Frack Free Wales reaches the end of the road – happily!! (And a review of the journey)

Last week, three members of the Frack Free Wales steering committee (Frances Jenkins, Donal Whelan and myself) met with three members of Welsh Government’s Energy Division (Lee Guilfoyle and Edward Sheriff from the energy policy team and Richard Griffiths from the department responsible for licensing, planning and permits for fossil fuel activities). 

The meeting came about as a consequence of the following letter we sent to the following Members of the Senedd (MS) in mid-September:

  • Mark Drakeford (First Minister and Fran’s MS)
  • Mick Antoniw (Minister for the Constitution)
  • Julie James (Minister for Climate Change)
  • Lee Waters (Deputy Minister for Climate Change)
  • Vaughan Gething (Minister for the Economy)
  • Lesley Griffiths (Minister for Rural Affairs)
  • Jane Hutt (Minister for Social Justice and Donal’s MS)
  • Sarah Murphy (Andy’s MS)


Dear First Minister and fellow MS,
CONCERNS REGARDING THE POTENTIAL RETURN OF THE THREAT OF FRACKING TO WALES

As the steering committee members of Frack Free Wales (FFW), we hoped we would never need to come out of hibernation, but PM Truss has re-opened the fracking and Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) issue. Reports like “Wales set for massive row with Westminster as Liz Truss plans to lift the ban on fracking” in Walesonline on 8th September have also re-awoken our concerns. 

We understand that the so-called moratorium secured in 2015 was the best that could be done under the constitutional arrangements in place at that time. However, this situation whereby all fracking-related planning applications (other than test-drilling) are automatically called-in to Welsh Government, with the understanding that you would turn them down, was clearly a long way from the outright ban we hoped for! There was always the feeling that if any application you turned down went to appeal, which would happen at a UK level, it could very easily be overturned. This has, thankfully, never been put to the test. We fully acknowledge that most of you, and many other Senedd members, would also have liked that outright ban. 

Legislation has progressed since 2015, prompting us to revisit these issues to see what has since been done and what still needs to be done. The most important development has been the Wales Act 2017. Our understanding is that the additional devolved powers gave Welsh Government total control over the licensing of all oil and gas development in Wales, including fracking and UCG.

We are pleased to see that planning guidance has indeed been updated in light of this and gives us most of what we wish to see, but it still falls short of that outright ban. Some of the language used, in what we think is the most recent Planning Policy Wales (Edition 11 dated February 2021), still lacks the robustness we ought to see. For example:

“This means moving away from the extraction of fossil fuel for use in energy generation”

Ought to say:
“This means ending the extraction of fossil fuels for use in energy generation as soon as practicable and by 2030 at the latest in Wales.”
And also:

“The Welsh Government’s policy objective is therefore to avoid the continued extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. When proposing the extraction of onshore oil and gas, robust and credible evidence will need to be provided to the effect that proposals conform to the energy hierarchy, including how they make a necessary contribution towards decarbonising the energy system.”

The policy objective ought to be to ‘stop’, rather than ‘avoid’ the continued extraction and consumption of fossil fuels in Wales, given how blessed we are with renewable energy potential. 

This ambiguity invites fracking companies to conjure up evidence to persuade Welsh Government to license them. Why not save them the time and trouble and the expense; save threatened communities the anxiety and us the need to represent those communities and challenge that evidence, by simply stating in law that it cannot happen?

There are numerous other bits of wording throughout the document that we could likewise challenge[1] [AC2] .

Despite all this, we do gratefully acknowledge the robust rhetoric from the First Minister and other MS. Wales Online reports:
Mark Drakeford said categorically “there will be no fracking available here in Wales” 
And ends its article:


A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We do not support the UK Government’s position on the expansion of oil and gas exploration. Responsibility for licensing the exploration and development of Wales’ onshore petroleum resources lies with Welsh Ministers. We are fully committed to supporting our Net Zero commitments and will not support applications for hydraulic fracturing or issue new petroleum licences in Wales.”

This is all great to hear. But the same Wales Online article also reports: 

In March 2022 the then Minister of State for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, Greg Hands, was asked by Liz Saville Roberts in the House of Commons whether the UK Government would “assure me that he will respect Wales’s opposition to fracking, honour our COP26 pledges and not give in to climate deniers and fossil fuel opportunists?”

Greg Hands answered: “I remind the right honourable lady that energy is reserved.” Following Ms Truss’ announcement, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the impact on Wales would be discussed “in due course”.

These are words spoken in the House of Commons just 6 months ago. 

The following questions need answering:

            • Why, despite Wales Bill 2017, does Liz Saville Roberts feel the need to ask if UK Government will respect Wales Government’s opposition to fracking? 

            • Why does Greg Hands state that energy remains a reserved matter? 

            • Why, since Truss’ announcement, has the DBEIS said that the fracking proposals impact on Wales will be discussed ‘in due course’?

