On January 26 Westminster voted through the Infrastructure Bill, one of those gargantuan messes so beloved of governments – a Bill that included everything. Hidden amongst all the rest was a section of fracking. It was this that the pre-vote debate focussed on, because the public and an increasing number of MPs are very doubtful of the ‘benefits’ of shale gas to the UK. In this they were supported by the Environment Audit Committee’s report, which called for a moratorium on fracking.
That really upset Ineos, which was investing in shale gas exploration in Scotland. As the powers to award licences are reserved to the UK government (Westminster), it cannot have escaped some people’s notice that there was a push to open up Scotland to fracking before the referendum on independence without any real consultation, and totally disregarding the progress Scotland has made on renewable energy.
The day after the Infrastructures Bill was passed the Scottish Parliament, having the power to do so, announced a moratorium on fracking and Scotland could breathe a sigh of relief while enjoying the thought of Ineos wondering what it would do with those worthless drilling licences. I also could heave a sigh of relief because I live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and also in an area of water abstraction, both now apparently off limits to fracking.
Yet given that any use of shale gas will increase the chance of everyone suffering from catastrophic climate change, preventing exploitation in this or that part of these islands will do little to help. How safe are we? Consider this exchange during the debate, on Scotland getting power over licences:
Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I note what the Minister says, and obviously I am keen that the powers be transferred as soon as possible, but does she not acknowledge that, as I and the Scottish Government have said on numerous occasions, there is a gap? Scotland has planning and environmental powers, but will not, if the Government do as she is saying they will, get powers on licences for some time yet. Will the Government give a guarantee that no more licences will be granted in the meantime? What is the position of licences already granted? Would it not be more sensible to support new clause 9, so that there is a moratorium until the Scottish Parliament can make a full decision on these matters?
Amber Rudd: I feel that the Government new clause deals with the specific issues that are relevant to the Infrastructure Bill. I understand—we all do—that many other measures may need to be debated, but the time for that will be after the next Government are in place, when there will be a fuller debate on proper devolution.
Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister is talking about new clause 2 and the devolution of licensing, which she says is promised and will be delivered as part of the Smith agreement. Given that the 14th round has been started but the licences not awarded, does it not make sense for those licences not to be awarded in Scotland until devolution has happened?
Amber Rudd: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point—one that was not raised in Committee, although we did debate this fairly fully. I take the view that the Bill is not the place to do that, but it could be considered after the next general election.
That sounded to me as though the Government (apparently assuming it will be in power after the election) is going to do what it can to keep control of anything that might make it money, devolved powers or no. And think on this:
If the TTIP deal between Europe and the USA is signed still including the “investor-state dispute settlement”, then Ineos et al may think of punishing Scotland, which God forbid.
Before the debate took place I emailed my MP Oliver Letwin, in a mood of desperation because the whole push for fracking is so underhand, dirty and dangerous for the Earth.
I am appalled by the news just out in the Guardian about the leaked letter from the Chancellor George Osborne to government ministers, seeking their help in fast-tracking fracking. Does the government understand nothing about the risks of climate change and our commitment to control our use of fossil fuels? And will the government take ANY notice of the very balanced and unbiased scientific studies conducted in the USA by several universities, detailing the risks and effects of fracking on the environment? Or take any notice of the costs of fracking to the local authorities, particularly road repairs because of the heavy traffic? When will this government think about the health of the country and its people instead of “business opportunities”? The money that has been wasted in promoting fracking should have been invested in renewable energy. Please support the call for a moratorium on fracking and ensure that science and good sense triumph.
I have been engaged in the climate-change issue for years now. I used to comfort myself with the thought that I would at least be dead by the time it started to really affect us all. I am now looking, quite seriously, at the prospect that it could be a major factor in my death. It horrifies me that the government should push so blindly for more fossil fuels.
Very sad regards
To which he replied:
Thanks for your e-mail of earlier this morning about fracking.
I’m afraid we don’t agree about this.
It is enormously in Britain’s interests that we should be able to produce more of our gas domestically as the North Sea sources run down, rather than having to import increasing proportions of our gas.
Our planning system is a robust defence against inappropriate industrial intrusions onto sensitive landscapes; and the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have concluded, after an exhaustive study, that our regulatory regime can prevent any untoward geological or pollution problems.
So I shall be voting for the measures in the Infrastructure Bill.
I am sorry we disagree.
With best wishes,
Part of our ‘regulatory regime’ includes the Environment Agency (I love the word regime – the removal of regimes is what we tend to bomb other countries for). The EA’s current head, Sir Philip Dilley, was previously the chairman of an engineering firm that wrote the environment reports on fracking for Cuadrilla, one of the firms pressing for drilling licences.
Another part of the ‘regulatory regime’ is Natural England, which you might expect to have an interest in preventing environmental damage such as that threatened by fracking, has Andrew Sells at its head, an appropriate name for a venture capitalist and developer (house building being another great threat to the environment, developers preferring untouched green sites to brown sites that need redevelopment).
If I was paranoid, I’d think these people, having been appointed relatively recently, were there because of fracking.
A further part is the Health & Safety Executive which, as MP Jim Cunningham pointed out, has lost both funding and staff under the current government. How could it do its monitoring job at all, let alone thoroughly? But wait! The Chair of the HSE is Judith Hackitt who, as a chemical engineer, has worked in the chemical manufacturing industry and been the Director-General of the Chemical Industries Association. Who better to keep an eye on chemical pollution caused by fracking using EA-approved chemicals?
And why should George Osborne be so keen to support fracking? Could it possibly have something to do with his father-in-law Lord Howell, who is the head of a lobbying organisation for big oil and gas companies? Certainly Osborne has tried at times to significantly cut the subsidies for renewable energy.
The Tories, and Letwin is a top Tory whose opinions are not mine, are busy trashing all their promises and commitments to green policies and tackling climate change. They much prefer making money whatever the cost to everything and everybody else and, like his Cabinet colleagues, Letwin is rich and had been a director of Rothschild’s merchant bank until it became clear there was a ‘conflict of interest’ between that and being the Conservative Treasury Spokesman.
Now the Tories are in power he has, where the public is concerned, become a backroom shadow figure. He is a greatly valued member of David Cameron’s cabinet being the Conservatives’ Minister for policy, responsible for ideas such as the bedroom tax and the millionaires’ tax cut. As such, he would at the very least have overseen the policy of “all out for fracking”, if only to ease its path.
Scotland has good cause to remember Oliver Letwin. It is not the first time he’s been behind a highly unpopular Tory policy. Last month 30-year-old Cabinet papers were released. Even then Letwin was involved in policy making, and it was he who pushed the idea of trialing the poll tax in Scotland, against the advice of other Tory ministers. The poll tax resulted in riots and helped to finally bring the government down.
Fracking just might do the same.
Lesley Docksey © 30/01/15
Categories: Environmental Justice