Pull back the curtain… is what you see smoke and mirrors?
Fracking distractions – why shale gas is a proxy for a more damaging ideological agenda
Written for The Ecologist, published 21st December 2015
After more than five years of delay, relaunches and circuitous consultations, the Department of Energy and Climate Change's 14th Landward Licensing Round concluded last Thursday. DECC's Oil and Gas Authority awarded the final 132 exploration and production licences; overall none of the 159 licences applied for were refused.
Arguably though, this announcement was a cynical act of misdirection.
The announcement of a further 132 drilling licences was bound to capture the headlines. And the Government used that, and a few other announcements, to distract attention from the many other announcements which might have been the lead item in their own right.
Anyone who has been closely involved with government and regulatory procedures knows that three times a year – before Christmas, Easter and the Summer holidays – the most controversial development and policy proposals are announced.
This Christmas though the Government went far, far further than before.
Last Thursday they releasing a trove of studies, statistics and announcements, some of which had been kept hidden for many months – over 400 separate policy announcements.
And you can bet that by 5th January, when politicians and pundits return to work with their festive hangovers, many of those controversial announcements will be allowed to pass without comment.
All sorts of unwelcome news came out last Thursday:
We also got information, for the first time since 2011, on minster's private interests, along with the latest details of their special advisers (or 'SPADs') – and the fact that SPADs have been awarded massive pay-rises compared to the rest of the civil service.
After a long period of avoiding the issue, the Government has announced a shifting of position on the Muslim Brotherhood, reportedly under pressure from the Saudi government.
Why the pressure? We sell a lot of armaments and other related engineering to the Saudis and other Middle Eastern states with a dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood.
That dependence on 'selling death' was further highlighted by the simultaneous announcement that the Government would continue to fund a British armaments industry stand at a number of global arms trade fairs in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Indonesia, Chile, Malaysia and India.
Of course while one state's democrat is another's terrorist, this event confirms that the Government has taken the side of a dictatorial regime in a regional conflict – and is doing so purely for short-term economic interests rather than seeking a longer-term settlement of the various conflicts in that region.
Even without Britain's troubling history in the region, it is difficult to be an honest broker of peace if you've already taken sides.
Another story to emerge last Thursday was the fault in an on-line form which resulted in courts wrongly awarding assets in divorce cases. Rather like the fracking licences, that was the 'positive' story played-up to avoid other, more troubling announcements about the justice system.
In early December the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, repealed the 'criminal courts charge' – otherwise known as the 'poll tax for justice'.
What was announced last Thursday, in addition to raising a variety of court charges by 10% or more, was new evidence that the Government's recent reforms to our courts are having a chilling effect on justice.
A new study for the Ministry of Justice found that, with the withdrawal of legal aid for most cases, people taking part in the justice system felt increasingly lost – unable to understand the process, nor where they could get help to take part in the proceedings.
Another survey of not-for-profit legal advice providers found that most were experiencing difficulties with funding, many were shrinking the level of support given to the public, and 10% said they might close completely in the near future.
Other policy injustices were also obliterated in the shadow of more 'positive' announcements.
For example, the Government released a new policy on tackling homelessness, and the Bank of England sought powers to try and control the amount of money going into buy-to-let housing – which some blame for the current housing affordability crisis.
What was given less coverage were the new statistics showing the greater problem of homelessness, which has consistently increased for the last few years. Not only the rough sleepers who are visible on the streets, but also the hidden problem of people in temporary local authority accommodation.
More significantly, new statistics released on Thursday showed that the Government's bedroom tax had has little effect in encouraging people to move house, or let spare rooms. Instead it continues to penalise many people by removing their benefits.
Other announcements were outrageous, and should have been front-page headlines.
The Government is breaking European law on air pollution limits in many of our major cities. On Thursday, in response to the Supreme Court issuing an order for action on the issue, their decision was to delay measures to combat air pollution – which kills more than 30,000 people a year – for another five years.
Certain politicians might call protesters 'NIMBYs'.
In response we should call them 'NIMTOOs' as their response to critical environmental problems is, "Not In My Term Of Office".
