Polarised UK faces fracking D-Day

When politicians quote the former executive director of Friends of the Earth in a report on energy extraction, then the chances are that the energy industry is not going to like what follows. And when said former director has been an influential voice in London’s corridors of power for nearly 25 years, the chances are that the government is not going to be happy either.

Tom Burke is quoted in a report from an influential UK committee of politicians that has recommended a blanket ban on hydraulic fracturing for tight gas to avoid a breach of the country’s emissions commitments. The Environmental Audit Committee, in its conclusions and recommendations, says that public acceptance of hydraulic fracturing — what Burke called a “social licence” — is impossible when the debate around it is so polarised.

Burke, incidentally, since 1991 has variously been special adviser to three secretaries of state for the environment, a senior adviser to the foreign secretary’s special representative on climate change and a member of the Council of English Nature, the statutory adviser to the government on biodiversity. He also advises mining giant Rio Tinto on environmental policy, and has previously done the same for BP.

Suffice it to say his opinion is valued where it counts.

The UK certainly is split on hydraulic fracturing. The Institute of Directors long ago said All Hail Shale. The Committee of Climate Change, which advises the government, said tight gas is not a game changer. Environmentalists want drillers to frack off.

Residents of some of England’s green and pleasant land are not keen on wells in their back yards. One year on from a healthy financial carrot being dangled in front of local authorities, one of them has just recommended permission for extraction work be refused, citing noise and traffic concerns.

A further example of this polarisation will be seen today, when the House of Commons votes on the government’s Infrastructure Bill, a piece of legislation that includes “streamlined access to onshore oil and gas reserves… for example when fracking for shale gas”.

The drillers and extractors are fearful that this could be the day when the UK’s bid for tight gas, a move backed wholeheartedly by the government, is stillborn. And so they have got their reaction in first.

Petrochemicals company Ineos called the committee’s report “partial, partisan and deliberately focused on the risks rather than the benefits” of exploring for tight gas. Ineos has long committed itself to shale exploration in the UK, and has planned to become the largest UK operator.

Scarier still, industry body Oil & Gas UK said the proposed moratorium on onshore hydraulic fracturing could imperil operations in the North Sea, an area already facing huge difficulties after the recent slump in oil prices.