through the stable door!
  17. “We recommend that before the Environment Agency permits any chemicals to be used in hydraulic fracturing fluid, they must ensure that they have the capabilities to monitor for, and potentially detect, these chemicals in local water supplies.” Why? They cannot get into the local water supplies according to this report! And how useful is ‘potentially detecting’ anything? ‘Definitely detect’ or ‘actually detect’ would be a bit more useful.
  18. “We recommend that the Environment Agency should have the power to prescribe the minimum amount of water recycling that takes place” Hmm! Unless the water is being de-contaminated on site (which it isn’t) then recycled water simply gets more and more polluted. I suspect that most of the ‘produced’ water will not be suitable for re-use in the fracking process as otherwise they would be doing it anyway as there are huge costs involved in getting sufficient water for the fracking process.
  19. “We recommend that DECC and DEFRA ensure that the Environment Agency monitors randomly the flowback and produced water from unconventional gas operations for potentially hazardous material that has been released from the shale formation. In order to maintain public confidence in the regulatorsand in the shale gas industrywe recommend that both water and air be checked for contamination both before and during shale gas operations.” That they even feel the need to say this at all underlines exactly why I have consistently expressed my lack of confidence in the regulators!! Surely all this should be a ‘given’.
  20. “Optimize the use of waste water treatment plants, to minimise both the number of plants and the distance waste water has to be transported.” Oxymoronic! You either minimise the number of plants (to one) or you minimise the distance waste water is transported, by treating it on each and every site. It is a logical impossiblity to do both at the same time! (You can drop the oxy bit, thinking about it).
  21. Too vague to mean anything.
  22. Not a recommendation – just a bland speculative observation
  23. Learn from the USA “to ensure the lowest achievable environmental impacts from unconventional gas exploitation here.” Without a moratorium at this stage? No chance!
  24. “In planning to decarbonise the energy sector DECC should generally be cautious in its approach to natural gas” – the only meaningful degree of caution at this stage is a moratorium. (It is a pity there were not air source heat pumps in the room to take advantage of the ‘hot air’ continually produced by this committee.)
  25. Not a recommendation – just a bland speculative observation
  26. “We recommend that both gas and coal carbon capture technology should be pursued in parallel and with equal urgency.” All well and good, but why waste all that energy and resources capturing the damned stuff when we could be using alternatives that do not produce it in the first place?

If this had been a GCSE Geography piece of coursework, it would not get close to a C grade. In terms of understanding and using the evidence at its disposal; in terms of structuring a balanced argument and formulating reasoned conclusions; it is woeful. As for the recommendations, they do not even seem to understand the meaning of the word!

Upwards and onwards everybody!

Andy Chyba (Chair)

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