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Broken promises and U-turns: The fracking ban and new oil and gas licenses in the UK

Graham Stuart, Minister for Climate under Truss, recently commented that producing oil and gas domestically is “a good thing” and something that “we should all get behind.” This comment was followed by the government lifting its 2019 ban on fracking, a move which has been met with outrage and disbelief by environmentalists and climate change activists.

Dismissed as “hysteria” by fossil fuel proponent and former Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Jacob Rees-Mogg, activists warn that not only will this move “not lower bills,” but it’s also a “disaster for climate policy.” Earlier this month, it was also discovered that Rees-Mogg was seeking to accelerate schemes by evading scrutiny, something which reportedly includes streamlining HSE requirements. It also looks like there’s more bad news ahead, with the introduction of Rees-Mogg’s retained EU law bill, which seeks to remove hundreds of environmental protection laws, although whether or not it will go ahead hangs in the balance following his resignation.

Dismayed by the sly tactics of the government to reintroduce an environmentally harmful and dangerous gas extraction process, climate activists are now threatening legal action, calling the government’s ban reversal “unlawful.”

A dangerous history and reckless repetition

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the technique used to recover gas and oil from shale rock. It involves drilling a well to a depth of two to three kilometres and then injecting a high quantity of water, sand and chemicals into the rock at high pressure to fracture it and release oil and gas. As a climate change accelerator, fracking for natural gas creates methane leaks (of which natural gas is mostly composed; responsible for trapping approximately 86 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide), water pollution, toxic wastewater, and earthquakes.

Revealing just how dangerous fracking can be, between 2018 and 2019, the UK’s only fracking site near Blackpool was responsible for 192 earthquakes over 182 days. Moreover, reintroducing fracking means that the UK will likely fail its climate targets, considering that the International Energy Agency has outlined that “no new oil, gas or coal development can take place” if the world is to reach net zero by 2050; this is required in order to, as the UN outlines, avert the worst impacts of climate change and preserve a liveable planet.

Fracking put back on the agenda

In 2019, ministers decided to ban fracking based on a report by the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), which found that it wasn’t possible to “accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations.” The government said that exploration of England’s shale gas reserves could only proceed if the science showed that it was “safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby,” and the science didn’t.

At the time, former Business and Energy Secretary Andrea Leadsom acknowledged the Conservative Party’s support of shale gas to provide what she said was a “bridge to a zero carbon future” but stated shale gas exploration must be carried out safely, adding that after reviewing the OGA’s report into seismic activity at Preston New Road, it had become clear the government could not “rule out future unacceptable impacts on the local community.”

The Conservative government then threw this out the window and put fracking back on the agenda. Citing Russia’s war on Ukraine and its “weaponization of energy,” the government argued that cutting dependence on Russian oil and gas was essential to loosen Putin’s “grip on western politics.” Recently resigned Business Secretary Rees-Mogg commented: “In light of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and weaponization of energy, strengthening our energy security is an absolute priority, and — as the prime minister said — we are going to ensure the UK is a net energy exporter by 2040. To get there, we will need to explore all avenues available to us through solar, wind, oil and gas production — so it’s right that we’ve lifted the pause [on fracking] to realise any potential sources of domestic gas.”

This call to action resulted in the UK Government defeating a Labour motion that forced a vote on whether fracking should be banned in the UK. It was opposed at 326 votes to 230, however, following the vote, there were claims that Conservative MPs were intimidated into voting against the ban. Beyond lifting the ban on fracking, the Conservative government announced it would support more than 100 licences for companies to explore more fossil fuels in the North Sea. These licences reportedly pass the government’s “climate compatibility checkpoint” tests, but climate group Uplift has called the measure “meaningless,” while Friends of the Earth Scotland has called it a “worthless charade”.

Commenting on what this means for the UK, Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK Policy Director, said: “This government has pushed its MPs to avoid scrutiny of them breaking the Conservatives’ own manifesto pledge, a promise that helped them win votes in parts of the UK where fracking has been touted. That is a disgrace. This is a con and a betrayal that will be felt by voters. The dangerous impact on climate, if fracking ever really happens, will be felt by everyone, but particularly by those in the Global South.”

Meanwhile, Labour MP Geraint Davies who sits on the Efra committee, and an author of a key Council of Europe report on fracking (the report used as a basis for Emmanuel Macron banning fracking in France) said that Conservative MPs “know fracking is worse than coal for global warming, creates house-cracking earth tremors, lakes of contaminated water above and below ground, unhealthy air quality and endless lorry movements,” but that they still voted for fracking proposals to go forward. In this statement, Davies also made reference to the government making protests unlawful under the Policing Act and highlighted that it had “discredited democratic consent” by its own “squalid actions.”

It’s also important to note that despite the government alluding that domestic fracking would help address the energy crisis and fix fuel bills, this is untrue. Speaking about this, Stuart Haszeldine, professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Fracking in the UK is a very high commercial risk, as the geology is wrong, and almost all of the oil or gas has leaked away millions of years ago. Analyses of the shales recovered while drilling for fracking in Lancashire showed the wrong type of shale and no oil or gas present.” Moreover, on top of it being a resource that is “slow, contentious and limited,” as Greenpeace points out, because fossil fuels are not nationalised, newly extracted fuel would be sold by the companies it belongs to to the highest bidder.

Government threatened with legal action & Sunak reimposes the ban

After the government announced that it would abandon its 2019 pledge to place a ban on fracking, environmental groups threatened to take legal action against the government. Speaking about this, Philip Evans, an energy security campaigner with Greenpeace, said: “The government is pandering to outdated, fringe fossil fuel interests. A government that fails to launch an emergency nationwide programme to make homes energy secure is simply not serious about energy security, lowering bills, or tackling the climate crisis.”

Evans compared the UK government efforts to those in Europe, which he highlighted had made “strides” with what he called “tangible solutions” like home insulation, heat-pumps, solar panels, and windfall taxes to finance “urgent fixes,” unlike the UK. He added: “New fossil fuel licences are the opposite of energy security. We believe this licensing round is unlawful and we’ll be looking at taking legal action.”

In the wake of Liz Truss’s resignation as Prime Minister, green groups are now calling on new PM Rishi Sunak to reverse what they’ve called Truss’ “attack on nature.” A number of groups proceeded to urge that the government U-turn on its policy regarding fracking, and are calling for it to recommit to the emerging environmental land management schemes (ELMS).

Although Sunak appears to be slightly less adamant on erasing climate positive policies than Truss, who appointed a Business Secretary who doesn’t believe climate change is a man-made problem, he doesn’t have a great record either, caring more about the cost of climate action than its impact, for example, when it comes to his voting record, he generally voted against measures to prevent climate change. He has, however, expressed support for green business and voiced his commitment to making Britain the “world’s first net zero aligned financial center.” That said, this half-hearted approach isn’t enough to reach the climate targets required to save the planet. As Ed Matthew, campaigns director at E3G, an independent think tank, says, as Chancellor, he “didn’t put the clean economy and climate action right at the heart of his mission,” and in order to reach our climate targets “you need to be all in.” Sunak, it appears, is not.

It was however, announced on 26th October that Sunak would be reimposing the fracking ban. Speaking in the Commons, the new Prime Minister said: “I stand by the manifesto on that.” However, the government has gone back on so many policies in recent months, that the announcement of the ban being reimposed has come as little comfort to many. Labour’s shadow climate and net zero secretary Ed Miliband, for example, said: “Whatever their latest position, the truth is that the Tories have shown that they cannot be trusted on the issue of fracking.” It remains to be seen whether the ban will stick.

Article Created By Madaline Dunn

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