They are clearly willing to break the law instead of taking action to save lives – far more lives in fact than are endangered by terrorism in Britain, on which they appear to be willing to spend billions.
Last Thursday though, in terms of your future health and well-being, the worse thing to be in Britain was a badger.
Without presenting any clear evidence of the effectiveness of the badger cull, the Government announced that it was extending the badger cull policy to the rest of England.
And with echoes of DEFRA's 'redacted report' on fracking and house prices, DEFRA published a cost-benefit analysis of the badger cull which was impossible to validate. Many of the figures associated with the cull had been omitted for reasons of "commercial confidentiality".
Given the more reasonable costs of the Government's trial vaccination programme, a report on which was released at the same time (without redacted data), it is arguable that the Government are providing an unjustifiable subsidy to the beef and dairy industry.
Also last Thursday, the Charity Commission released a report on how they pursued an investigation of The Badger Trust, and made the organisation distance itself from "political" criticisms of the Government's policies on the badger cull.
OK then, bad news if you're a badger – though it's not much better if you're a farm animal.
Just as Britain is shifting towards even more intensive forms of animal husbandry the Government has decided that the legislative burdens on the industry are too great.
Last Thursday the Government proposed a new non-statutory system of animal welfare standards for meat and dairy producers in England. Each sector will produce its own guidelines, and will self-enforce those guidelines against farmers.
That's arguably a recipe for future trouble.
It's not just animal welfare that's an issue here. The shift towards more intensive farm production increases the risks to consumers. Not just in terms of food quality, but also greater pollution of the environment.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change made various announcements last Thursday: From cuts to renewable energy subsidies; to a new review of the feed-in tariff scheme; to new data on household energy efficiency which showed that the level of home energy improvements is collapsing as cuts to the green deal and other schemes take effect.
What really grabbed the headlines though were the 132 new oil and gas exploration licences, coming so soon after the commitments to cut carbon emissions given the week before in Paris.
On balance, however, these were not the most significant announcements on this issue. We knew the fracking licences were coming – and the industry's strategy has been apparent for a while.
What the licence issue masked was the announcement of new regulatory standards – known as the 'Regulatory Roadmap'. Back in 2013, when these standard were first promoted, we were told that regulation would be "gold-plated".
Now it seems the plating has become rather tarnished by these new vague standards. Weakened by changes the planning and environmental law in the interim, they no longer provide the regulatory protection and guarantee of local accountability they did two years ago.
Perhaps the most significant change which was sneaked past the media's gaze last Thursday were the changes to the permitted development rules for oil and gas operations.
This allows for further well drilling for monitoring boreholes around well sites, and for seismic surveys, without requiring the hurdle of a separate planning application – and its associated requirement for public consultation. This again raises the level of environmental intrusion permitted by Government policy without local regulation and accountability.
'Fracking' might be a bad policy, but what makes such bad decisions possible are the standards of conduct within political system itself – and its currently low regard for the public's wishes.
Contrary to their repeated assertions, the Government do not have a popular mandate for radical change. They received just 37% of the vote on a 66% turnout in May's election – meaning that only a quarter of eligible voters actually voted Conservative.
Shortly after the 132 licences were announced last week a new on-line petition, #PledgeNVDA, began on Change.org. The petition asks people to pledge to take non-violent direct action against fracking.
I urge people to participate in this initiative – to take personal responsibility for the irresponsible governance of our country by signing the pledge, and take action against these demonstrably wrong decisions.
However, I would ask that you don't just target unconventional oil and gas companies. We must also act against those who are the primary enablers of this process: The Cabinet, and the minsters of the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
It would appear that under the Government's current vision of executive power, any opposition, however factually well-founded, appears to be considered a threat.
More than that, our leading politicians are quite openly planning to run their extreme, ideologically driven vision for change for years to come – and are engineering our political system to enable that.
Any opposition to their greater political project is being systemically crushed – the most recent example being the House of Lords, the 'reform' of which was also announced last week.
Are recent events also a sign of a generally dictatorial, Putin-esque stance against citizens groups who oppose Government policy?
Perhaps. Certainly, under the guise of preventing radicalization in schools, the police are highlighting environmental activists and anti-fracking protesters as a threat to the state.
