19th January 2015: 'I can see the Stooges but where's Iggy Pop?' » 2015 » Mobbsey's Musings » Paul Mobbs/MEI » FRAW

Iggy Pop sold out?
Have our cherished institutions 'sold out?'

'I can see the Stooges but where's Iggy Pop?':
The Government's shale gas policy and the PR manipulation of the 'fracking' debate

Paul Mobbs, "Mobbsey's Musings", 19th January 2015


During the 2000s the 'fracking boom' in the USA was fuelled by speculative Wall Street finance. When that bubble burst in 2008, the dodgy finance was cut off and the number of drilling rigs collapsed by over 50% within a few months[1]. Last December, I wrote in The Ecologist[2] of how the 'funny money' from quantitative easing was once more fuelling the number of drilling rigs, supporting the Ponzi-style 'shale bubble'. Just over a week ago I wrote[3] of how that junk-debt-fuelled house of cards was being shaken by the fall in oil prices.

Now Baker-Hughes, the US drilling services company which monitors industry trends, has announced the biggest weekly decline in US drilling activity since 1991[4]; and the decline over the last six weeks – the decommissioning of 209 rigs – is the largest since their records began in 1987[5].


That interruption in the 'shale drilling treadmill'[6] means that the clock has started to tick. Within a year or so, due to the high decline rate of unconventional oil and gas wells, production will begin to tail-off once more. The gas drilling stall in 2008 led to gas production levelling-off in 2011/12. When quantitative easing cash flooded in to turn the drills back on again, many rigs switched to drilling for shale oil instead. Today it's not clear whether the US government can or will prevent the 'shale bubble' imploding[7].

In addition to the finance issues, over the last few weeks we've also seen health and environmental agencies in New York State[8] and Quebec[9] recommend bans on future development of the industry there.

Whether or not these difficulties will bring an official realisation of the unsustainable nature of unconventional fossil fuels is not clear. That same finance treadmill ensures those involved in the industry make big bucks from this process. As a result they have the ready cash to pay public relations agencies to obfuscate the debate on unconventional gas and oil.

And here in Britain? In the corridors of power, the events of recent weeks appear to have had no recognition whatsoever. The problems of the global oil and gas industry – from the US[10] to Britain[11], to Australia[12] – has not diverted the political shale gas and oil bandwagon (at least in England and Wales[13]).

Last week I attended the public hearings for the Environmental Audit Committee's (EAC) inquiry into the 'environmental impacts of fracking'[14]. For me, those sessions typify the problems our national politics has in examining contentious public debates.

The Committee did not appear to want any specific detail of what the impacts of fracking would be in Britain – demonstrated by experience elsewhere, or through analysis of the proposals[15] outlined by the Department for Energy and Climate Change. And though the Committee were looking at the 'environmental impacts', much of the debate was centred around conventional economics and investment models – not the identification of ecological or health impacts.

At the same time, across Parliament Square, the Government were trying to steamroller through their shale project as part of the Infrastructure Bill[16] – from tax breaks for drillers[17], to weakened regulation[18], all designed to facilitated the Government's unsubstantiated case for a UK 'shale revolution'[19].

Politicians might call for a 'balanced debate on shale', but arguably it is they who are peddling a manufactured rhetoric[20]. This is because the political process has been hijacked by lobbyists paid by the industry, whose manipulative tendrils reach right inside the Government[21].

For me, the most eye-opening part of the EAC's evidence session was when Caroline Spelman asked[22], "What could be done to address public mistrust over fracking and who would be trusted to provide an objective assessment of the pros and cons?"

They very fact the question was posed shows how out-of-touch politicians are on this issue.

For example, they could start by asking the representatives of public[23] to their inquiry, to ask them directly what their concerns are.

Instead what we often get in the place of public involvement, or the substantiation of the Government's claims using objective evidence, are 'stooges' – public relations representatives who say what the political consensus wants to hear.

The witness at the EAC's inquiry I found the most troublesome was Chris Smith: formerly chair of the Environment Agency (who issued Cuadrilla's fracking permit[24] last week); chair of the Advertising Standards Authority (who recently took umbradge with an anti-fracking leaflet[25]); and chair of the new "independent" Task Force on Shale Gas[26].

The problem for the Committee was that the Task Force on Shale Gas hasn't done any work yet! All Smith could do was apologetically state that they would produce statements on a range of issues at some future date.

While the Task Force on Shale Gas might laud itself as being independent, and command Parliamentary time in the place of those who might have something substantive to say, the details surrounding the Task Force's organisation say something rather different.

