Why Labour is right to push for tougher fracking regulation

However its proposals for tougher regulation go nowhere near far enough.

However its proposals for tougher regulation go nowhere near far enough

Today’s report by Glasgow University academics, calling for the relaxing of regulations around fracking and earthquake risk is seriously misplaced, and Labour’s Baroness Worthington is right, instead, to push for a tougher regulatory regime.

Fracking in the UK is becoming increasingly controversial. Local people have been hostile to proposals to frack around the country – the latest proposal in Lancashire has sparked overwhelming calls from people who live in the area for the council to reject fossil fuel company Cuadrilla’s application.

Parliamentarians are also debating a new ‘trespass law’ in the Infrastructure Bill which would remove the right of people to object to fracking under their homes.

Shadow energy minister Baroness Worthington said yesterday: “We should take the time now to introduce a proper regulatory framework… and to learn from the mistakes we have seen in the US.”

This is a welcome step from Labour and is in contrast to the government’s complacent approach. Energy secretary Ed Davey says we have “gold standard” regulation, but analysis by Friends of the Earth shows that all that glitters is not gold, and much of UK regulation is flawed, inadequate or ineffectively applied and enforced.

But tougher regulations – which will only make the industry safer rather than safe – do not address the basic fact that fracking would mean more fossil fuels that we can’t afford to burn if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. We need a moratorium on further exploration for, and production of, unconventional gas and oil.

The regulations considered by Glasgow University were put in place following the earthquakes caused when Cuadrilla test-fracked at its Preese Hall well in Lancashire in Spring 2011. In the event of earthquakes, surface impacts are clearly important, but what happens underground is maybe even more so.

The Lancashire earthquakes were relatively low-level, but still strong enough to damage the well-bore. As the head of shale gas regulation at the Environment Agency has commented, this can increase the risk of leaks and cause problems for local groundwater.

And problems with the Preese Hall well didn’t stop with the earthquakes. Recently there have been concerns about further problems with the well, and concerns that it might be leaking gas.

The report’s authors try to reassure readers that fracking per se is not the biggest earthquake concern and that reinjection underground of fracking wastewater is a bigger problem.

They’re right, in that there is more evidence that wastewater reinjection triggers seismic activity. But we should not be reassured – clauses in the Infrastructure Bill, currently going through Parliament, seem to pave the way for wastewater reinjection to happen in the UK.

The Infrastructure Bill is a key piece of legislation that is being used by the ‘all out for shale’ government to make things easier for the fracking industry, often at the expense of local democracy.

It also contains clauses changing the law on trespass: companies would no longer have to obtain a householder’s permission before fracking underneath their property.

This follows moves to give companies tax breaks, to remove the responsibility on companies to notify people directly if they intend to drill beneath their property and to reduce the right for local people to be consulted about the granting of the permits needed before a company can drill.

Many of the claims about the supposed benefits of fracking have been exposed as little more than hype. And the same is true of claims about the UK’s regulatory regime.

The government reassures us that fracking will be safe, but the head of the German federal environment agency, launching its latest study on the subject a couple of months ago said that fracking remains a risky technology and that while we don’t know if the risks can be controlled, fracking should not be allowed in Germany.

What does our government know that the German regulators don’t?

Labour sees shale gas as part of an ‘all of the above’ energy mix. However its proposals for tougher regulation go nowhere near far enough, and this focus skirts over many fundamental issues.

In addition to adding to an unburnable stockpile of fossil fuels, fracking in the UK isn’t a real energy security solution: what assurance is there that any gas drilled in the UK would be used domestically rather than exported if the companies can sell it at a higher price elsewhere?

Fracking is becoming an increasingly politically toxic issue. Despite the increasingly desperate efforts of the government and industry, local communities are far from convinced.

These aren’t just NIMBYs – in the words of Jed Sullivan, Labour’s PPC in Fylde (site of Cuadrilla’s proposed drilling) they are also NIYBYEs: Not In Your Back Yard Either. Communities in the south east are supporting communities in the supposedly ‘desolate North’.

The Labour Party would do well to note how unpopular fracking is amongst supporters. Recent opinion polling showed that 40 per cent of Labour supporters oppose fracking, compared to 36.5 per cent who support it. There is a clear gender divide: less than a quarter of women Labour supporters back fracking.

But the bigger question is about any role for shale gas and oil in UK energy policy. Friends of the Earth believes heading down the high-carbon dead end street of unconventional gas and oil is a risk we don’t need to take. This is why we are calling on David Cameron to focus on clean, safe and renewable energy solutions.

Tony Bosworth is energy and climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth

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