More disturbingly, the dismissal of European court judgements that conflict with national policy objectives, recently enacted in Russia, appears to be modelled on a proposal by David Cameron back in January 2012.
Fracking is, based on the available evidence, an unwarranted policy; but the ideological objectives behind these policies is far more significant than the process itself. The reality is that we cannot address one without addressing the other. We need not a change of government, but a change of governance in order to move towards a more sustainable policy framework on energy and the environment.
- DECC: 'Oil and gas – guidance – 14th Landward Licensing Round' https://www.gov.uk/guidance/oil-and-gas-licensing-rounds#th-landward-licensing-round
- Oil and Gas Authority: 'New onshore oil and gas licences offered', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-onshore-oil-and-gas-licences-offered
- Independent On-line: 'From fracking to the bedroom tax – The 7 pieces of bad news the Government tried to bury', Matt Dathan, Friday 18th December 2015 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/from-fracking-to-the-bedroom-tax-the-7-pieces-of-bad-news-the-government-tried-to-bury-today-a6777491.html
- Guardian On-line: 'Take Out the Trash Day – the perfect opportunity to bury bad news', 18th December 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/shortcuts/2015/dec/18/take-out-the-trash-day-the-perfect-opportunity-to-bury-bad-news
- Gov.uk: 'Publications, 17 th /18th December 2015' https://www.gov.uk/government/publications?keywords=&publication_filter_option=all&topics=all&departments=all&official_document_status=all&world_locations=all&from_date=17%2F12%2F15&to_date=17%2F12%2F15
- Office for National Statistics: 'Wealth in Great Britain Wave 4, 2012 to 2014', 18th December 2015 http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/was/wealth-in-great-britain-wave-4/2012-2014/index.html
- Independent On-line: 'Inequality – Richest 10 per cent in UK 'own half the country's wealth'', Charlie Cooper, Friday 18th December 2015 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/inequality-richest-10-per-cent-in-uk-own-half-the-countrys-wealth-a6778976.html
- Department for Education and Education Funding Agency: 'Education services grant (ESG) - 2016 to 2017', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/education-services-grant-esg-2016-to-2017
- Children and Yound People Now: 'Government reveals extent of council education funding cuts', Joe Lepper, 18th December 2015 http://www.cypnow.co.uk/cyp/news/1155267/government-reveals-extent-of-council-education-funding-cuts
- Guardian On-line: 'For us student nurses, bursaries are a lifeline. We will fight against their cuts', Danielle Tiplady and Charlotte Humm, Tuesday 15 December 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/15/student-nurses-bursaries-protest-cuts-recruit-loans-fees
- Department of Health: 'Creating a modern nursing workforce', 18th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/creating-a-modern-nursing-workforce
- Cabinet Office: 'List of ministers' interests', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/list-of-ministers-interests
- Cabinet Office: 'Special adviser data releases – numbers and costs', December 2015', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/special-adviser-data-releases-numbers-and-costs-december-2015
- Wikipedia: 'Special advisers (UK government)' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_advisers_%28UK_government%29
- Guardian On-line: 'Osborne gives political adviser 42% rise amid public sector pay freeze', Rajeev Syal, Thursday 17th December 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/dec/17/osborne-hands-advisers-big-pay-rises-while-freezing-public-sector-wages
- Prime Minister's Office, Cabinet Office, Foreign & Commonwealth Office: 'Muslim Brotherhood review – statement by the Prime Minister', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/muslim-brotherhood-review-statement-by-the-prime-minister
- Guardian On-line: 'Britain's Muslim Brotherhood review still poses puzzling questions', Ian Black, Friday 30 May 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/world/on-the-middle-east/2014/may/30/islamists-egypt-politics-muslimbrotherhood
- Wikipedia: 'Muslim Brotherhood' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim_Brotherhood
- UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation: 'Defence and security exporting – event and exhibition support', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/defence-and-security-exporting-event-and-exhibition-support
- Independent On-line: 'How Britain and France laid the groundwork for Isis's reign of terror in the Middle East', Kim Sengupta, Thursday 17th December 2015 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/how-britain-and-france-laid-the-groundwork-for-isis-s-reign-of-terror-in-the-middle-east-a6777576.html