These alarming developments support what we have always suspected; that no matter how strong the rhetoric, no matter how firm and clear the presumption against fracking and UCG are in the planning guidance, and no matter how adamant Mark Drakeford is in his words and assurances, there remains the constitutional possibility, even after the Wales Act 2017, that UK Government can supersede Welsh Government and enable fracking and UCG in Wales. 

Essentially, what we are requesting from you is that you, as Senedd members, provide an explanation of the constitutional and legal framework that determines these matters.

We all know that any enablement of fracking and UCG will encounter unprecedented opposition, with Frack-Free Wales once again at the forefront of that opposition. We still have the resources and people needed to re-invigorate the campaign here in Wales, should cause be given to do so. It is our sincere hope that our next action would be to publicly thank you on the steps of the Senedd for putting the permanent ban in place, if it is within your powers to do so
This would be a timely gesture that would give inspiration and hope to the anti-fracking community across the UK at this time of renewed threat. 

Yours faithfully,

Frances Jenkins, Donal Whelan, Nigel Pugh & Andy Chyba
Frack Free Wales Steering Committee

We got a prompt but wholly inadequate response from Mick Antoniw:

Thank you for your email.

The first minister made an unequivocal statement today in the Senedd that Wales will not be permitting fracking in Wales.

Our existing policy remains in place.

I hope this is satisfactory assurance

Mick

Satisfactory? Not remotely, Mick! Extremely disappointing, especially given that Mick was very supportive when our campaigning was in full swing a full years ago.

A couple of days later we were informed that Mark Drakeford had asked Julie James to respond on behalf of everyone we had contacted. This duly arrived about 4 weeks after or initial letter:

Julie James AS/MS
Y Gweinidog Newid Hinsawdd Minister for Climate Change 

Dear Andy, Frances, Donal & Nigel, 

Thank you for your letter of 19 September to the First Minister regarding your concerns relating to potential fracking and Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) within Wales. As the Minister for Climate Change, policy on fossil fuel extraction and decarbonisation is within my portfolio, and the First Minister has therefore asked me to respond. 

Responsibility for licensing the exploration and development of Wales’s onshore petroleum resources lies entirely with Welsh Ministers. Any UK Government announcements concerning fracking, including the regulation of seismicity, are applicable only to England. Our established policy is that that the interests of Wales will not be served by exploring or developing new sources of petroleum extraction. We are committed fully to supporting our Net Zero commitments and leading through action as founding members of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. We will not support applications for hydraulic fracturing or issue new petroleum licences in Wales. 

Whereas the licensing of Underground Coal Gasification is not devolved, the UK Government has a long-established presumption against issuing the necessary Coal Authority Licences due to the unavoidable impact this process has on climate change. We support this position fully in Wales. Should the UK ever reverse this policy position, we would use all available devolved powers to prevent this process from being deployed in Wales. However, it is worth noting that there are no existing licences in Wales and there is effectively zero industrial interest in adopting this technology. 

I understand that an outright ban on fossil fuel extraction is your preferred policy, however, our presumption against all petroleum extraction, regardless of extraction technique or end use, is currently the strongest policy position across the UK. Importantly, it is also having a real impact on the ground. As a direct result of implementing our policy, there has been no new licences issued in Wales since the transfer of licensing function in 2018. 

Wales inherited 14 licences issued between 1996 and 2008. The Welsh Ministers are required to administer these licences in accordance with their model clauses, the general principles of public law, and within the context of devolved policy and legislation.

Of the 14 inherited licences, only 6 remain extant. The others have been relinquished by the licensee or terminated by the Welsh Ministers for failure to comply with licence model clauses. The last well drilled in Wales was completed on 23 March 2012, and produced coal bed methane for a short time. No further wells have been drilled in Wales since 2012. All production in Wales under a petroleum licence ceased in 2012/13 and, consequently, there is currently no petroleum production onshore in Wales. 

Should a licensee seek to drill in accordance with the planning permissions, the consent of the Welsh Ministers, as the petroleum licensing authority in Wales, would be required. Should the Ministers receive an application for consent to drill, any decision will be subject to devolved policy and applicable legislation. 

I hope this provides clarity on the constitutional and legal position in Wales. If you have any further concerns or want to discuss the policy in more detail, my officials are available to meet with you. If you feel you would benefit from a discussion with them, please contact [us] to make the arrangements. 

Yours sincerely, 

Julie James AS/MS 

Y Gweinidog Newid Hinsawdd / Minister for Climate Change 

Thank you, Julie! A much fuller reply that at least attempted to address the questions we had raised, but still leaving nagging doubts about whether an appropriately minded (i.e. insane) PM in Westminster could force fracking upon Wales if they so resolved. Thus, we accepted the invitation to discuss things in that bit more detail. 

The meeting, on 2nd December, has just about removed our last nagging doubts. 

We reviewed the history of licensing, planning and permits relevant to fracking activities. No new licenses have started since July 2008. This is before I was first made aware of the fracking threat in the UK almost exactly 12 years ago in December 2010. Of the 19 PEDL licences brought forward from that time, six were relinquished in June 2016, six were terminated in June 2020, and one expired in September 2022.