There is another body called the All Party Parliamentary Group[27] (APPG) on Unconventional Gas and Oil[28]. Like a number of other APPGs in Parliament it's essentially and industry 'astroturf' group[29], set up as a lobbying vehicle to access decision-makers in government[30].

The secretariat for APPG on Unconventional Gas and Oil is provided by a political lobbying company, Edelman[31], using funding from companies with direct links to or investment in the shale gas industry – such as IGas, Cuadrilla, The Weir Group, Centrica, Total and GDF Suez.

And what has this to do with Chris Smith's "independent" Task Force on Shale Gas?:

In fact the Task Force on Shale Gas' 'industry front' credentials go deeper than that:

To return to Caroline Spelman's question, "…who would be trusted to provide an objective assessment of the pros and cons?" – arguably not the Task Force on Shale Gas!

Such 'objectivity' is not based within people, or their credentials. Objectivity is defined by how evidence is assessed, and the transparency of the assessment process which digests and ranks that evidence. When we trace the connections, and examine the substances of the debate to date, much of the media promotion of shale gas presents a partial view[37], overtly hostile to any contrary view[38], and often based upon debatable evidence[39].

Politicians ask for a 'balanced debate' from campaign groups, and yet much of the imbalance is fronted by the industry side. Even witnesses at the EAC's inquiry believed that politicians had over-stated the benefits of shale gas[40].

When governments pursue policies such as unconventional energy in the absence of balanced evidence, then ultimately it's the public and the environment who will suffer. However, that's not simply because 'fracking' is bad for the environment. It's because the exercise of executive power in Britain today has become toxic for our democratic institutions.


References:

  1. Paul Mobbs/MEI: 'Natural Gas Gross Withdrawals and Monthly Drilling Rig Count', July 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/current/slides/us_natural_gas.jpg
  2. The Ecologist: 'With sub-$60 oil, fracking and tar sands losses threaten the whole financial system', Paul Mobbs, 17th December 2014 – http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2679765/with_sub60_oil_fracking_and_tar_sands_losses_threaten_the_whole_financial_system.html
  3. The Ecologist: 'Environmentalists' oil price panic reflects their own existential crisis', Paul Mobbs, 8th January 2015 – http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2703420/environmentalists_oil_price_panic_reflects_their_own_existential_crisis.html
  4. Baker-Hughes: 'North America Rotary Rig Count Current Week Data'http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=79687&p=irol-reportsother
  5. Shale Energy Insider: 'Drilling report shows continued US rig decline', 19th January 2015 – http://www.shaleenergyinsider.com/2015/01/19/drilling-report-shows-continued-us-rig-decline/
  6. Resilience: 'Ailing Shale Gas Returns Force a 'Drilling Treadmill'', Andrew Nikiforuk, The Tyee 1st July 2014 – http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-07-01/ailing-shale-gas-returns-force-a-drilling-treadmill
  7. Shale Bubblehttp://shalebubble.org/
  8. A Public Health Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development, Department of Health, New York State, 17th December 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/ny_doh_2014.pdf
  9. English summary chapter – Issues relating to shale gas exploration and exploitation in the St. Lawrence Lowlands {Les enjeux liés à l'exploration et l'exploitation du gaz de schiste dans le shale d'Utica des basses-terres du Saint-Laurent Rapport d'enqu&earete;te et d'audience publique (report 307)}, Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement, December 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/bape_2013.pdf
  10. Guardian On-line: 'Plummeting oil price casts shadow over fracking's future', 6th January 2015 – http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/06/oil-price-casts-shadow-over-frackings-future
  11. Guardian On-line: 'Oil price crash threatens the future of the North Sea oilfields', 15th January 2015 – http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/jan/14/oil-price-slump-could-threaten-north-sea-oilfields
  12. Guardian On-line: 'Australia faces gas price shock – but it's in the national interest, says report', 20th October 2014 – http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2014/oct/19/australia-faces-gas-price-shock-but-its-in-the-national-interest-says-report
  13. BBC News: 'New fracking rules will not apply in Scotland, UK government pledges', 13th January 2015 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-30803788
  14. Environmental Audit Committee: 'Environmental risks of fracking inquiry'http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environmental-audit-committee/inquiries/parliament-2010/environmental-risks-of-fracking-inquiry/
  15. Written evidence submitted by Mobbs' Environmental Investigations, Environmental Audit Committee, January 2015 – http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/environmental-audit-committee/environmental-risks-of-fracking/written/17051.pdf
  16. Talk Fracking: 'Mass Lobby of Parliament', 13th January 2015 – http://www.talkfracking.org/news/mass-lobby-of-parliament/
  17. Guardian On-line: 'UK's shale gas revolution falls flat with just 11 new wells planned for 2015', Adam Vaughan, Monday 19th January 2015 – http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/19/uk-shale-gas-revolution-falls-flat-just-11-new-wells-planned-2015
  18. Guardian On-line: 'Companies will be legally required to reveal chemicals used for fracking', 14th January 2015 – http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/14/companies-will-be-legally-required-to-reveal-chemicals-used-for-fracking
  19. Guardian On-line: 'Shale gas unlikely to make the UK energy self-sufficient, says report', 11th November 2014 – http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/11/shale-gas-unlikely-to-make-the-uk-energy-self-sufficient-report-says
  20. Independent On-line: 'We cannot afford to miss out on shale gas', 11th August 2013 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10236664/We-cannot-afford-to-miss-out-on-shale-gas.html
  21. Paul Mobbs/MEI: '"Behind every picture lies a story" – statistical reality versus PR-hype within the political project of unconventional gas in Britain', 25th July 2015 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/musings/2013/20130725-behind_every_picture_lies_a_story.html
  22. Environmental Audit Committee: Question 35 (page 18), 'Oral evidence – Environmental risks of fracking', (HC 856), Wednesday 14th January 2015 – http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/environmental-audit-committee/environmental-risks-of-fracking/oral/17532.pdf
  23. The Ecologist: 'Parliament's fracking examination must be inclusive and impartial', Paul Mobbs, 13th January 2015 – http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2711765/parliaments_fracking_examination_must_be_inclusive_and_impartial.html
  24. Guardian On-line: 'Regulators grant environmental permits for Lancashire fracking site', 17th January 2015 – http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/16/regulators-grant-cuadrilla-environmental-permits-lancashire-fracking-site
  25. RAFF: 'RAFF delighted with informal ASA resolution', 7th January 2015 – http://stopfyldefracking.org.uk/latest-news/raff-delighted-with-informal-asa-resolution/
  26. Task Force on Shale Gashttp://www.shaletaskforce.uk/
  27. Parliament: 'All Party Groups'http://www.parliament.uk/about/mps-and-lords/members/apg/
  28. APPG Unconventional Oil and Gashttp://www.appgunconventionaloilandgas.com/
  29. Wikipedia: 'Astroturfing'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astroturfing
  30. Independent On-line: 'Corporate funding of all-party groups 'next big scandal' after huge rise under the coalition', 18th May 2014 – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/corporate-funding-of-allparty-groups-next-big-scandal-after-huge-rise-under-the-coalition-9391286.html
  31. Edelmanhttp://www.edelman.co.uk/
  32. Powerbase: 'Task Force on Shale Gas'http://powerbase.info/index.php/Task_Force_on_Shale_Gas
  33. Hill and Knowltonhttp://www.hkstrategies.com/
  34. Wikipedia: 'Citizens for a Free Kuwait'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens_for_a_Free_Kuwait
  35. Task Force on Shale Gas: 'About the Task Force'http://www.shaletaskforce.uk/about-the-task-force
  36. Guardian On-line: 'Lancashire's shale gas can fill UK energy gap', 4th June 2014 – http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/04/lancashire-shale-gas-uk-energy-gap
  37. A critical review of Public Health England's report – "Review of the Potential Public Health Impacts of Exposures to Chemical and Radioactive Pollutants as a Result of Shale Gas Extraction – draft for comment", Paul Mobbs/Mobbs' Environmental Investigations, April 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/archive/phe_shale_gas_and_health_report-critical_analysis.pdf
  38. DeSmogBlog: 'Gas Fracking Industry Using Military Psychological Warfare Tactics and Personnel In U.S. Communities', 9th November 2011 – http://www.desmogblog.com/gas-fracking-industry-using-military-psychological-warfare-tactics-and-personnel-u-s-communities
  39. Extreme Energy and Climate: A critical review of the UK Government's policy on unconventional fossil fuels and climate change, Paul Mobbs/Mobbs' Environmental Investigations, May 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/archive/extreme_energy_and_climate-critical_review.pdf
  40. Environmental Audit Committee: Question 21 (page 11), 'Oral evidence – Environmental risks of fracking', (HC 856), Wednesday 14th January 2015 – http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/environmental-audit-committee/environmental-risks-of-fracking/oral/17532.pdf