- Telegraph On-line: 'Software error could mean thousands of divorce cases re-opened', John Bingham, 17th December 2015 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/12057159/Software-error-could-mean-thousands-of-divorce-cases-re-opened.html
- Independent On-line: 'Tax on justice: Michael Gove scraps criminal courts charges after Independent campaign', Emily Dugan & Oliver Wright, Thursday 3rd December 2015 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/tax-on-justice-michael-gove-scraps-criminal-courts-charges-after-independent-campaign-a6758616.html
- The Ecologist: 'A 'poll tax' for English justice - subjecting the poor to 'trial by ordeal'', Paul Mobbs, 23rd June 2015 http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2919243/a_poll_tax_for_english_justice_subjecting_the_poor_to_trial_by_ordeal.html
- Ministry of Justice: 'Written statement to Parliament – HMCTS', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/hmcts
- Ministry of Justice: 'The varying paths to justice', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-varying-paths-to-justice
- Ministry of Justice: 'Survey of Not for Profit legal advice providers', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/survey-of-not-for-profit-legal-advice-providers
- DCLG: 'Radical package of measures announced to tackle homelessness', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/radical-package-of-measures-announced-to-tackle-homelessness
- Guardian On-line: 'Bank of England to be given powers to rein in buy-to-let market', Jill Treanor, Thursday 17th December 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/dec/17/bank-of-england-given-powers-rein-buy-to-let-market
- National Statistics/DCLG: 'Statutory homelessness in England – July to September 2015', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/statutory-homelessness-in-england-july-to-september-2015
- DWP: 'Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy evaluation', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/removal-of-the-spare-room-subsidy-evaluation-final-report
- Guardian On-line: 'Illegal air pollution will blight many UK cities for at least five years', Adam Vaughan, Thursday 17th December 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/17/illegal-air-pollution-will-blight-many-uk-cities-for-at-least-five-years
- Guardian On-line: 'Supreme court orders UK to draw up air pollution cleanup plan', Fiona Harvey, Wednesday 29 April 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/apr/29/supreme-court-orders-uk-to-draw-up-air-pollution-cleanup-plan
- DEFRA: 'Improving air quality in cities', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/improving-air-quality-in-cities
- Guardian On-line: 'Air pollution may cause more UK deaths than previously thought, say scientists', Sarah Boseley, Thursday 2nd April 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/apr/02/air-pollution-may-cause-more-uk-deaths-than-previously-thought-say-scientists
- Wikipedia: 'NIMBY' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NIMBY
- The Ecologist: 'Britain's real 'terror threat' – eco-sceptic politicians', Paul Mobbs, 3rd September 2014 http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2540855/britains_real_terror_threat_ecosceptic_politicians.html
- The Ecologist: 'So badger culls are working? Liz Truss, produce your evidence!', Oliver Tickell, 18th December 2015 http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2986711/so_badger_culls_are_working_liz_truss_produce_your_evidence.html
- DEFRA: 'Bovine TB eradication strategy delivering results', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/bovine-tb-eradication-strategy-delivering-results
- DEFRA: 'Guidance to Natural England - preventing spread of bovine TB', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-natural-england-preventing-spread-of-bovine-tb
- Guardian On-line: 'Fracking campaigners criticise 'censored' report on house prices', Rowena Mason, Sunday 10th August 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/aug/10/fracking-censored-house-price-report
- DEFRA: 'Bovine TB: badger control policy value for money analysis', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/bovine-tb-badger-control-policy-value-for-money-analysis
- Animal and Plant Health Agency: 'Badger Vaccine Deployment Project – lesson learned report', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/badger-vaccine-deployment-project-lesson-learned-report
- Independent On-line: 'The badger cull will be extended again despite success of vaccine trials, Government announces', Jon Stone, Thursday 17th December 2015 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-badger-cull-will-be-extended-again-despite-success-of-vaccine-trials-government-announces-a6776806.html