This leaves 6 still extant; one expires in 2027, one in 2031 and the other 4 in 2035. Three of the six are connected to our old friend, Gerwyn Williams, who still needs to find cash from somewhere to finish off his grand retirement villa at Newton beach, but has pretty much run out of ideas, cash and potential backers it seems. It is now abundantly clear that these PEDLs are pretty much worthless as he won’t get planning consent or permits to do anything meaningful on them. 

Most of our discussions focussed on the constitutional issues surrounding potential Westminster over-ruling Welsh Government and forcing through fracking. Lis Truss and Greg Hands had clearly been aware that it was at least theoretically possible, after all. 

And yes, it is theoretically possible. But only in very limited and extraordinary circumstances. Essentially, it would have to be a UK national emergency, such as a declaration of war, in a circumstance in which the UK government could at least argue that Wales’ ministers were harming the UK’s interests. 

This, in itself, leaves too much wriggle room for contemptible UK minsters like Truss and Hands to exploit, but given that bringing fracked gas on stream from a zero base would take many months, minimum, and probably a couple of years more realistically, it can never be a quick fix answer in an emergency situation. 

Thus, it leaves us all pretty much 100% certain that fracking cannot happen in Wales in the foreseeable future. 

The geology and economics have always made it an enterprise of dubious efficacy in the UK in any case. All of Gerwyn Williams’ efforts to date have been about trying to establish that there is a viable industry to be had, so that he could then sell on his PEDLs at a huge profit to those with the resources to undertake the production processes. It has never happened and cannot realistically happen at a profit, even with the current level of energy prices. 

Thus, Frack Free Wales’ steering committee feels as if its work is finally done. After a decade keeping Wales free from the frackers, we are finally confident that it will remain so into the foreseeable future. 

At times, over the last 12 years for me personally, the campaign has been a huge part of my life. It has been a journey of highs and lows, but ultimately a successful and satisfying one. This blog has chronicled the journey in some detail.

Allow me the indulgence of flagging up a few of the more significant and/or memorable moments along the way, in the sincere hope that I never feel the need to mention fracking in this blog ever again! 

  1. The first time I blogged about fracking (January 2011) 
  2. Bridgend Green Party’s anti-fracking resolution passed by the UK Green Party Conference, with coverage in South Wales newspapers (February 2011) 
  3. Seconded to the Llandow “The Vale Says NO!” group created by Louise Evans (March 2011) 
  4. Test drilling proposal withdrawn in Llandow (April 2011) 
  5. First big wake-up call for Wales Government (June 2011) 
  6. Participation in a high profile public meeting on fracking in London (July 2011
  7. The first big protest camp (September 2011) 
  8. The Co-operative choose to launch their UK “Frack Free Future” campaign in Bridgend, in recognition of our good work (September 2011) 
  9. Helped launch the UK Anti Fracking Network in Manchester (March 2012) 
  10. Llandow Public Inquiry – ultimately lost (May 2012) 
  11.  The first “Global Frackdown” event allied to guest appearance at a Lib Dem Conference fringe event (September 2012) 
  12. Taking the message to Downing Street (December 2012) 
  13.  The birth of Frack Free Wales (January 2013)
  14. Publication of my evidence synopsis – first of several editions (April 2013) 
  15. First big demo outside the Senedd (April 2012) 
  16. First Worldview interview focused on fracking, with the late, great Denis Campbell (May 2013) 
  17. First visit to Balcombe (August 2013) 
  18. First Russia Today interview  (August 2013) 
  19. Well-received speech on the steps of the Senedd (September 2013) 
  20. The Vale’s Not For Shale Concert – great ‘Focus TV’ film! (April 2014) 
  21. We Need To Talk About Fracking national tour comes to Swansea (June 2014) 
  22. Festival of the Celts and introducing the Warrior Sigil (July 2015) 
  23. The pseudo-moratorium in Wales (October 2015)
  24. Upton(Cheshire) solidarity day (January 2016) 
  25. Not quite a ban! (December 2018) 

And this brings us right up where I started this blog piece. The short-lived farce that was the Liz Truss premiership re-awakened the nightmare prospect of Tories doing the unthinkable and exploiting what is still ‘no-quite-an-outright-ban’ here in Wales. 

It is, I am happy to acknowledge, as good as. 99.9% there. 

The only way of making that 100% is to cut all ties with Westminster and become a fully independent country. As the film in no.20 states in the last few minutes, we ought to have a very rosy energy future here in Wales, based around the varied renewable assets that Wales has in abundance. 

This is where we need to focus our attention now the fracking menace has been dispelled. 

Footnote:

Donal is looking into a project to identify and trap leaking methane from coal mines, landfill waste dumps and the like. This would be a significant mitigation measure that could also be deployed worldwide. 

In my mind’s eye I can even see a potential role for our local fracking nemesis, Gerwyn Williams, and his ilk. His knowledge and skillset could be very useful in such an endeavour; and who doesn’t like a poacher that turns gamekeeper?!

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