- The Charity Commission: 'The Badger Trust – case report', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-badger-trust-case-report
- The Badger Trust http://badger.org.uk/
- Guardian On-line: 'Super farms are needed in UK, says leader of National Farmers Union', Juliette Jowit, Tuesday 5th June 2012 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jun/05/uk-needs-super-farms-says-nfu
- DEFRA: 'Farm animal welfare codes reform', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/farm-animal-welfare-codes-reform
- Paul Mobbs/MEI: ''Fracking' our food and farming system', ecolonomics no.14, 18th April 2014 http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/ecolonomics/2014/ecolonomics_14-fracking_our_food_and_farming_system.shtml
- Guardian On-line: 'Toothless Environment Agency is allowing the living world to be wrecked with impunity', George Monbiot, Thursday 12 November 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2015/nov/12/toothless-environment-agency-is-allowing-the-living-world-to-be-wrecked-with-impunity
- DECC: 'Changes to renewables subsidies', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/changes-to-renewables-subsidies
- DECC: 'Consultation on a review of the Feed-in Tariff scheme', 18th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/consultation-on-a-review-of-the-feed-in-tariff-scheme
- National Statistics/DECC: 'Household Energy Efficiency National Statistics, headline release (December 2015)', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/household-energy-efficiency-national-statistics-headline-release-december-2015
- Oil and Gas Authority and DECC: 'Habitats Regulations Assessments of 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/habitats-regulations-assessments-of-14th-onshore-oil-and-gas-licensing-round
- Guardian On-line: 'UK cuts to renewable energy make a mockery of its pledge at Paris climate talks', Damian Carrington, Thursday 17th December 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2015/dec/17/uk-cuts-renewable-energy-make-a-mockery-of-its-pledge-paris-climate-talks
- Telegraph On-line: 'Fracking: plans to drill 68 new shale gas wells unveiled', Emily Gosden, 17th December 2015 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/energy/fracking/12056209/Fracking-plans-to-drill-for-shale-gas-at-68-new-sites-unveiled.html
- DECC: 'Regulatory Roadmap – Onshore oil and gas exploration in the UK regulation and best practice', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/regulatory-roadmap-onshore-oil-and-gas-exploration-in-the-uk-regulation-and-best-practice
- DECC: 'Further amendments to permitted development rights for petroleum exploration site investigation and monitoring', 17th December 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/further-amendments-to-permitted-development-rights-for-petroleum-exploration-site-investigation-and-monitoring
- House of Commons Library: 'General Election 2015', 28th 2015 http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7186
- Change.org: '#PledgeNVDA' https://www.change.org/p/i-pledge-non-violent-direct-action-against-unconventional-energy-fracking-csg-cbm-etc
- Paul Mobbs/MEI: 'Fracktured Accountability', March 2015 http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/archive/fracktured_accountability/index.shtml
- Guardian On-line: 'The great Tory power grab: how they plan to rule for ever', Andy Beckett, Monday 14th December 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/dec/14/conservative-power-grab-stay-in-power-permanent
- Guardian On-line: 'Tories poised to announce plans to curtail powers of House of Lords', Patrick Wintour, Wednesday 16th December 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/dec/16/tories-to-announce-plans-to-curtail-lords-powers
- Foreign Policy: 'Putin's Assault on Civil Society Continues', Miriam Lanskoy, 9th May 2014 http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/05/09/putins-assault-on-civil-society-continues/
- The Ferret: 'Peaceful campaigners branded terrorist threats', Billy Briggs, 3rd November 2015 https://theferret.scot/peaceful-campaigners-branded-terrorist-threats/
- TES: 'Police tell teachers to beware of green activists in counter-terrorism talk', Adi Bloom, 4th September 2015 https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/police-tell-teachers-beware-green-activists-counter-terrorism-talk
- Independent On-line: 'Vladimir Putin signs law allowing Russia to ignore international human rights rulings', Alexandra Sims, Tuesday 15th December 2015 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/vladimir-putin-signs-law-allowing-russian-court-to-overthrow-international-human-rights-rulings-a6773581.html
- Guardian On-line: 'David Cameron calls for reform of European court of human rights', Nicholas Watt and Owen Bowcott, Wednesday 25th January 2012 http://www.theguardian.com/law/2012/jan/25/david-cameron-reform-human-rights